The Essence of Character
By Joanne Furniss
Some characters make it easy for you—they will walk into the room and stand beside your computer, drumming their fingers on the desk while you write their story. A teenage character in my first novel, The Lonely Steps, appeared like this; I spotted a girl being escorted by her doting boyfriend across a crowded swimming pool in Switzerland and she high-stepped into existence as Lola, my “girl out of time”. But other characters, like Lola’s mother, may be more bashful and need to be coaxed into reality.
The central question for any character—the reason they occupy space in your story—comes down to what do they want? There is a second part of this question: and what do they need? Chances are, your plot will involve denying them what they want in order to give them what they need, so you must be clear about these driving forces in their personality.
What does s/he want?
Exercise 1: Everyone has a secret. Most are not life-changing. So why do we decide that one particular incident / fact / mistake is so powerful, we keep it hidden?
From the POV of your character, write a private letter or diary entry. The first line is: I have never told anyone this, but…
What does s/he need?
Exercise 2: Most people don’t know what they need in life—we’re too distracted by our desires—and your character is no different. Someone else can probably see into their heart more clearly than they see it themselves.
Your character walks into a café / pub / restaurant to meet someone they know well, a friend or family member. There is also a waitress/ barman / cleaner. Write a 360° description of the scene from three POVs; how the friend sees the character, how the stranger sees the character, and how the character sees the scene.
How do these conflicting wants and needs motivate your character?
are all driven by desires and instincts. What your characters wants and
needs will affect their every decision, consciously and unconsciously.
Exercise 3: A brain-storming activity to answer this one question. The aim is to nail the issue of want / need into one clarifying sentence.
What wounded her early on in life and led her to believe a lie?
As an example, the answer to this question for my main character in The Lonely Steps is: Marlene believes that, because of her own frigid childhood, she doesn’t feel emotions deeply enough to be a good mother.
From this stage, you can develop a character arc—how your character will change (or stubbornly not!) during the story. Their actions within the plot will also be grounded in these deepest desires.
Jo Furniss is a British writer now based in Singapore. Her first novel, The Lonely Steps, is represented by the US literary agency Browne & Miller. A second domestic thriller, set in the glossy expat world of Singapore, is making progress. After working as a Broadcast Journalist at the BBC in the UK, Jo gave up the glamour of night shifts to become a serial expat and freelance writer. She is editor of www.swaglit.com, a magazine for writers in Singapore.
All images courtesy of Julie Lewis