Creating and writing character is the breath and blood of good stories. As Will Storr says in The Science of Storytelling, “It’s people, not events,that we’re naturally interested in. The plight of specific, flawed and fascinating individuals that make us cheer, weep and ram our heads into the sofa cushion. The surface events of the plot are critical, of course…But it’s only there to support its cast.” One of my writing rules is: if the writing’s boring me, it will bore my readers. If I’m nodding off while writing, it’s a sure sign I need to mix things up – throw in an avatar from a parallel world, a maniacal doppelgänger or a man-eating, ten-foot plant! So, what elements of writing character make the writing process fun for me? Here are my top ten joys of writing character…
- That spark of emotional connection. This is my number one by far and, as you will see, relates to many of my other choices. When I step into the shoes of my character and see the world through their eyes – feel their adrenaline, shock or grief – the writing flows and I’m free to ride that current. Neil Gaiman says writers must find those places within themselves that resonate with their characters. I agree. And as you do, a strange thing happens – the characters seem to take on a life of their own. Finding the pirate, witch or child inside can be a challenge, but it can be fun too! Bea’s Witch is written entirely from the perspective of my main character, Beatrice, an eleven-year-old adoptee. I made the choice not to include subplots from other perspectives because I wanted her experience to be central. I wanted the reader to know what she knows and feel her frustration where there are gaps in her knowledge. Numerous times while writing I was chocked up as I connected with her struggles, drawing on my own memories and reactions. I was particularly moved while writing the end of the story. One of the early reviewers, a social worker, said ‘the last two chapters had me crying and sobbing’ – I love that reaction, as I know the emotional connection I felt while writing was communicated to the reader.
- Killing characters off! Very different to my number one, but just as satisfying! There’s a certain macabre glee in killing off a character – perhaps because it’s something we don’t get to do in real life! I guess stories are a way to explore different aspects of ourselves, the dark as well as the light. There are two types of authorial killings, I think – those deaths that show the baddie to be really bad (in the Firebird Chronicles, there’s an episode where a soldier is hung by his foot and attacked by the antagonist’s flock of crows, who rip into his flesh). But there are also those deaths that are bitter-sweet – those characters you’re attached to, but who you know have met their time. There’s a strange beauty to reflecting on loss. The knowledge that your readers will feel that too is a powerful point of connection. Stories are a way to work through our emotions in a safe way, and grief and love are powerful emotions to encounter when stirred by loss. These moments are a privilege to write.
- Playful moments. It’s important for a story to have its lighter moments too. In Bea’s Witch, I often found myself chuckling at Ma Shipton’s impish humour. I tend to write my first drafts in a café, so I don’t know what people make of me chuckling away to myself in a corner, but a bit of humour and playfulness definitely keeps the writing process fun! I think my favourite playful character is from The Firebird Chronicles. The Yarnbard is a mentor to my main characters. He’s “a frail old man, who walked with the aid of a long wooden staff… He was dressed in a bright golden-yellow kaftan, and on his head a purple and gold cloth-hat pointed cheerfully upwards, comical as a cockerel.” (From Rise of the Shadow Stealers). You would find him chatting to the Talking Ducks, playing hide and seek with Lady Wisdom or snoring loudly as he explores the Land of Nod with Mr Snooze.
- The baddies. It a joy to write a larger-than-life baddie! Readers love them too – when I speak in schools, the childrens’ favourite characters are often the Cruella Devilles or Lord Voldermorts. The main antagonist in the Firebird Chronicles is a character called Grizelda. In The Nemesis Charm, she introduces herself to a convict being held on a ship in this way: ‘Some say I’m a witch – the most powerful in the whole of the southern oceans. There are rumours that I can twist a man’s spleen with just a look of my eye. There are stories of people whose faces have been turned inside out, whose fingers have been transformed into snakes, whose tongues have become nooses for their own necks.’ Grizelda walked right up to the captive. He looked terrified. She leaned forward and, whispering, said, ‘Thing is, them’s just stories. I ain’t no witch. But I do have a knife.’ With lightning speed, she pulled a knife from the folds of her cloak and lunged forward. The captive screamed with pain. The old woman had stabbed him through the hand, the blade slicing clean through his flesh, imbedding itself in the mast. She twisted it. In my head, Grizelda has the same East London accent that my nan had, although my nan was definitely a lot gentler!
