When I was young, I remember watching a period TV drama with my parents about the fortunes of a well-off family prior to World War 1. It actually ended with the war breaking out. I can remember today how disappointed I was at this. I can remember also the many discussions I had with my mother who claimed how impossible it was for the show to go on, because World War 1 changed society so radically. All I could put in against that was: “But I want to know what happened to these people.”
I was recently reminded of this when I started reading crime-writer, Elizabeth George’s book: Write Away: One novelist’s approach to fiction and the writing life. The very first chapter is titled: Story is Character. From the start she makes clear:
Is this why historical fiction is often more popular than the dry academic tomes which gather dust on the shelves of our libraries? Stories need people to bring them alive and to create identification. Which, to go back to my TV drama, is why I can remember very few of the events of the series but the characters—their names, personalities, loves and lives remain engraved in my memory some thirty years on.
So how do we create such memorable characters? George gives us three tips:
- Remember that real people have flaws as well as positives traits. Perfect people are either boring or priggish. Nobody likes them. Usually they are also hypocrites. We’re just not like that. If we want to create any element of identification with our readers, then we have to make them real by giving them flaws.
- We all have moments of self-doubt and weakness. Doubt is essential to our being. It’s part of what we are and what we become. True, we all react differently when doubt rears its (sometimes ugly) head. But we still cannot escape from it. If we are to create real-life characters, doubt will have to be a part of their make-up.
- Real people grow and change through circumstances, so should the characters in your novel/story. Such change usually comes about as characters face up to conflict. They may sail through, they may succumb. Usually, we land somewhere between the two. But the fact is, when we emerge from conflict, we do so as different people. And that’s what we need to aim for with our characters.
Well, I wonder how many of my characters will be remembered thirty years on. And how many of yours.