5 top tips for improving characterisation in fiction

The brilliant thing about reading a good book is that the characters will appear in your head as if they were real people, and if you gave the same book to another person they would visualise those characters in a completely different way.

However, as a writer there is a knack to developing a well-rounded character, something which doesn’t necessarily come easily. Having said that, very occasionally a character will arrive fully formed and refuse to leave. ‘Yes, you, Konrad Neale! (The Camera Lies, Stench, Death by Indulgence, and The Bloodline Will) You are getting on my nerves right now.’ Always a selfish bugger that one. He’s a Marmite character. I love him and hate him – the arrogant tosser. One day soon he’s going to push me too far. ‘Do you hear me, Kon? Your days are numbered, pal.’

Tip one: Imagine the ‘whole’ person. Your character will have a personality type, a background story, relationships, likes and dislikes, a way of dressing, and you need to ‘see’ them for who they are, not just what they are. If they are a heroic figure, then a writer must understand what has made them the sort of person to court danger. If the character you require in your story is vindictive and underhand, then why do they behave that way? The reader doesn’t always need to know this in great detail but, in order to make realistic characters, the writer does.

Tip Two: Avoid in-depth descriptions. Unless it is vital information, leave plenty to the imagination of the reader. I don’t necessarily want to know the type of wallpaper in the lounge, what clothes a character is wearing each day, how tall they are, and whether they buy their underwear from Marks and Spencer – I want to know what type of person they are, why they did it, how they managed to bury their husband under the patio and whether or not they will get caught. (My husband is fine, by the way)

Tip Three: Build the character through action. A reader can be ‘drip fed’ information about a character which builds throughout the story, in the way they act, how they speak, and interact with others. Body language is a good tool. For Example: A person who reacts to a personal threat with physical violence, is very different to one who remains calm, maintains eye contact, opens their palms and enters into considered negotiation. A child who scowls, folds their arms, narrows their eyes and slumps back into a chair has given a big hint as to their state of mind and level of intransigence. The reader sees the action in their head and has an emotional response as a result.

Tip Four: Give them a good name. Charles Dickens was excellent at choosing names for characters that reflected their nature: ‘Wackford Squeers’ appears as a headmaster in Nicholas Nickleby and his name is perfect for a man so free with corporal punishment and cruelty. And then there’s the malevolent ‘Uriah Heep’ from David Copperfield; the word obsequious has been used to sum him up. Not to forget the delightful ‘Volumina Dedlock’, ‘Anne Chickenstalker’ or ‘Jeremiah Flintwich’. But be mindful of the type of book you are writing, the era, and the age of the person you are naming. How does the name sound? ‘James Bond’ sounds solid and rounded, whereas ‘Timmy Pittle’ (made that one up) sounds weedy and ineffectual to me – I wouldn’t give him a license to kill.

Tip Five: Dialogue. How someone speaks, the rate, the intonation, the volume, and the vocabulary employed can inform much more than describing a person’s hairstyle. ‘Oi mate!’ will draw a picture, as will… ‘I say, would you mind awfully?’ We human beings have speech mannerisms, these may be phrases, sayings, favourite swear words, use of pauses or inflections – so give some to your characters, and remember there are many ways to say something: whisper, shout, sneer, bellow, blurt, gabble, or mumble. If you are struggling with how to write dialogue, stop for a while and listen to a conversation, in real life, on the radio or on TV. Analyse it.

I hope these little tips have been helpful to any budding fiction writers out there and that you invent some great characters in your heads. Be warned though, if you do, you are never alone.

Must go, Konrad bloody Neale is about to drop himself in the hot and smelly stuff again. ‘What is it now, Kon? Who have you pissed off this time…?’


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