richard harland's writing tips

home australia good writing habits australia elements australia characters australia story australia language australia getting published australia




Other Characters Topics


2.Physical Appearance

3.Character Point of View


site map


1. Creating Characters




Characters take time to come to life. You can have a great idea for a character, you seem to see him or her clearly in your mind’s eye—but you’ll only know what you’ve really got after he or she has been speaking and acting for a few chapters. With characters, you just have to plunge in and hope.

Sometimes a character will develop their own voice, sometimes a side of their personality will light up, sometimes a character will take off so successfully that you have to allow them a bigger role in the story. Other times, a character will lie flat on the page and refuse to move.

Don’t give up in a hurry! Some characters are slow starters, and only come alive when you give them the right situations and the right characters to bounce off. You can always rewrite what they say and do in earlier chapters.

But if you get to the point of hardly believing in them yourself, then you’ve got problems. Here’s a trick that many writers use, including yours truly. Write out a biography of his or her life before the novel started.

Ask yourself: what happened to him or her as an infant, in childhood, growing up? What influences, what interests, what sicknesses, what friends? Think it all through in a way that fits with your character in the present. Personality traits are nebulous, but past events are substantial. You can get a handle on what a character is now by seeing what he or she has grown from.

In Song of the Slums, Verrol is a character with a mysterious past that doesn't emerge until two-thirds of the way through the book. I had an idea of his past - as criminal, as youthful assassin - right from the start, but I didn't fully work it out - after all, it's a mystery, and I didn't want to go dropping clues by accident. But when I did work it out - and far more than actually appears in the novel - suddenly I had a far far better sense of him than ever before. I held off making changes until I did my usual rewrite of the book, then re-developed his character all the way from the first pages on. He went from being just a figure of enigma into a real living human being (though still enigmatic!)

I should have written the 'bio' earlier - an invisible bio for my own benefit. But when I did do the bio, I didn't put it all into the revelation of Verrol's past. Only some parts of it were important. I think that's a good general principle for writing fiction, and especially fantasy fiction: it doesn’t all have to go into the book. If an invisible bio helps you create the character in the present, then it's done its job. The reader may not want or need to know the full details of the past.














Copyright note: all material on this website is (c) Richard Harland, 2009-10