Creating characters AKA you don’t need to know where the postman lost his virginity

I never set out to write a book. I’ve shared before that I started writing to lift my mood after a change in health left me with a disability and chronic pain which led to clinical depression.

It was easy to fall in love with Grace and Charlie, the characters I thought I would try and write a story about. It was easy to find a hook – Charlie’s last words to Grace “I did something terrible, please forgive me.” It was easy to write page after page. It was when it reached a point where it was no longer a short story, and I thought ‘The Sister’ could possibly be a book, that it suddenly felt very, very hard.

I had no idea how to write a novel.

Anxiety was my default setting and I let it consume me. How could I ever think I could write a book? I had no education beyond a handful of GCSE’s. No training. No degree. No idea what I was doing.

Frantically I turned to Google – how do you write a novel – relaxing when I saw the number of hits that appeared. There were people who knew and they were willing to share. It was all going to be okay once I learned the magic formula – or was it?

I didn’t question who the writers were imparting their knowledge, whether they’d published, sold, whether I’d read and enjoyed their stories. I just took it for granted that everyone knew absolutely more than me. I knew nothing. I would do whatever they told me, and I did.

One of the first blogs I read said you could never write a convincing story unless you knew your characters inside out. That made sense to me. I already felt Grace and Charlie were fully formed, real to me but as I read on I knew that they couldn’t be.

Did I know their shoe size? Umm no.

The first flavour ice cream they ever tried? Can’t say I did.

Their best holiday? No idea.

Lucky for me the writer in question had designed a ten page character sheet questionnaire she was giving away free if I signed up to her newsletter. And I did.

I printed out the sheets and filled them in for Every Single Character because ‘there are no minor players in novels.’

For two weeks I did nothing except get to know my characters.  I even knew where the postman (who is only in one scene delivering a letter) lost his virginity.

When I returned to my manuscript it felt different. What had felt natural before now felt a little like wading through treacle. The direction the plot was naturally taking didn’t fit the personalities I was trying to foist upon my characters. They weren’t acting like the people on my character sheets. I began to question whether I was too inexperienced to write. Whether I needed to do a course.

Later, over a glass of wine with my husband he wondered whether knowing where a fictional postman had fictional sex was really that important to the story.

It wasn’t.

I’ve never filled in a character sheet since. That’s not to say they don’t have a value, all authors ultimately find their own way of working, but I prefer to let them evolve naturally, jotting down things like eye colour etc. as I go to ensure continuity.

That said, before I get too far into a novel I do like to know the character’s internal flaw. The thing that stops he/she getting what she wants. The thing that will have readers rooting for them and cheering during that all important change that happens along the character arc.

For my second book, The Gift, I knew that Jenna my main character didn’t know where her place in the world was anymore after a heart transplant at a relatively young age left her feeling set apart from her friends and boyfriend and that was all I needed to know to begin writing. For a satisfying ending, Jenna needed to find her place whether she reached her external goal of tracking down the donor’s family or not.

Incidentally, Jenna gets several deliveries of mail throughout the story. Her postman probably has sex but I’ve no idea who with, or even of his name.

And what’s more – I don’t care.

6 thoughts on “Creating characters AKA you don’t need to know where the postman lost his virginity

  1. I like to create a back story for my characters, but mostly for my own benefit. Most of the info isn’t shared with the readers, but can help me if I’m struggling to find a way forward. It’s also worth noting that i’m not as successful as you. Hm.

  2. That ten-page character sheet you spent so much time on could be used for a new protagonist, just by changing the name if the profile didn’t fit with the WIP at the time. I know you don’t need it now, but I like to form leftovers into something new.

Thanks so much for reading!

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