For me, my books and stories, fiction and non-fiction, have always begun with a character. The genesis of each narrative has been a single figure who I’ve then built a world around – a character I’ll get to know so well that I can understand how they’ll interact with the people, setting and situations they encounter.
So, my first writing tip is to watch and observe. Really look and notice, not the sweeping and obvious, but the grit – the tiny specks of uniqueness that we all carry. It’s about capturing and using these tiny details, which relate to the readers’ own lives and experiences, to fill in the gaps, making your character come ‘alive’ and making your writing more universal.
Exercise 1: What makes a person?
Make a list of all the factors you can think of that describe the character you have in mind. Consider everything – absolutely everything – that impacts on who they are, why they behave the way they do, and why they interact with others and the world as they do. Soon you will know your character as well as your closest friend or your partner.
So what makes a ‘good character’ (‘good’ here meaning believable, compelling, evocative, alive and dynamic)?
• Uniqueness – I believe each of us are wondrously unique and therefore the characters we write should be too.
• Investment – We need to actually care about our protagonist. This does not mean we have to like them. Perhaps it would be best to call this quality ‘relatability’: it doesn't mean the character is like you or like the reader, it means you can follow their actions and say, ‘I can see how they might behave that way ...’.
• Ambiguity – No one person is all good or all bad, and characters are much more interesting with a good dose of light and dark and shades of grey. After all, with mistakes comes conflict and that’s where narrative tension is found.
• Consistency – It’s important to maintain consistency of actions, reactions, thought and character traits, even though these may evolve and gradually change throughout the narrative.
Exercise 2: How would your character react?
I use this exercise to see how well I understand the way my character thinks and acts (or not). Understanding their response to unusual situations helps me gauge the credibility of their actions, reactions and behaviours.
When you can send your characters to Tesco or Brazil, or to a figure-skating championship and know how they would behave, what they’d say and what might happen to them there, then you have a good sense of who your character is; from that comes the ease of guiding them through your setting and plot as if by second nature.
The essential goal is to understand who your character is and what has made them as they are. Consider who they were before and who they will be long after you have written about a period of their life. Ask yourself if they feel like a person you could really meet one day, with all the chaos, creativity, strength, vulnerability and complexity that real people encompass. Consider where their barriers are and what they hope for; and understand why those things are that way.
Ultimately, if you listen to your character’s wants and needs and deepest fears, they will take you by the hand and lead you through the writing of their story.
Kerry Hudson is a Scottish writer whose first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (Vintage 2012), won the Scottish First Book Award. Her second novel, Thirst (Vintage 2014), was translated into French and won Le prix Femina étranger 2015. Kerry’s most recent book, Lowborn (Chatto & Windus 2019), is a work of non-fiction about poverty and homelessness. For more information visit https://kerryhudson.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter @ThatKerryHudson.