Where Do The Characters Come From?

Continuing the theme of professional tricks of the trade, I thought I’d comment on characters I’ve used – and those I have read.

Some authors are really not happy unless they’ve planned out every person in their book in a forty page synopsis. Many professionals do work in this way, I know.

Recently I read a book by Tom Vowler called “What Lies Within”, which is a superb read with characters that jump off the page. Then again, when I recently reread Fred Forsyth’s excellent “Dogs of War”, the main characters were immediately there in my mind. Cat Shannon and the other mercenaries were instantly believable (especially if you know of some of the mercenaries of that period, such as ‘Taffy’ Williams, and the strong rumours that Forsyth based his book on an actual attempt to free a small African state).

I think describing the landscape is much easier than people!

I think describing the landscape is much easier than people!

There are man ways to create strong and believable characters for stories.

Personally, I do not like to work in this way. To me, sitting down to write from a template like that would feel like writing to a specification – having my characters respond to their specification.

I can’t do that. Not when it comes to people. People are irrational creatures. They do not respond to specific stimuli in predictable ways. Rather, they prefer to take their own course, which can on occasion seem utterly foolish, pointless, or downright stupid. But this is often the way of real life.

If a person is going to be plotted or outlined, my own approach is to take a minimalist approach. I will sketch out place and date of birth, certain main physical notes (eye colour, jaw line etc) and I will even on occasion draw a very rough picture of them. I’ll have their wife’s name, children’s names, and an outline of his career to date. But that’s pretty much it. I want them to be believable because of their behaviour. Once their motivations are understood, the rest follows naturally.

What I will usually do is check with photos of mine, or with my favourite mug-shot reference. I’ve used this for years: it’s a book with hundreds of faces in it. Many years ago, when I worked in the computer industry, I was sent abroad to attend international conferences. Afterwards, those attending were sent a book, much like an American school’s annual album, with several faces per page. I can base any number of characters on that one book.

But a face and rough background only go so far. More important is the general feel for the character. For that, and for the rhythms of their language, I have to go to my own memory and the TV.

Many of the characters in my books are based on people I knew very well. One or two have strong elements of my family and friends in them, while others are based on people I worked with, customers I used to sell to, and in certain cases, on a mixture of character actors. Sir Richard de Welles, for example, is the thoroughly unnatural result of a combination of two heroes of mine: James Robertson Justice and Brian Blessed. Every line I wrote of his made me laugh as I was writing it, imagining this vast, intimidating character!

Conversely, when I set out writing Baldwin de Furnshill, I had a firm picture of Alan Rickman stencilled to the inside of my eyelids. Now it’s Richard Armitage … I can dream.

How to describe those eyebrows?

How to describe those eyebrows?

But then you get to the point where you are writing a story, and all these little facets of life have to be pulled together in a meaningful manner. They have to behave and speak with convincing simplicity and display consistent human traits. For this, I have occasionally used simple verbal tics.

In all my books, for example, Baldwin will speak in a more precise manner, without ‘ain’t’, ‘isn’t’ and ‘hasn’t’ or similar contractions, while Simon always used them. A simple device, but it works.

With other people, I used different tweaks of style. An extreme example would be the Dean of Exeter Cathedral, who always inserts an ‘er’ or ‘um’ in every sentence. He is like those people who are incapable of speaking without throwing in ‘you know’.

Last week I listened to Alistair Darling, who was once Chancellor of the Exchequer, and counted all his ‘you know’s. In one sentence I heard five – and it wasn’t a long sentence. Politicians fondly believe that using such verbal delaying tactics makes them sound more human. Personally I think it makes them sound more dim – but that is a personal opinion.

Other speaking traits can be usefully employed in dialogue, but you have to be wary: use too many, and it becomes an irritation. Actual, true dialogue is not going to be published, basically because most of it involves four or five incomplete sentences, before an entire string of comprehensible language can be discerned. If you have all characters speaking as they would in real life, with all the false starts, pauses, inconsequential side-tracks and so on, every novel would be three times their current length. It wouldn’t work.

How would he speak and behave?

How would he speak and behave?

However, you can use one or two verbal quirks per character as a kind of quick reference guide to that speaker. Then, not only does it make following longer dialogues more easy for the reader, it also gives the reader the chance of mentally imposing a certain set of believable traits per character. It can be a cadence in the speech, the use of more posh language (or the opposite), or even a stumbling approach. Whichever you use, it makes the person sound and ‘feel’ more believable.

And that is really all we, as writers, are aiming for. Believability.


4 Responses to “Where Do The Characters Come From?”
  1. lisenminetti says:

    Thank you for such a great read. I have been attempting to organize my writing a little more, and part of that has been creating character bios and I haven’t really put my heart into them. And really it’s because I don’t know who they are yet. This was exactly what I needed to hear today.


    • I’m the same. I really need to write about them to learn who they are. Yes, I do go back and edit a lot of extraneous stuff out later, but it makes them much more, I think, believable. Happy writing, and thanks for the comment!


  2. wacker says:

    Forsyth uses people he met, but swaps names around, descriptions, what they were involved with etc., except on occasion where he knows he can get away with it. I expect most authors use a similar system as how hard must it be to simply make everything up! There were lots of journo’s around the scenes he used for all his books, some seemingly alive at least a while back, but finding them is hell. Al. J. Venter is one. I’m researching mercenaries Alexander Ramsey Gay (Biafra) and Frederick ‘Flash’ Gibson (seemingly killed around this period) and would love to get more info, as I think they are one and same person. Both Gay and Gibson ducked out of Biafra at same time, Gibson abandoning a wife and kids back in Salisbury (leaving letter and insurance policy for wife, indicating a planned get-out, ‘people were after him’). Venter might well know the score. The man I suspect was alive a few years ago in Jo’burg, where many mercs were based when they retired, possibly using name Alexander James Kekie. He used to attend merc meetings in London every year, at least in 60-70’s, lots of famous mercs and showbiz people. Taffy Williams is said to be in S. France, had 6 kids, Johnny Erasmus in Jo’burg (explosives engineer in mines) Lucien-Brun 100 miles N. of Marseilles running trekking company. But finding that last piece of info is proving hell! Forsyth refuses to comment.


    • Yes, and he’s been reticent to discuss them since Dogs of War came out. But there are good reasons for that. Upsetting men who are practised in killing isn’t very sensible. Also, from the sound of the research, much of the book came from his own efforts to help and save Biafra. The men involved were all friends, so he wouldn’t want to expose them. It’s a very difficult job, inventing plausible, realistic characters without exposing yourself to the risk of a court case!


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