A minimalist approach to writing good characters

What’s in a character?

What makes a good character? It’s an age old question and I’m sure it gets asked all the time by writers in moments of idleness, block or fancy. I’ve spent the day thinking about this and have come up with my own answer, something I hope will simplify my future self’s writing no end.

So what is a character? When I’m writing, I tend to think of my protagonists and antagonists in eye colours, hair lengths, nose sizes, glasses wearers… I don’t necessarily think of them as people with emotions, political agendas or ponderous beings. I simply throw them into situations and observe how they react in my writing.

Readers, on the other hand have a completely different perspective than my writing self. They want to see under the skin of the character and feel what he feels. The reader reads the description about how tall and pimply the new restaurant critic is, but will instantly make up their own minds about what she looks like as she performs the Heimlich maneuver on a man in a dinner jacket who’s just been shouting at his wife. All this means is that readers care more about the person than what they look like. If only we could all be more like that in real life!

So where does this leave me in defining my characters for this project? Am I saying I shouldn’t work out up front all the different ear sizes of everyone on my island? Maybe I don’t need to go to that much detail, but I will need to describe roughly what people will look like, even if this is likely to be adapted or misread by the reader. Although I’ll do a bit of the descriptive and not care too much if it gets changed, there’s something much more important I need to do as well.

What drives a character?

I wanted to be able to describe everyone in a couple of sentences so that when I’m halfway through writing my book and I don’t know what a character will do next, I can reread their description and immediately know how they will react. In any situation.

I’ve done this by describing their motivations for the duration of the story. From the beginning to the end, everyone has a motivation – something that drives them. It might be money, or power, or not being shouted at by your husband in a busy restaurant. It could be having a tidy garden, or making sure you’re always one up on the neighbours. Whatever it is, these motivations will be able to fit into any situation and cause an identifiable reaction.

Does this make my characters one dimensional and predictable? Probably? What if they had more than one motivation, or they had a close friend whose motivation caused conflict with theirs? What if they had a particular motivation that is only realised when a triggering event occurs? Would that make them more interesting? I’m hoping so.

My motivation is to describe all the characters of my book briefly and precisely so I can aid my own writing whenever they are in the plot. If I can do that, I’m hoping I’ll create interesting, diverse characters whose behaviours will become so familiar to me I’ll be able to write them with my eyes shut.

How do you create your characters? Can you really define everyone in your book with just a couple of lines of description or does it take reams of notes and back stories to allow them to really leap from the page? Leave me a comment below if you have any thoughts on this.


Momentum: Keeping the writing spirit alive


I’ve been away with work all this week and haven’t had a chance to think about writing or my book. I’ve either been travelling (dull), in meetings (various levels of interest depending on who with), in the bar (unwinding, drinking beer and/or eating), or sleeping. It’s been a fairly exhausting week.

I’ve returned home and have tried to pick up where I left off, but with such a break, I’ve lost all the momentum I had last week. I took my notebooks with me but didn’t have a moment to do anything productive. You might think that the time spent drinking beer would have been perfect time to do some writing, develop a character or work on the plot lines, but it never happened. I was tired and just needed downtime.

This is life. We need a balance between the various different parts of our lives or nothing will function properly. So what is the best way to get the right balance?

At the moment, I have a lot of different thoughts going on with my book. I have a rough outline of the plot along with who will be involved in it. I dip in and out of ideas and write as my whim takes me. This is great when I have time to sit and think and write, but what about when I only have the occasional half hour here or there to attend to the book? I need more structure.

Everything I have done to date is at a top level, bird’s eye view of the project as a whole. If I want this to succeed then I need to become more granular about all the aspects of the story. I know that I have a world, but what fills it? There must be hundreds of houses, shops, roads, signposts in a town. The countryside needs fields and trees, hills and valleys, even cliffs and mountains where necessary. There needs to be weather. How do all these things interact with each other?

Going granular

The granular level says that one character must live in one house and go to a series of other locations. These other locations will be owned, run or visited by other people. So why not take the main character and describe where he fits in, concentrating on his detail and bringing in other people and other locations as I go. This means there will be a definite path to complete the structure behind all the different places in the story. In short, I am preparing the scaffolding for the story, but in an organised fashion.

So how does this help my motivation? It doesn’t, I still need to motivate myself to write, even when I’m tired or only have a small window of opportunity. The good news is that I won’t have to think about what I’m going to write about as it will follow on from the last thing that was written.

I read that a good way to bring back the thoughts of a previous writing session is to stop in mid dialog. A conversation is very emotive and it should be easy to pick up what the characters motivations were in the follow up writing session. I think my motivation will come through ending a writing session with the plan of what needs to be described next. That way I will be able to pick up from where I left off, perhaps by writing about a shop the protagonist is about to visit, or about the character that is going to give him his next bag of magic beans.

Leave me a comment below if you have other opinions around how to keep the momentum of writing alive whilst maintaining the balance with everything else going on in your world.