Characterisation

In his email of 10 March, Harry Bingham, of Jericho Writers, wrote about the problem of making characters memorable to the reader.

He said, “I’m reading a book at the moment that came recommended, a psychological thriller about a small, close group of friends.

I’ve started the book. I’m seventy pages in. I already know I won’t finish it.

The problem, a terribly common one, is that I haven’t bonded with the characters. They don’t feel like real people. If I’m honest, I can’t tell one from another.

Now, quite likely, part of the problem is me. I’m TERRIBLE with names and faces. Always have been, always will be. I forget character names in my own books. I fail to recognise people I know and have chatted with extensively. My uselessness in real life probably carries over into books too.

But good characterisation should still overcome reader idiocy. Perhaps I might be slow to assemble the characters in my head, but I should still get there in the end, no? I shouldn’t be fifty pages in and still have no meaningful idea of who these people are.

Also – alarmingly – this book has avoided all the common pitfalls. So, the author has:

  • Been sure to give the characters distinctive names. They’re not all Amy, Anna, Alice and Andy.
  • Given them distinct physical characteristics. We have (inevitably) the pretty sexy one, the hunk, the dark scowling one, and so on.
  • Put a bit of zing in their dialogue
  • Endowed them with plenty of interpersonal history, likes and dislikes, divergent backgrounds and so on.

It looks like the author has done all the things she’s meant to have done – all the things that the writing books suggest. All the things that, erm, helpful weekly emails on writing advice are likely to suggest.

So what’s the problem? Why do some books never quite ground themselves? Why do some characters end the book still feeling two-dimensional and unreal?

The short answer – I’m not sure.

The longer answer is threefold.

First, I’m confident that you can’t just introduce your characters in a rush. When you’re at a party, that “Harry, meet Amy, Baz, Charlie, Dino and Esmerelda” thing doesn’t really give you a chance to remember who everyone is. But if you get five or ten minutes chatting with Amy before you get to meet Baz, and so on, you’re likely to win this game. Amy is no longer just a face and a name. She’s now someone who comes stored with her own little fact-file. When you meet Baz, you have enough data on Amy that she can safely be put into storage as you meet Baz.

I think the same rule applies in books. Slower introductions are better. And if, for example, your book just does have a group of characters turning up in a cluster – a group of friends meeting up for a long weekend – you can still split them apart. Amy and Baz can hike to the house from the rural train station. Dino and Charlie can score a cheeky snog in the kitchen. Esmerelda can just be late (she’s always late) and arrive in a flurry at the end of chapter two.

And then too, I think you need to look away from, not directly at, the issue.

What I mean here is that you don’t solve the problem of character identification by aiming to provide a torrent of quick data. “Hey, reader, you haven’t met Charlie before, so here’s a quick summary of what you need to know. She’s the tall, blonde, pretty one, OK? Gifted at university (studied English), but wasted in a sort of glam-but-dead-endy PR job. Blah blah blah.”

That kind of introduction, especially if it comes amongst a spatter of other such introductions, is likely to wash over and through the reader. I think they just don’t work.

Instead, just show your characters in action. Then it’s simple: just tell the reader what the reader needs to know to make sense of the action. So let’s say that two or three friends have gone out to dinner. Leaving the restaurant, Charlie breaks a heel. You now have a perfectly sensible opportunity to describe her clothes. You might well use the chance to describe her appearance more generally. (“I could see passers-by looking over at us. A woman, blonde and pretty, in a silver sequinned dress, lying on the pavement. You can tell they thought she was drunk, and perhaps she was a bit …”)

You’re still conveying data to the reader, but you’re not doing so by presenting an index-card of facts. You’re doing so by telling a story. The reader doesn’t feel engaged by the index-card approach (it feels like work), but they do feel engaged by story (it’s why they’re reading.)

The third trick, I think, is that you can do much less than you think. It’s easy to think that you need to do it all: How tall is our pretty Charlie? What’s her eye colour? What do her mum and dad do for a living? Can she ride? (I bet she can ride.) Was she academically strong? Is she lazy? Does she love kids?

The more facts you shove at the reader, the more the reader is likely to resist.

And – it doesn’t matter.

Your mantra can be simply this: tell the reader what’s necessary for the story. Not more, not less.

That way, you’re not asking the reader to keep track of data that they don’t need. You’re giving them only what they do need, when they need it, in a way that slots logically into your story. Right at the end of the PSes, I’ve put a chunk of text from early in a novel – a group of five people going out to dinner.

What’s interesting to me, reading that chunk back in the light of this email, is how brusque I am. Two of my five characters aren’t relevant longer term, so I essentially discard them. I tell the reader next to nothing about them.

The other three do have longer term relevance, but even here I present virtually no character-data unless and until it becomes relevant to the moment in question. So one of the characters – David ‘Buzz’ Brydon – is a fit, intelligent, capable, courageous police officer. He’s not introduced like that, until it becomes relevant. Then, when the story needs him to run, Fiona says simply, “Buzz, who’s superfit …” That data slots so naturally into the story, that the reader just absorbs it with the story. There’s no sense anywhere of an index-card being presented.

With Buzz’s colleague, Jon Breakell, it’s the same thing to start with: appearances don’t matter. Then Fiona asks him to stay with the two women and he “puffs out his not-very-mighty chest and indicates his willingness to protect the women from all perils and dangers of this night.” That’s still hardly a complete physical description, but you already have something about him that’s memorable and presented in a way wholly congruent with the story-task at hand.

Buzz and Jon Breakell start to take shape as the story takes shape. The reader’s expected knowledge of those two keeps exact pace with the story itself.

You can do the same. Go slow. Stick with story. Do less than you think you ought to.”

And here is Harry’s text about the five characters:

“Pizza. Puddings. The works. A nice enough evening, except that it’s got to the point where everyone wants to go home.

So we troop up the Hayes, beneath a soft night sky and the first hints of oncoming rain. We’re talking of nothing much, when Buzz’s phone bleeps a text. He looks at the phone and says ‘Crime report. Up here.’

His finger points us up the Hayes, where it forks off into Victoria Place. He starts walking faster. I can see he wants to run, except he doesn’t want to abandon his Intended.

I say, ‘Jon, can you stay with Penny and Jade? We’ll meet you up by the castle.’

Jon nods. Puffs out his not-very-mighty chest and indicates his willingness to protect the women from all perils and dangers of this night. [As soon as Jon becomes relevant to the story, he starts to take shape. Fiona is characteristically colourful in the way she speaks about him, and we still don’t know hair colour or family background or that kind of thing, but we start to feel Jon because we see and feel him in the setting of a story.] Buzz and I jog, then outright run, up Victoria Place, then down Church Street.

Buzz, who’s superfit, says, ‘Double assault. Ambulance on the way. Uniforms present. Sounds nasty.’ [Now we start to get more data about Buzz – he’s fit, he’s efficient in a police-y sort of way – but again, we only get data relevant to the situation.]

I don’t comment, just run. The truth is, if the scene is already being attended by police and ambulance services, our services aren’t really required. Buzz isn’t even a detective these days. He now runs a Data Intelligence Team which helps the force direct its resources to where they’re most needed.

But still. Buzz is the kind of man whose boots run towards disasters, not away from them. My own, more elegant, boots share that same basic mentality. [More data in these two paras. Again, directly relevant to the matter at hand.]”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.