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Puppet Masters: Making Characters Come Alive

With William Nicholson, Jen Sookfong Lee, Jim Nason, Andrew Pyper, Julie Booker, Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem & Pat van Beirs, Craig Battle, Cathy Stonehouse, and S.J. Watson

How do you make your characters come alive? That was the question posed to nine authors this month as Fiction Craft continued its explorations into the mechanics of writing fiction. For me, creating believable, three-dimensional characters is central to the act of writing fiction. It’s a complex endeavour, no doubt, but there are three tricks I’ve learned over the years that help with the task. The first is to not describe your character’s physical appearance with too much detail. This may seem counterintuitive. After all, the more details we have about something the better we understand it, right? Not always true, or not exactly. Good fiction functions like a spark to the fumes of the reader’s imagination. It ignites. As readers, we come to a work of fiction with a world of experience behind us, so we don’t need to be fed meticulously detailed character descriptions. In fact, to most readers, lengthy descriptions of appearance serve only as a wet blanket to the imagination. A concise, focused description of a character’s appearance, conveying only the most important aspects of their physicality, mannerisms and style allows readers to conjure that character on their own, based on everything they already know about the world and the people in it. To me, the best writing not only requires such effort from the reader, it is also the most gratifying to read.

The second trick is to give your characters flaws. Superman is boring because he has no flaws. Batman is fascinating because he is riddled with them. Flaws create internal conflicts which can spill over into the world. A character might have a jealous strain or a short temper, he might be saddled with vanity or indecision, she might be greedy or cowardly. Obviously, such traits can’t be chosen randomly; they must conform – in some respect – with the overall person we are reading about. When I create a character, I will often look at that person and ask, what is it that they are fighting with inside? For Paige Morrow, the protagonist of my novel Snakes & Ladders, it was anger. An otherwise sweet girl of just 13, Paige had a fierce temper that could get her into considerable trouble. How she dealt with that anger – how she expressed it and how she acted on it – is a big part of what propelled the novel’s story.

And that brings us to the third trick.

Make your characters take action. No one wants to read about someone sitting in a room contemplating their problems. Or at least I know I don’t. We want to see what they do about their problems. It’s been said a million times because it’s true: character is action. What you do in your life, the actions you take from day to day, spell out who you are. In fiction, oftentimes regular people are faced with extraordinary events. The actions they take in the face of such events will tell your readers who they are. If they take little or no action, well, you might as well be writing about mannequins in a store window.

Obviously, character creation is vastly more complex than this, but these are three tricks that will serve anyone grappling with the task. Now let’s find out how some authorial characters make their fictional folk come alive.


WILLIAM NICHOLSON is the author of numerous novels, including All the Hopeful Lovers, Rich and Mad, and The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life. He has also written numerous plays and screenplays, including such noted feature films as Elizabeth: The Golden Age (with Michael Hirst), and Gladiator (with David Franzoni and John Logan). He lives in Sussex, England.

I care passionately about making my characters not only alive, but loveable. I want my readers to identify, to care, to get involved. For me it works in three stages. I know my readers won’t care if I don’t care, so the starting point is myself: what parts of my own character can I borrow for a fictional persona? Next, I add characteristics I’ve noted in others. Quite often in my draft plan I’ll give a character the name of the real person I’m using as a jumping-off point. Finally, I decide on a specific emotional desire, which is to be the plot driver for the character. I find it helps to be quite detailed in this. Maggie, the main female character in my new novel, has a boyfriend, but she can’t help thinking there must be someone better out there. She’s thirty, they should be settling down together or they should separate. But she doesn’t want to end up alone. This presents a dramatic dilemma that I can exploit in a way that I hope makes the reader care about Maggie’s doings. The plot emerges directly from my decisions about character.

