At the risk of sounding strange, writing new characters can be like making new friends. You could quiz and query them but the only way you really get to know people is by long conversations and seeing how they behave. You may think your character is a particular kind of person but it’s not until you’ve finished the first draft of your story that you really know them.

For this reason it doesn’t matter if the behaviour of your character appears inconsistent in the first draft. You may think at the beginning that they would give someone their last Rolo but by the time it gets to the end you might discover that in a battle of politeness as soon as the other person says ‘no, you have it’ they go ‘okay’ and eat the Rolo much to the other person’s disappointment. This might seem an inconsequential thing but it tells you about the character, they may appear generous but aren’t, or they’re polite but don’t mean it, or they’re socially awkward and take a polite ‘no thank you’ at face value.

Alternatively you may begin with a character who appears very confident but by the end you discover that the confidence is a mask hiding something else. Or it could be as simple as the old classic where a character appears not to like another but has been in love with them all along.

Simply because you’re the writer doesn’t mean you have to know all of your character’s deeper motivations at the beginning of the first draft. Just as you wouldn’t be expected to know their entire history when you begin, sometimes references will occur to you as you write that you hadn’t considered in the planning stage. As I keep saying characters, like real people, don’t always reveal themselves fully until you put them on the board and begin to play.

Theoretically you could begin a novel with only a name and a vague notion of a character and gradually build them from the ground up. Even if you plan out a story in minute detail this could change as soon as you put a character in motion. A lot of this is because you have an innate sense of people from years of being around them. We are able to build an impression of how we expect people to behave the better we get to know them and the same is true of characters. So if a character’s behaviour doesn’t ring true we can pick up on it subconsciously. If you come to a point in story where the character ceases to follow the plan because it appears they would do something else, you don’t need to impose the plan on them, partly because you could end up blocked as it doesn’t feel right and the reader will pick up on it too.

When planning out a character it’s important to remember that the reader will come to know them too and will be able to tell when they are behaving out of character. If a character inexplicable behaves out of character then it increases the likelihood of a reader putting down your book and not picking it up again. Though we should bear in mind that behaving out of character is not the same as surprising behaviour. A character might do something a reader doesn’t anticipate but as long as it fits with the story and the overall character it will work. For instance they might offer their last Rolo and not normally give it to another person but if that person is upset they insist on them taking the Rolo which shows empathy. Under usual circumstances they might not do something but in the right circumstances they will.

Out of character behaviour is the sort that is inexplicable and makes no sense, for example a character giving someone they don’t like their last Rolo for no apparent reason. This doesn’t mean that if they do something surprising everything needs explaining as to why they did it, people can infer motivation such as the sad person scenario.

Even if you don’t notice out of character moments to begin with you probably will when you reread your story and think, having got to the end, ‘I’m not sure they’d do this’. This is what editing is for, why it’s so important and why it doesn’t matter if it isn’t quite right the first time. The first draft is simply about working out how the story should go and how the characters behave. In the first draft you simply get it down, changing it as required when you meet a moment that doesn’t match your plan, then in editing you go back and straighten it up and make it consistent.

If first drafts were perfect no-one would be so reticent about showing them to others.

For more writing advice see my archive page.

One thought on “The Building Blocks of Character

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