Creative Writing Workshop: Crafting Character

Posted at 04:18am on 26th July 2019

Today we're going to look at Crafting Character, and its importance in terms of plot and theme. This was the topic of the previous post in this series - the way in which The Riverbed of Theme runs through the narrative of a story, be it fictional or memoir. It is Character, however, that stands above both. Without the careful Crafting of Character, neither plot nor theme could be conveyed.


Today I'm going to share what I've learned, over the years, about Characterisation. It's a big subject, so it's going to take more than this one post to do it justice. Although there may be those who disagree, I want to begin by saying:

Characterisation is as relevant for those wanting to write a memoir as it is for those who are aspiring novelists.


Obviously, a novel is a story about people. Equally obvious is the fact that your autobiography or memoir (a particular part of your life-account) is also about people. You! And those who have affected your life. But, I hear you say, if I'm writing my own story, why do I need to know about Characterisation? Well, novelists talk about Plot being Character-led. In just the same way, your true-life story has come about largely because of YOUR Character and the way in which YOU have responded to the people and circumstances you've encountered.

It's crucial to understand this. A different Character to you might respond quite differently to exactly the same stimuli. That Character's reaction to the first situation, which set you off in a certain direction, might be so utterly different that they never meet with the next stage of your journey. So - from exactly the same beginning - a different Character may take a completely diverse route, and reach an entirely different destination!


In the same way, one fictitious Character's reaction will be different to another's. Consequently, given the same set of circumstances, the story of Character A will be unlike the story of Character B. Although it is perfectly possible to create a story based on the protagonist acting out of character, your choice of Character is still vital to the integrity of your narrative. And if 'being in Character' means that they are weak and spineless, so that they drift like flotsam and jetsam, allowing themselves to ebb and flow with the tide - even that lack of drive in their lives could be a driving force in the plot of the story.

We can best sum this up as follows:







The fact is that whether the Characters in your book are drawn from your imagination or from real life, you need to know them inside out. And how well, I wonder, do you know yourself - let alone anyone else? There's a verse in the Bible which states that 'the heart is deceitful above all things'. If we're to produce credible Characters either from our imagination, or as players in an autobiography, we need to develop an understanding of human nature.


Cardboard Characters are two-dimensional. The tendency, for a new writer, is to think of the Characters of their book as being either good or bad. But the fact is that almost all of us are deeper than that. Even the Hannibal Lecters of this world (the cannibal serial killer from Silence of the Lambs) might have a weak spot. (If anyone can identify what it was, please let us know!) Hitler, for all his barbaric and murderous acts, loved Eva Braun, at least enough to put her at the top of the personal bequests in his will, which would have given her a generous income for the rest of her life - had she had one!

Conversely, we all know how we can kid ourselves into believing what we want to believe about ourselves. I'm a nice person but I'm in a rush, I tell myself as I jostle ahead of a young mum with a fractious child, in order that I might be next in the queue. I'm doing this in love, I think, as I break damaging news to someone who might have been better left in ignorance. I deserve this break, I mutter, as I embroider the truth in order to project a better image of myself.

If that's how we rationalise life to ourselves, then that's how the Characters in our books should conduct their lives. The Characters we write about need:

  • Credibility - to be true to life
  • Creativity - in the way they respond to conflict
  • Complexity - the depth which makes them three dimensional


Think of a book or film you know well. Identify the Theme and the manner in which it was fulfilled i.e. the Plot. What were the features of the Main Character's personality, and how did they convey the Theme? Substitute another Character you know of from a book or film. How different would the storyline have been under the influence of that Character's temperament?

NEXT TIME: We'll be looking in more detail at Creating Credible Characters. After that we'll see what part Conflict plays.

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