Once I’ve locked in my character’s core drive I start to add distinctive detail. What does she look like? How does she feel about her looks? What’s her job? Who are her friends? And so on. I find these details gather round the character during the process of writing. It’s as if a magnetic shape forms in my mind, and attracts random particles. I might see a photograph in a magazine and think, Yes, that’s her hairstyle. A friend tells me a joke, and I think, She could tell that joke. Because I’m constantly refining my sense of who she is, I know with increasing confidence what suits her and what doesn’t.

Finally there’s the question of how to communicate a character to readers. Ideally you don’t want your reader to feel they’re discovering the character for themselves. So direct authorial description needs to be used sparingly. There’s writing-what-she’s-thinking, which I use a lot, but which suffers from the same tell-not-show vice, and needs skilful handling. There’s dialogue, which I love. I find that if I’ve done my thinking properly I always know what a character will say, in what words. In effect, I have only to place my characters in a particular situation, and the dialogue writes itself. And last of all, there’s plotting. Put your character in a revealing situation, and the way she acts will show her to the reader. This is the best of all.


JEN SOOKFONG LEE is the author of the novels The End of East and The Better Mother, and the YA novel Shelter. She lives in North Burnaby, British Columbia.

When I start a story, my characters often arrive in my head fully formed, which doesn’t mean that writing them is any easier! The challenge is translating what’s rolling around in my brain into something that doesn’t suck. For me, the key is to never be afraid to expose my characters. I tend to love them so much that I want to protect them a little bit, as if the story I’m writing will ruin their fictional lives, like how a nasty rumour can tarnish someone’s reputation. I can’t be afraid to write about the most intimate details: love affairs, bodily functions, fears, that sort of thing. I write scenes that explore these details, and while I may not include them in the finished story, the act of writing them at all forces me to tear open each character and show their guts, which is what every fiction writer should be doing.


JIM NASON is the author of numerous poetry collections, the short story collection The Girl on the Escalator, and the novel The Housekeeping Journals. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

The voice of the story usually arrives in the first sentence. As a matter of fact, I can’t get started until I hear that voice. I trust this first sentence and move on right away to free falling – writing down everything that surrounds that initial inspiration. From there, dialogue emerges and a sense of my character’s inner life. I start digging around for what was going on with this character before I brought him or her to the page. In my story “Braces” the sentence, I liked being an only child, arrived loaded with possibility. In reality, I come from a large family with six siblings – I knew that I could have fun with this character.

The second stage of writing fiction involves grounding the voice in a unique physical body. How tall? How slim? Big nose? Small hands? Then, the most important part: gesture. Timothy Findley wrote, Gesture is all – I keep this in mind every time I write … how my character sits, how one holds one’s cigarette or how one walks … your character’s gestures say everything about how one carries one’s self in the world.

Sometimes a character comes from an image. The title story “The Girl on the Escalator” comes from a collage that I saw in the Brooklyn Transit Museum. The main character of that story, Noelle, arrived fully formed – I knew she was a pregnant teenager who would be facing down some tough questions about her unborn child. I knew that she was a strong-willed survivor. The longer I studied the art, the more I knew about the story.

Occasionally a character comes alive from something I see during the day. One day, while working on this collection, I was driving down the Don Valley Parkway [in Toronto] and saw a horrible accident. The first two sentences of “Triptych Twister” popped into my head as I slowed down to have a look: Somebody died there. Somebody had to have died in that car. Imagining who that person was became the challenge of the story … I quickly scanned the accident scene looking for clues to what might become a fictional character. Poet Elizabeth Bishop, wrote about “real frogs in imaginary ponds” – this works for fiction too – make things up based on what you can see, then let your imagination do the rest.

Finally, insert your characters into scenes where there is an opportunity for good dialogue, then allow them to say and do something that you could never imagine doing yourself. In “Tina”, my main character is addicted to crystal meth – I’m not interested in becoming addicted to meth, but I am happy to write about a conflicted character living on the edge of addiction and desire.