- When a character surprises me. This happens quite a bit. In the moment of writing, one of my creations will often go off script – they’ll do something I hadn’t expected, something not in line with all my careful plotting and planning! I love it when that happens. Perhaps the biggest surprise came from Grizelda who, at the end of The Firebird Chronicles became the linchpin for the story in a very unexpected way (especially to me). I don’t want to give too much away, but I remember laughing as I wrote a section towards the end of the final book, Through the Uncrossable Boundary, when something came to light I hadn’t realised was there, but had been in the text right from the beginning of the first book. As a writer you have to plot, but it’s worth holding that lightly. It can be fun to allow things to shift and change as you encounter each moment, and I believe it often makes the story better in the long run. Grizelda’s ending is much better than the one I had planned for her. She obviously had other ideas!
- Discovering a character’s backstory. When you’re writing, you might plan your character’s backstory with timelines and spider diagrams, notes in the margins, snippets of story. But, as with number five, I particularly enjoy it when I discover something more about a character during the act of writing itself. In The Nemesis Charm, there’s a character called the Dark Pirate. He introduces himself this way: “Many years ago I abandoned the land, gave up all its certainty and placed myself into the hands of the sea. It is a way of life I have committed to, and it has never failed me. Dark Pirates know the truth – we are powerless against the elements, and many of the rocks we cling to for protection, are illusions. Once you give yourself to that truth, you are free. And when you are free, the story can turn in surprising directions.” What I hadn’t bargained for was the discovery of a love interest in his past, a romance he had to abandon to follow the ideology he had committed to. I discovered this halfway through writing the book. It was moving to discover this aspect of his past, particularly as this episode of his backstory also relates to number two on my list… But again, I won’t give away too much. Spoilers.
- Giving agency to the marginalised. As I writer, I enjoy championing those characters who seem to be weakest, youngest and smallest. I think as a middle aged, white man with all the privilege that brings, that’s part of my responsibility as a writer. In Bea’s Witch, Beatrice is an eleven-year-old girl who’s had a hard start to life: taken into care, adopted, bullied and excluded. At the start of the book she says, ‘I’ve always liked to read and write. I think my fascination with words grew as a way of taking control of life, over which I often felt so powerless.’ Through the story, I believe her character is given agency and dignity. Perhaps the desire to amplify the voices of the marginalised is one of the reasons I enjoy writing stories for and about children and young people. I think it’s a big motivation to know why you’re writing a story, what it’s ultimately about and who it’s for.
- A character saying something profound. One of the reasons I love stories is they can say incredibly profound and meaningful things about the world and what it means to be human while talking about exploding caskets, animal apparitions and skull-shaped caves. They teach us how to live but in entertaining ways. I think that’s why we’re so drawn to them. I learn so much through the process of writing, and my characters often seem to have advice which I should probably take on board! Here’s one piece from Ma Shipton: ‘It’s your weakest, your most vulnerable self, the thing you’d like to be rid of, to burn away’ – she holds my eye – ‘that can be your saving grace. Without being forced out here, away from the crowds, I’d have never learned all I did… I’d never have learned the biggest secret of all…’ She leans close, and I smell that familiar scent again, of gorse and lavender and rich dark chocolate. ‘…that the future can be rewritten.’ Around me, the forest murmurs. ‘If you only learn how to tell its story.’
- Daredevil and adventurous characters. These are always fun to write. I’ve sent my characters on all-is-lost rescue attempts, into battle against giant spiders, through time enchantments, up precarious tree house dwellings and through portals. Again, I enjoy giving the youngest, smallest characters the most intrepid tasks.
- Ambiguity. None of us are all good or all bad, we’re all a mix of honourable and questionable qualities. I enjoy writing characters who show that same complexity too. In Bea’s Witch, Ms Pitshon is one such character. She’s a trickster and we’re never quite sure if she’s going to use her power for good or ill. For instance, in this extract…
‘Stories are magic, luv. And magic is power.’
Ms Pitshon’s hand closes around the coin, and she whips it away.
‘But this belongs to me,’ she says. The heat drains away, leaving me hollow. ‘But you want it, don’t you? I can see.’
I look up. ‘Yes!’
‘I tell you what, I’ll trade it you. This coin in exchange for…’ She looks around, her eyes settling on my backpack. ‘…that. One story for another.’ She licks her thin lips.
‘I’ll take nowt else.’
I feel cold. Numb. I just want the warmth of the coin again.
Ms Pitshon spits on her hand and holds it out to me, a big glob of greenish saliva bubbling in her palm. ‘So, do we have a deal?’
I hesitate. Don’t trade your story. Don’t give it away. But the pull of the coin is strong. I was going to burn it anyway, I tell myself. I want to be rid of it.
Ms Pitshon stares, her hand outstretched. ‘One story for another, luv,’ she repeats. ‘Then we’ll see how things really are.’
Would you trade your story for treasure?
I guess you’ll have to read Bea’s Witch to find out whether Beatrice does, and exactly who Ms Pitshon is and what she has in store for Bea.