I have spent all day creating character profiles for my new book. It’s one of the things they tell you to do when you start writing, and something I’ve only ever done in the sketchiest way. I have always thought that a character takes shape as you write and conjuring them up before you start is a waste of time. I’ve never had any particular idea what my characters look like before I start writing, and I’ve only mentioned their appearance if it came up in the plot. I know a lot of readers like to have a visual image of a character, but when I read, I don’t care. What’s the point, I thought, of telling everyone my character has long blonde hair and blue eyes? To me, my characters are more creatures of mind than of body and what they look like is mostly irrelevant. And where you write in the first person it’s terribly difficult to put in character description without ending up with something lame like ‘I brushed my long blonde hair a hundred times and then put on some smoky grey eyeliner to bring out the vivid blue of my eyes.’
However, I’ve set myself the task of writing a very thorough plan of my next book before I start to write, and as such, it seems a good idea to write a profile of each character (including their appearance). I’m not going to go to the extent of scouring the internet to look for people who I can imagine as the characters, though I know many writers do this; no, even if I have written a description of them, I don’t expect them to have a physical presence in my mind.
At least I didn’t.
I do so like to experiment with different ways of writing. I like the way concentrating on your method pulls out totally unexpected creative ideas. This morning, I drew up a spreadsheet with the character names across the top and a long list of items to fill in down the side. I started with about fifteen things to fill in and kept adding more as they occurred to me. Here’s the finished list of twenty-six:
who do they trust
favourite TV show
most overused words
likes to wear
I imagined I’d only fill in all the boxes for a few of the characters, but as the day wore on, I found I could do most of them for all ten. And I discovered other things about my characters. I realised that two of the sisters were twins. I found that my main character went to cry on the shoulder of her dad when things went wrong. I worked out that the spiteful girl who made my main character’s life difficult actually wanted to be her friend.
I’m not absolutely sure that I need to know all the things on my list. How important is it that someone loves Strictly Come Dancing and nachos and that she bites her nails? Probably not important at all. Except insofar as it makes each character into a rounded person in my head – even the minor ones whose role in the book will be little more than to push the plot in the right direction.
And I find that these people are taking on substance in my head. It’s rather like trying to describe someone that you used to know to someone who also used to know them when neither of you can quite remember what they looked like: you know, that girl who used to dye her hair crazy colours all the time and could never sit still in class, the one who was always tinier than everyone else in the class, like she was built on a different scale. And so they appear, my characters, like people taking shape out of the fog of memory.
All I’ve got to do now is complicate their lives.
Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French?
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