Character building

Quick question! (With a very obvious answer.) What holds a book, a play, a series of books, TV show or film together?

Drum rolls!

Characters! That’s right, you guessed it! Here’s a biscuit!

And, while I have one for myself too, let’s think about it. What is a character?

We see them in our favourite books, or in their less pleasant counterparts, and they all have something in common.


One might say that they are real, but if they all had that in common, there won’t be unpleasant books, would there? We’ll talk about that shortly.

*bites a chunk of biscuit*

Now, what I was trying to do was to point out the obvious: characters are people. Or talking animals, or supernatural beings or aliens or furniture that comes to life once the sun has set… Still, they are personified to behave like humans, like people.

Right here, we have our recipe for success. I mean, for a good book, not for huge sales. That depends on how you deal with that pesky little bug we, writers, and artists in general, don’t quite get along with. I think its scientific name is Marketingus Writersarefools…us. Or something like that.

If we treat our characters like real people, we’ll see how they become alive. We might even discover a few things we didn’t know about them and sometimes, we might even get mad at them for going some place we didn’t intend them to go. But that’s the price to pay for real characters; you couldn’t control someone in real life even if you brainwashed them, right?

*chokes on delicious crumbs because she just got an idea for another book*

Going back to the remark about unpleasant books (and towards another biscuit), we can see why, if not for badly constructed characters, there would not be any bad books. Characters lead the story and, if they are clear and real in their intricacies and unknowns, then they will save every story from untasteful hell.

But, what exactly makes a character real?

Good question, class!

*throws biscuits at everyone, then stuffs one in her mouth*

The answer is balance! Even if our characters are unbalanced people, they still have another side; they are not, shall we say, unidimensional. That’s a mortal sin, to write unidimensionally.

A hero cannot, under any circumstances, be all good and perfect. He must have his habits, his secrets, his reasons for becoming a hero, even his demons, I might add. And the antagonist isn’t always bad, isn’t he? Even if we are disgusted with him, we might see that he has a soft spot for feathery creatures, or that he saves dogs from illegal fights. Maybe the reason he became a villain is a primarily good one, but he’s just a misguided soul.

The key here is to believe. Make characters believable, people to whom readers will relate. For this, you would need to be confident in your genre choice, to know your readers, but this is an idea for another article.


We need to talk to our characters, ask them about themselves, but first, we must give them birth. We create them from the spark of an idea, maybe we don’t even know yet what that idea is about, but we see them, the characters, sitting there, waiting in the fog; they wait for us to take them through the birth of becoming a real person. We are their creators and it’s our job and duty to nurture them to life, to let them grow with minds of their own.

We have an idea about who our character might be and what he might do, because we already know we’d write a story about a sailor and a sexy pastry chef, or how a fortune telling grandma is killed by a blind magician and the whole thing will be investigated by a team of college football players.

We have and idea, a glimpse in time about who they are, but do we really know who they are?

Ask them. Depending on that snapshot we envision, we should ask them out.

Let’s take, for example, our granny. She’s old and quirky, we know that. But, does she go out? Maybe she holds her séances at home, where she has lived most her life. Her home’s so famous, even a blind man with a grudge can find it!

She might not leave home to have coffee with us, but we could visit her where she’s most comfortable.

I don’t know how we could all fit in her drawing room, but that won't stop us.

She won’t talk to us easily, she’s suspicious of others, having lived through wars and tragedy; maybe she lost her sweetheart to war and kept living by herself, maybe she leaned towards the occult to hear the love of her life speak again. We could ask her to read our fortune. And her sweet tea, oh, boy! does it taste good!

*reaches for another biscuit, but thinks of sweet tea*

Suddenly, she feels more talkative and soon we’ll learn that she loves cats (no surprise there for you, stereotype prone people) but, sadly, she’s violently allergic to the demonic fury balls. And, while we talk, she feels alive again. She tells us that we look just like her beau. Well, some of us, anyway.

A tear rolls down her cheek, and her eyes get lost in memories.

When she comes back, our tea is gone, her’s is long cold. She offers us another cup, with motherly warmth and when she returns, with her wobbly walk, she gets back to reading our cards.