ANDREW PYPER is the author of the novels The Guardian, The Killing Circle, Wildfire Season and Lost Girls, as well as Kiss Me, a collection of short fiction. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Sometimes, with characters who will be doing some perceiving on the page, I invent a thought-filter for them. What's a "thought-filter"? It can be any number of attributes or deficiencies, internal or external, real or imagined. An affliction, a gift, a scar, an obsession. Something that, to one degree or another, pretty much everything that character sees or thinks or says passes through, resulting in an idiosyncratic take on that sight, thought, statement. (This is not about "reducing" a character to a "trait," I hasten to add. It's about providing them – and more importantly, providing you, their author – with a way of particularizing a character, lending them an identifiable bent, a worldview). For example, in The Guardians, the main character and narrator has recently been diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's Disease. It's early enough in his condition that he can hide it (for the most part), and it's this constant effort to conceal his worsening symptoms that marks not only his actions, but the way he judges, the actions he takes, even the jokes he makes. It's not about constantly referencing the thought-filter on every page. It's about seeing as they see.


JULIE BOOKER is the author of Up Up Up, a collection of short fiction. She lives in Toronto.

I used to be so interested in the internal voice of a character that I'd forget to describe her physically. Someone would call attention to this so I'd sit in my room thinking of options: blond, black or brunette? Short or long? Big eyes, small eyes? And I'd yawn at my lack of imagination. Then I read Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. Her descriptions are tightly packed, often in the form of simile or metaphor…i.e. "Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the colour of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face." And now when i'm stuck for what my character actually looks like I go to a cafe or ride the streetcar and try to Proulxify people (not out loud), focusing on one outstanding feature, one kickass revelatory metaphor.

But a character really comes alive by being vulnerable to the reader. I think Miranda July is gifted at telling the truth, particularly in "It Was Romance"(from her story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You): "We could smell each other's shampoo and the laundry detergents we had chosen, and I smelled that she didn't smoke but someone she loved did, and she could feel that I was large but not genetically, not permanently, just until I found my way again." When I let my protagonists be honest about their neuroses or their loneliness or their meanness or their fear, I think that's the hook. I'd pass by Superman to hang out with Clark Kent any day.


JEAN-CLAUDE VAN RIJCKEGHEM & PAT VAN BEIRS are co-authors of the YA novel A Sword in Her Hand. They live in Belgium.

Pat van Beirs and I write novels and screenplays together in Belgium. Pat does the research, I create the characters and put the story to paper. We often work separately and communicate via mail. Still, we work closely as a team. A scrap of research can inspire a scene, which in turn can redirect the research and so forth. Our concept was to write a realistic account of the growing pains of a noble woman in the middle ages. On starting the novel, we had no idea who that noble woman would be, much less how to make her come alive.

We found our heroine Marguerite van Male as a footnote in a history book. She played an important political role in the 14th century but, as history is written by men who champion male achievements, not many contemporary accounts dwell on her. These accounts state that she had a plain face, that she was vain, short-tempered and, all in all, not one’s ideal dinner guest. These accounts were written by men, of course, and they were vague and bland. So how could we avoid writing a piece of portraiture and give our story a spine that could hold the reader’s attention? Then, we discovered paintings of Marguerite and her father and realized that they had the same beaked nose, the same red hair and the same sharp, almost fox-like features. Our imagination took over: a father and daughter who are so much alike physically must also be alike in character. We also figured that Marguerite’s father must have been disappointed to find that his only descendant, so much like him in appearance and character, was a girl.
We decided to write a story, old as time, of a father and daughter who clash all the time and are unable to express their mutual love. Their ultimate confrontation would become our story climax. That would be our spine. Once we knew that, it became easier to make our heroine come alive. We visited the castle (largely rebuilt) where she had lived, the churches of Bruges where she had prayed and the infinite polders (mostly swamps back then) where she must have run. We imagined her there, horsing around with the boys, chased by her governess, scolded by her teachers and always trying to impress her father by acting the boy. We imagined her fears, her desires and her despair. She became human. At first, we asked: what would Marguerite have said or done? Later, it became second nature to step into her shoes and settle in her mind.

