When writing a novel, what’s the key to creating believable, well-rounded characters? For this edition of Expert Tips, Aki Schilz of The Literary Consultancy shares her top tips on characterisation.
Writers come to TLC at various stages of the writing process. Besides the synopsis, covering letters are particularly illuminating, as this is where a writer will outline, sometimes, what they think the problem is with their work. A writer might suggest they are struggling with one narrative element, when actually what’s holding the writing back is a collusion of other issues that a professional editor can help unpick. A writer might, for instance, be convinced that the plot is a problem, when actually an uneven style, lack of emotional drive or issues in voice and POV are hampering story progression. More often than not, these issues come back to the characters.
Here are a few questions you might ask yourself as you write and edit, your work:
1) Does every character have a clear desire?
Kurt Vonnegut reminds us that every character should want something, ‘even if it just a glass of water’. Desire drives humans, so it stands to reason that a character’s desire can drive, or stall, a novel. This also helps with story progression. A story arc will often mirror a character’s attempt to fulfil a desire. We need to see that desire manifest and challenged through the book, which will aid pacing, tension and engagement. Even if a character is unlikeable or unsympathetic, if they have a clear desire, we are more likely to sustain an interest in finding out what happens; will it be realised?
2) Are the concerns of the novel too local to the characters?
From historical to romance, YA to literary, all novels will deal with themes. These are different to the concerns of the characters. Themes might be anything from a political or societal concern, to something as localised as, say, the issue of bullying in secondary schools. Even if you aren’t writing a ‘State of the Nation’ novel, you will need to think about what themes you are addressing; your characters are your voice-pieces, but do make sure the theme you touch on is relevant to a wider readership, not just the small cast of your book.
3) Do you know really know your characters?
Why not try writing up a short biography for your characters? The point isn’t to include all of the information you come up with, but to have a sense of exactly how they function, what their tics are, their ambitions, their fears, memories from childhood, behavioural traits. All of this will inform how they interact with the world you create within your fiction, and, crucially, with the other characters.
4) Have you stepped outside of your characters?
A writer will often convince herself she knows her characters, but some of this knowledge is sometimes lost in the delivery on the page. Just as important is how that character is perceived. One of our readers likes to recommend writing a scene in which one character chances upon another in a café. The scene might not make it into the book, but can help give you a useful shift in perspective.
Aki Schilz is a writer and editor based in London. She is co-founder of the #LossLit Twitter writing project, and co-editor of LossLit Magazine. Her writing has been published both online (Mnemoscape, tNY.Press, The Bohemyth, Cheap Pop Lit, Annexe) and in print (Popshot, The Colour of Saying, Kakania, Best Small Fictions 2015), and she is the winner of the inaugural Visual Verse Prize and the Bare Fiction Prize for Flash Fiction. Aki works at The Literary Consultancy, the UK’s first and leading editorial consultancy. She is the Editorial Services Manager for TLC, handling submissions and managing a team of 90 professional editors.
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