It might get difficult to extract the truth from her. Why would a blind man be after her? Think about it, watch her bony fingers fiddling with the old, worn cards. In a while, in the static silence, she’ll start speaking, to no one in particular. She’s waited too long to free her soul, to reveal her biggest mistake. We’ll hear her whispering about a woman who came to her a long time ago, scared and pregnant. At the time, such a predicament would’ve brought great shame to her family. Deciding to help her out, grandma would’ve proposed that the girl remain with her until she could find her a husband. Thinking back, the old lady wishes she would’ve foreseen the future (ironic, isn’t it?). The man for whom she vouched then would later become the monster who would blind the girl’s little boy and push her to her demise, through years of abuse and humiliation. And every time the woman would come to her for help, granny would try to calm her and urge her to get it all together, for it will be less shameful to be a beaten wife, than a single mother with a love child. After all, she had vouched for her to the man too and didn’t intend to lose face. After a while, the woman had stopped asking for help altogether.

She had heard about her untimely death and the shock of learning that she had committed suicide would chase her into numerous nightmare filled nights, where Lily, the girl, would blame her for her death and for her son’s unfortunate fate.

The boy, Albert, had been taken by the authorities shortly after the tragedy and no one has ever heard of him since.

Now, she regrets not saving that girl. To hell with her reputation, a life was lost, and at her hands, no less. She had tried to search for the boy, but no one gave her the time of day. Ever since then, she began staying more and more indoors, avoiding with all her strength to intervene in anyone’s life.

*wipes a tear with fingers covered in biscuit crumbs*

With a bitter taste in our mouths, we now know her story. It was created as I wrote it. I never knew our grandma, let’s call her Ava, until I wrote about her here.

She guided me through her story, it was out of my power. And it flowed naturally into place because Granny Ava is real, she breathes and lives and she will die here, in my mind. But she is real.

And through her, we got a bigger glimpse into the life of her killer. It seems like he would be a bit of an anti-hero, after all. A tiny bit, but still.

We could follow him into his most intimate moments and see why he choose to become a magician. After hearing her story, I don’t see him becoming a successful one. If he did, he would be a very famous one, don’t you think? It’s safe to say that a blind illusionist would bring a lot of attention to himself and it would be impossible for the murder to happen, since he would have a big staff and be under constant supervision. The story stops here, before anything could happen.

But we still like him as a magician, right? Yeah, that’s us, stubborn writers.

Maybe he could be a horrible magician, with no career. But why does he still do it? “Probably because I was fascinated with magic tricks before I was blinded,” we hear him whispering behind us. Freaky.

*actually looks behind*

“Come on son, it’s not that hard,” he insists, grinning.

He dares to make fun of our ability to plot? Then what’s to stop him from killing an innocent old lady?

Joking aside, we can see the story better now. It started as a crazy idea we may have had for an article and it already picked up its pace towards becoming something real, tangible.

Having the same talk with him may bring to light other details, of Granny Ava or of the boys that will investigate. Maybe they are friends of hers, maybe they are bullies that realise how unpredictable life is when they hear about her death. They were used to see Ava around, maybe even making fun of her, or being scared of her, and when they start investigating, they come to know all other sides of her and some will love her for the leftover biscuits in the cupboard.

*eats the last biscuit, while wondering about the pattern of baked goods in this article*

Or, maybe, the kids loved her all along, and they got pissed off by the killer for taking her life. Or just that the weird murder attracted their attention and curiosity.

Think about it! He’s a failed magician, but he still knows a few tricks. Maybe he killed her in a particular way, using one of the things he repeatedly practiced while trying to become a successful magician.

And now, we start to see what we need to research in order to have the absolute of facts for a realistic murder. What in his bag of tricks, let’s say, can he use to kill a person? And how? Time to hit the search engines!

Isn’t this exciting? I got so happy while writing this, like I was building the foundation for the best book that’s yet to come. Can you relate?

Now, to put everything in practice isn’t hard. You needn’t necessarily grab a pen and a paper and start listing facts (if this is how you function, then, by all means, go ahead and start Venn diagramming). Just sit back and daydream, in any way you feel comfortable.

Her name will come to you, and you will see her skin, her hair, her clothes, hear her shaky voice; you will be able to describe her in an instant.

On the more practical side of this article, and since I write crime fiction, I can only advise you to start this process with the victim. He or she will give you everything you need.

You could, if you intend on creating a series of books, begin with the main investigator. Do the same: where would you have a cuppa with him? Why there? Is he suspicious of you? What made him like this? Does his voice flutter on certain words? Why is he here, in this position? What does he want, what is his ultimate goal?

I invite you to take our grandma and chat with her. Can you see her differently? Is she more trusting with you? Why? Why would the blind man want her dead?