Many reviews of my work comment on how close the characterisation is, and that’s lovely because, with my style of writing, it’s essential I nail that closeness. I think, because I now write that way, people believe I was always good at it. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I first started receiving critiques it was made clear to me there was a long way to go before I found the characterisation I sought.
As with all things writing, there is only one way to nail a technique – and that’s by writing. Eventually, some of the way to the million words it’s rumoured to take, I began to draw close to my characters.
What finally cracked it for me was an analogy to the theatre. I could be the director and oversee everything (the omnipresent voice, if you like), or I could be in the audience, and watch everything (distant/removed voice), or I could be the person on the stage, playing the role (close character voice).
To write close characters, I had to play the role. They couldn’t be described doing it, or directed in what to do next. They had to be the person in the role, unobstructed by me or, indeed, the writing.
I have a few tricks to achieve that.
Firstly – find that elusive voice. Writers of close characters write not as themselves but as the character. I have been known to act out scenes to get it clear in my head.
For those not wanting to be just that outre, sometimes I find inspiration in people around me. Sometimes I come across a person who encapsulates something of what I want for my character. Someone in the street, perhaps, or at work. A film star. Sometimes photographs work well for me. I’m not suggesting you steal that person but that you listen and watch for what makes them work as the character for you. Is it their language? Their way of moving? A tone of voice, or a choice of words? If so, there may be something to start you off with that character’s voice.
Once I have an idea of that person, I give myself time to grow into the character. I’m going to go on a journey with them. In the course of the book, that character will change (or there is something wrong with my plotting.) I’ll get to know more about them and, as I do, I will hear their story more clearly. Sometimes, it’s not until the second, or even the third, pass that I know a character well enough to sink into their voice easily.
Once I know them, things emerge. Little mannerisms, for instance. Be warned, however – there is a fine line. Too many, and it gets repetitive. Too few, and characters risk blending into each other.
Is there a word they use more than others? Or an accent? My Irish characters say arse and shite, and my others say ass and shit. A tic, like tapping a pattern when nervous? Anything that can make your character more rounded, and more like a real person, can be useful. (But, really, really don’t overdo this, or the reader will hurl your book through the window. If I’d heard Jay Gatsby say “Old Sport” one more, I’d have screamed.)
There are, also, some technical bits and pieces I use to bring me closer. The first, and most important, are filter words. I will shout this from the rooftops. Filter words are the enemy of close point of view. Look out for – seen, felt, heard, listened, watched, glanced. They put a layer of distance between the character experience and the reader.
For instance: She heard the car approach outside, and opened the door. She felt the wind rifling her hair, and noticed the car was a deep red, almost angry.
Compared to: The car crunched over the gravel. She opened the door, and wind rifled through her hair. The car was a deep red, almost angry.
The second version is closer. It stays with the character with nothing to distract us. Which brings us to another technique. Stay with your character (within reason.) Don’t jump past an action. Use it as a chance to build the world and character – world building through the character experience works much better than a rambling info-dump. For instance, this excerpt:
“I caught my breath and pushed off from the rough wall. The park was the quickest route, but too open. I couldn’t take the chance of being spotted. I turned right, towards the city centre. The day was dull, the air heavy, and I pulled my jacket up, half-muffling the sounds of the advertising drones zipping from person to person. I stayed like that, happy to be ignored, until I reached the building, and stopped short at its locked doors.”
Can you see how much has been learned from this paragraph? The character doesn’t want to be found. It’s futuristic – the advertising drones tell us that. The front doors are locked. This action doesn’t slow the reader down but keeps the story flowing.
Of course, I’m not saying you should get bogged down in the details, either, or you run the risk of a series of actions, with no story:
“She walked out of the alley and looked left and right. She set off, her jacket hunched around her. She reached the locked door. It was locked.” A list of actions doesn’t make for an engaging story. Being with the character does.
Speaking of being with the character. Stop reading for a second. Take in your surroundings. I’m in my kitchen at the moment – that’s where I write, at the end of the family dinner table. My fridge is humming. An orange in the fruit bowl might be slightly over; there is a sour smell from it. I’m warm but comfortable. My chair is well-worn, with cushions behind me.
Can you imagine where I am? You won’t imagine the kitchen table as it is (If you got a pink oilcloth with cartoon cats, a copy of the daily paper and three notebooks surrounding – and a highlighter – then quit stalking me). But you’ll have imagined a kitchen table. You’ll have your vision of what the cushions are, and what size that orange might be.
That’s fine. I’m not asking you to visualise the exact scene – leave that to the movie guys – I’m just trying to make you feel you could be the person writing this and typing it.
That, above all, is the key to close character work. Telling it as the person. I found starting small helped me. Nailing one scene (for me, it was a scene in Abendau’s Heir, where the main character, Kare, is set the task of washing a floor) and seeing how it is done, before trying to perfect it in a whole book. Even now, when I’m so aware of them they make my teeth jangle, filter words get past me, or characters share tics and voice patterns. It’s not easy but, perhaps, some of the tips above might help.
Jo Zebedee writes science fiction and fantasy, both on the streets of her native Northern Ireland and in her Space Opera world of Abendau. Author of three books to date – with several more in the pipeline – and numerous short stories, more about her can be found onwww.jozebedee.com. She can also be followed on twitter under @joz1812.
When not writing, she works as a consultant, wrangles not-that-tiny-children and pets. Mostly, she’ll do anything to avoid housework.