Essential writing skills: fifty-plus shades of character

It was Ernest Hemingway, reputedly, who insisted that fiction authors should not create ‘characters’ – they should create real people.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

He didn’t mean use real people – oh, except a bit – but he did mean that novellists, playwrights and the rest shouldn’t assemble ‘characters’, Lego-fashion. They instead needed to portray the smooth and complex dimensionality of real people – who come, needless to say, in far more than fifty shades of grey.

That, of course, is far easier said than done. Real people are tricky; they can say one thing and mean or do another. They seldom present as all-good or all-bad. They have motives. They have ambitions. They learn. From all this the author has to derive not only a believeable character – but also their character arc, their development as an individual. This is what the novel will be all about, irrespective of genre or plot.

And do you think the challenge ends there? Nooooo. You see, writing is always linear; you can portray but one idea at a time, in a sequence. What’s more, the surface narrative is always going to be at least one step away from the deeper character. Writers have to learn not merely how to unpick the deeper character, but how to portray the deeper character through a linear sequence of carefully selected narrative events.

The obvious word that springs to mind about this point is ‘aaaargh!’ – but never fear. It’s do-able. Yes, it takes practise – but then, everything does. And the results are well worth it. For now – with more detail to follow – try this:

  1. Think ‘real’, not ‘constructed character’. What motivates your character?
  2. What are they looking for – is there motion to their nature? This could offer clues to the character arc.
  3. What story or event might best suit this character? Yes- that’s right. It’s best to start with a character and believeable character arc first. Then look for a story for them. And yes, I know that’s precisely the reverse of the way most people think.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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6 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: fifty-plus shades of character

  1. I love the 3 tips at the end. I think like that instinctively – there’s always ‘people’ in my head before the entire story. Thanks for another interesting post🙂 .

    1. It’s a habit I am trying to get into! Coming at it from the ‘non-fiction’ angle, which is what I usually write, things tend to be the other way around; but the reality is that history is also a product of people, and so if we look at it from the human perspective first, new insights follow. And then there’s the various fiction projects I keep trying to find the time to do…

  2. This is so true. I’ve seen people in my writer’s group have trouble with the linear-thing. My writing is character driven instead of plot driven, so I really have to have strong characters who learn and grow in a linear fashion. Good post.

  3. I’ve been playing catch up with your posts since I’ve been away for a bit but this one caught my eye. My next major project came together the way you described. I have been thinking about this character and her family dynamics for many months before I started to jot down potential plot lines. Initially, the character arc seemed pretty epic in nature, but I think I have broken it down to three or four separate arcs that support the whole. I’m hoping to really get started on it in early 2015. Have to finish the current MS first.

    1. Sounds excellent. All best wishes for that project. It’s amazing how, when the ingredients for a story come together in the right way, everything just ‘clicks’. Characters absolutely drive novels but also non fiction. History especially. In that sense the author is more akin to a photographer – using what is there but still with the onus for a sense of the asethetic. All boils down to the point that writing, like all the arts, is about people.

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