How do they do it? Great writers and great characters

Everyone wants to write and sell the next Harry Potter. Imagine! World wide fame and praise for your international best selling novel! Did J.K Rowling dream of such dizzying ambitions when she was writing Harry Potter? Probably not. What she DID do however was create a cast of colourful characters that people came to love. Her readers wanted to find out what happened to Harry, Ron and Hermione. From big and cuddly Hagrid to slithery and sneaky Draco Malfoy, every character was unique and yet believable. You might have a riveting plot in your novel but if the characters are not engaging then no one will care what happens to them.

So the question is: how do you deftly create characters that seem real without giving the reader a long winded info-dump. Gone are the times of classics when writers could go on for paragraphs and paragraphs about their central characters, giving you a long description of their likes, hates and history. Literature is more cut throat now- especially for children’s novels. You can’t lose a reader’s attention. Any character description will have to be a swift but detailed sprinkling of information about your beloved protagonist.

How to do it? I’ll give you a few examples.

Let’s start with the classic literature I just told you had the liberty of going on at length about its characters. A true statement, but even so, the literary legends of yesteryear still could manage to quickly give us a few accurate hints about the stars of their novels. Take this example from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.

…there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to for fear of the unseen power in the next room; a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she awakened of herself ‘as sure as clockwork,’ and left the household in very little peace afterwards.

In this sentence we discover a lot about the two characters mentioned. There is a little girl, quite possible a good and obedient little girl because, despite her longing to get out of bed, she remains silent and still, partly due to her fear of the sleeping housekeeper next door. The housekeeper in question is described as a ‘power’ of the household who, if awakened, will leave no one in peace. This almost puts the reader in mind of some kind of sleeping dragon and indeed later on Betty is described by another character as a ‘dragon.’ But Betty is harmless really, just a bustling old housekeeper, and despite her fearful introduction in this paragraph there are hints that maybe Betty isn’t as bad as she seems. How do we know this? Because the ‘powerful’ Betty is being seen through the eyes of a meek little girl, who no doubt finds her more frightening than a fully grown adult would. There is also a hint of humour in the way ‘a certain Betty’ is described as some kind of unseen force, indicating that despite her fearful ways, perhaps Betty is thought of fondly. We later discover that Betty is used to having her own way and can sometimes be impertinent to her employers, but they love her anyway, most of all Molly, the little girl who seems to fear her so much in this introduction. All of this is subtly hinted at in just a few sentences. All in all it’s a stellar piece of work from Miss Gaskell.

Example two. We might as well take a look at Harry Potter since it’s characters are so beloved by children and adults alike. However the first characters introduced are the Dursleys, two perfectly horrid people. So how Rowling let us know that Mr and Mrs Dursley, despite being used as a welcome into the Harry Potter world, are in fact two very nasty people who the reader is supposed to hate? Let’s have a look at Rowling infamous opening sentence.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange of mysterious, because they just didn’t didn’t hold with such nonsense.

This sentence is being told in the voice of the Dursleys. It’s a cold voice, using a snappish phrase of ‘thank you very much.’ The Dursleys are proud that they are ‘perfectly normal.’ This tells us a fair bit about them in a single sentence. Firstly it clearly states the Dursleys are proud, not the most endearing of personality traits. It gets worse when we are told what the Dursleys are proud of: the fact they are perfectly normal. The word ‘perfectly’ aptly sums up how the Dursleys think of themselves- perfect. The word ‘normal’ tells us two things. From the Dursleys point of view normal= good. From the readers point of view normal= boring. This is clarified for us when Rowling explains that Mr and Mrs Dursley ‘don’t hold’ with anything ‘strange or mysterious.’ Quite boring, then.

Finally lets take a trip to my beloved Narnia to see how C.S Lewis does it. The opening chapter of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe manages to quickly and subtly tell us two key facts about it’s two central characters Lucy and Edmund.

…he [the professor] was so odd looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it.

This sentence basically tells us that Lucy is a shy little girl, the youngest of her siblings, who can be timid and scared of something has harmless as an old professor. Edmund, the second youngest, is a nasty piece of work and pretty disrespectful to his elders. Instead of simply telling the reader this is a very boring fashion the way I’ve just done Lewis uses the meeting of the professor as a way of deftly showing us the characteristics of the two main characters. Lucy= nice, Edmund= nasty. A classic version of show and don’t tell.

Of course introducing the characters is just the first part of the journey. You have to sustain that momentum throughout your whole novel. Every character has to be different yet believable. A good book that I found helped me craft a distinctive cast of characters was 45 master characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It takes a unusual approach of exploring varying character archetypes through the personalities of Greek gods, using examples of everything from Xena Warrior Princess to Shakespeare’s Othello. Using these archtypes you can create characters full of personality traits, fears and motivates that ring true to whichever type of character you are trying to bring to life.

Also this post on Write Like Rowling gives further examples of how classic literary characters were introduced with effortless ease. A great post on a great blog.