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Who do you think they are?


It is very tricky to talk about characterisation, at least I struggle with it, because, for me, character emerges along with the story, in a kind of haphazard messy series of revelations and false starts. You will have come across the advice to write little outlines of your characters, detailing their personality traits and physical appearance. It is good advice and if it works for you, fill whole notebooks with such details. Unfortunately, it doesn't work for me anymore than filling pages with background worldbuilding notes allows me to envisage an imaginary world. I can't get interested in the character apart from the story or the world except as the place where the story occurs. I am perfectly prepared to accept this as a weakness but it is one that stops me getting bogged down; I don't try to squeeze a million facts about my protagonist into my story because I don't know a million facts. Indeed, when I start work I don't know any facts at all about my characters, not even their names, I only get to know them as I write. I blogged last week about listening to their voices and though this makes me sound certifiable, it does seem to be my way of discovering who these people in my stories really are. I allow them to run their personality programme instead of a screen saver as I get on with my days. I let them argue with one another in my head. I picture scenes that I never write, slow scenes in which they get dressed or bicker with their mother. It isn't efficient, and it isn't wholly under my conscious control as it usually happens when I'm doing something else, but it means that I live with these people, sleeping and waking, through the course of the book. Now, this might seem as if I am trying to make the business of writing seem mystical, irrational and inaccessible, which is something I hate. I don't think there is anything mystical about this phenomenon. I think lots of writers work this way, but there is a definite knack to living with your brain in neutral, which I find easier than my more efficient friends. It is about tuning in to the frequency of your imagination, daydreaming, allowing yourself to be unfashionably unfocused. It is the opposite of mindfulness, a kind of deliberate mindlessness which allows the fictional voices in. It is not unheard of for my husband to find me lying on the sofa, eating chocolate and staring vacantly into space, claiming to be 'working': sometimes I even am. I remember years ago getting into an argument with someone who absolutely needed to know what kind of shoes their protagonist wore - as this was their access point to their whole personality. Personally, I have more than one pair of shoes, and possibly more than one personality, but I remember claiming that I had no idea what shoes my protagonist wore. It wasn't true - the moment I stopped to think about it, I did know - brown brogues with really ugly, thick soles. It is the same process of making things up however you choose to go about it. To be honest it doesn't matter how you come to your characterisation. Like everything else in the production of a novel, it is utterly irrelevant. We are judged by our success on the page, not the quality of our list making or the inventiveness of our daydreams. If you are a list maker, write lists, create diary entries for your protagonist, have your main characters send each other emails or letters, interview them for Desert Island Discs, picture them shopping for shoes or whatever you need to do to bring them to life for you, so that they will be alive on the page. Trust whatever method works for you.

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