Of course, the historical facts with which we started the novel, sometimes turned out to be a bit of a nuisance. Some events in Marguerite’s youth were good story material, but they didn’t happen in a dramatically convenient order. So we reordered some events to give our story pace and drama. It makes her story more legend than fact. But then again, we found her as a footnote and it was a fine experience bringing her back to life.


CRAIG BATTLE is editor of Owl magazine and author of the newest Max Finder Mystery Collected Casebook, volume 5 in a series of graphic novels originally created by Liam O’Donnell. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

A writing professor at the University of Victoria taught me to pay attention to the specific relationships characters have with each other. A main character might have two equally close friends, but he or she will talk to each of them differently.

In Max Finder Mystery, space is limited and character interactions are simplified. Max tends to talk a little bit tough to most of the kids he interacts with – he’s generally a little bit terse and business-like in the classic detective mold. But when he and his best friend and confidant, Alison, are together, he reveals his interests (skateboarding, video games, sleep) and occasionally his insecurities (petty rivalries, misgivings about a case). It’s kind of a consistent inconsistency, and, for me, it’s key to making characters come alive.


CATHY STONEHOUSE is a poet, editor and the author of the short-fiction collection Something About the Animal. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

I'm tempted to say I don't make them, they just arrive that way. Or at least that's how I experience it. Communicating this aliveness to the reader, however, is a different matter! Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. For me it's very much about voice. Words, phrases, rhythms that convey a particular point of view; how a character speaks, to themselves or others, what they think to remark on, and what they prefer to pretend does not exist. When I know what a character is hiding from, their language acquires a particular tension. I'm always interested in incongruity, the gap between what people say and what they mean. Contradiction implies depth, and as novelist Elizabeth Bowen once said, "nobody tells the truth when there is something they must have."


S.J. WATSON is the author of the novel Before I Go to Sleep. He lives in London, England.

Perhaps surprisingly, for me it can be a novel’s minor characters who are hardest to bring to life. I always write more than ends up in the finished piece and so my main characters, while they may sometimes start off half-formed, soon reveal themselves over the course of the scenes and situations I place them in. All I have to do is to keep writing, and have the sense to know when I’m trying to force my character to behave in a way they don’t want to. But the more minor characters don’t have that opportunity to make themselves real, and so I have to do it for them. The best way I’ve found to do that is to observe the people around me.

On the course I did at the Faber Academy we did an exercise called Kidnap a Character. “You have two hours,” said Louise, our tutor. “Go out, into the streets, and find someone. Follow them. Observe them. Look for details. What are they wearing? Are they right handed, or left? How do they carry themselves, how do they walk, how do they sit? Who are they with?” We were told to note down as much as possible. “Are they wearing jewelry? How do they smell?” Finally, Louise said, “Try to hear them speak, or even better, speak to them. It’s these details that bring a character to life. Anything goes. Just don’t get arrested.”

It was an invaluable exercise and one I keep repeating. I do it almost without noticing, now, but it can still be a good practice to do it deliberately, with purpose. I once spent an entire train journey scribbling notes about the businessman sitting opposite me, and on reading them now I can see that yes, he was wearing a blue shirt and a had short hair, but he also had a few freckles in his forehead and a bald spot he probably wasn’t yet aware of, wore a wedding ring and some kind of leather lace round his neck, had an old digital watch with a cracked face, a patch of stubble he’d missed with his razor and he had the habit of rubbing the end of his nose between his thumb and forefinger when he was thinking. At the time I didn’t know whether all, or even any, of these details would be adopted by one of my characters, but that’s almost not the point. The point is to remind ourselves that it’s these details that can render a character as a specific, individual person, rather than just a generic, clichéd “businessman on a train,” and so time spent training the eye to look out for them is never time wasted, and might even lead to new characters to take your story in an unexpected, wonderful direction.

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