Creating Characters

Hello friends. I’m currently in the throes of preparing for WorldCon in Dublin while also acting as an unpaid Uber-style driver for my children, who are on their school summer break and need endless lifts in and out of town.

While sitting in traffic earlier, I started thinking about the way I create characters, and I thought you might find it interesting and useful for me give you an insight.

When starting to plan a novel, I’ll usually have a vague situation or event in mind. With the Embers of War books, it was the idea of a space-going rescue service that first inspired me. But an idea like that isn’t a story; you need characters to inhabit and change it.

So, I started thinking who I’d need. I’m not much insterested in writing stories about emperors or politicians. I’ve always been more drawn to the everyday men and women in the street. The grunts doing their jobs and trying to get by as best they can. Which meant I decided my story would be from the point-of-view of one of the rescuers, rather than the beauracrats directing them. At the same time, I hit upon the idea of setting the story after a cataclysmic war. So, my crew would be a group of veterans from both sides of the conflict.

And that was when I discovered the Trouble Dog. A warship that had accidentally developed a conscience. And suddenly, I had my story. Everyone in the book is acting in reaction to the parts they played in the war; some are trying to hide from their pasts, some trying to come to terms with what they did, and others trying to atone. All their motivations clicked into place and became the heart of the thing, rendering the situation and setting as a backdrop against which they played out their inner struggles.

I chose to write the captain and her ship as female, because I feel more comfortable writing strong female characters than strong male ones. They are more interesting to me. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been very aware of my female side, and I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by strong, complex women.

I gave each character a number of defininng incidents in their past. For Sal Konstanz, it was the loss of her parents and the accidental separation from her boyfriend. For Alma Clay, it was her experiences crawling through a sentient jungle. And for the Trouble Dog, it was the loss of her siblings and the horrific nature of the war crime she was ordered to perpetrate.

I didn’t plan how these traumas would affect the characters, I just knew they were there, and let their effects emerge organically as I wrote. I’m not one of these writers that completes a full D&D style character description before starting out. I enjoy writing to discover who these people are. That’s where the creativity comes in, and I love the process of finding out and watching as they come alive on the page.

When writing characters, the old phrase, “Write what you know,” becomes especially important. If you want your creations to live in breathe, you need to write honestly and authentically about what it feels like to be human. You have to know people. Know how they react in certain situations. Know the small gestures and phrases that give away how they really feel inside. If you want to write convincing characters, you need to spend a lot of time observing people in all sorts of situations. Pay attention to what they’re not saying as much as what they are. And look inside yourself. Take a flashlight and explore the murky interior of your own heart and mind. Because authenticity also comes from within.

If you have any good character tips, leave them in the comments below. Also, any requests for topics to be covered in future blog posts.

Right, now where did I leave my suitcase…?

Author: Gareth L Powell