Saturday, 24 July 2010


Characters make your story possible. Writers draw readers in by using well-rounded, believable characters with depth and complexity and they are astute enough to spot mundane cardboard representations, or cartoon/stereotypical types.

Well-developed characters add an extra dimension to your story. Who they are and how they act are important. We’re all complex, we all have different personalities and outlooks and we’re all individual. Your characters should be no different.

The primary role of characters is to move your story forward through the use of dialogue and action, to realise motivation, enhance the plot and to engage the reader.

Of course, there’s more to giving your character a name, simple physical attributes, giving them and age range or creating a half-completed personality. Character traits tell the reader what sort of person your character really is. The more dimensions you add to your characters, the more engaging and real they become for your reader. You need to know the following about them:

• Your character's likes/dislikes, including their general tastes like fashion, food, music, sex, love etc.
• How they act and react with other characters and situations
• How they interact with the environment
• Dialect or way of speaking, linguistic/slang characteristics
• Behavioural traits: what has happened in their past to make them who they are?
• Body and facial traits like twitches, hair twiddling, etc.
• Their outlook on life
• Their habits. We all have habits, so will your characters. Drink, drugs, smoking, farting...even subtle things like someone who wears glasses constantly cleaning them, stroking beards/moustaches, that kind of thing.

The most useful aid is to simply write a full history and biography of your character which will include simple facts such as appearance, date of birth, their age now, parents and siblings, pets, upbringing, education and general lifestyle etc. Some prefer to write a checklist to familiarise themselves. Other writers might see a photograph of someone and know instantly that’s what the character could look like in their story. Do whatever feels best for you.

There are various methods to bring your characters to life within the narrative, and you should try to involve as many for your character:

1. Display the character's actions
2. Reveal the character's thoughts
3. Get reactions from your other characters
4. Body language

Once you have a have a biography or checklist, you need to bring the character to life and dispense some of the information within the narrative. There are couple of methods to do that:-

Direct Characterisation

This is where the writer tells the reader directly about the characters, hair, eyes, nose, mouth, clothes, etc, in one block of writing, usually near the beginning of the story.

‘Jim was tall and had a long nose and deep set eyes, and short, cropped hair which turned a lighter brown in the sun. He had broad shoulders and a short body and was fond of wearing a tracksuit…’

Although this is informative, it’s quite boring and will have people nodding off, and yet many writers tend to go with this direct characterisation approach. It’s much better like this:

‘Jim’s height shadowed those around him. He had a smooth long nose, but his skin had been marked from a bout of measles as a child, and now his whiskers covered the deep grooves in his skin. His eyes were as dark as his stubble…’

The above paragraph tells us several things; he’s tall, he’s self-conscious of the marks on his face because now he has a beard, and he had measles as a child. This is indirect character revelation, and it’s how you give your characters depth without boring your reader to death with mundane facts.

Indirect characterisation

As the example above, this means that the writer implies a character’s traits throughout the narrative, rather than bombard with a gamut of information from the beginning. This way you can drip feed to the reader throughout the story.

Characterisation isn’t just about telling the reader about hair and eye colour, face shape, size etc. The internal goings on within a character makes them interesting, not what they actually look like. That old saying ‘Show don’t Tell’ is a useful tool when describing your characters.

Remember, characters are not perfect, and they should never be. They have flaws, foibles, habits and weaknesses, just like real people. They should resonate with your reader

Next time: Characterisation and body language.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Themes & Conflict

The two main ingredients of any story.

I’ve linked theme and conflict together because they work alongside each other in a story.

Theme should not to be confused with plot. Theme is a secondary writing device used by writers to accompany plot and shore up the conflicts you have in your story, and the underlying theme itself should be source of conflict. It’s the subject matter for your story.

Love, hate, redemption, religion, hope, betrayal…all these themes provoke conflict. And with conflict, you also elicit emotions from your reader. Conflict and emotion is closely linked too, and a story without either of these is unlikely to move your reader, except to bore them to sleep.

Think of the historic struggle between black and white people; racism is an emotive theme and a rich source of conflict. “Roots” by Alex Haley is a perfect example of this conflict as black African slave Kunta Kinte strives for freedom from his white American oppressors.

Theme is the heart of the story in a sense. It may not always be clear what theme runs through your story because of the interchanging content, but it may emerge later as you write it. Some writers have a clear indication from the start, and build their story around it. Experienced writers may have several themes running through their story.

One thing you shouldn’t do with theme is to force it onto your reader. It should be hinted at within the and throughout the story; otherwise you may be in danger of preaching to your reader. Clever use of dialogue, narrative and description will help you subtly drop hints to your reader what your theme is without it being too obvious. You can also use symbolism to give clues, things like use of colours, places, shapes, repeated words, and so on.


Most themes will elicit emotion, and with it, you have the power to create conflict. Conflict is the building block of fiction. Without conflict, there is no story.

Conflict arises when your protagonist strives to realise a goal, and has to overcome certain obstacles in order to achieve this. As mentioned in previous posts, there are three main types of conflict.

• Man against man
• Man against nature
• Man against himself

Again, I’ll go back to "Roots" as a great example of theme and conflict working perfectly together. The themes of racism, power and freedom, and the conflicts created between the protagonist and his white oppressors, the conflicts of the protagonist struggling with his own emotions during his epic struggle, all make for an emotional, dramatic story. The motivation of freedom from slavery drives the main character throughout the story.

Theme works wonderfully with the conflicts you create, which in turn power the emotion behind the whole story and motivate your character to achieve his or her goal. Theme and conflict is the fuel that drives a story engine.

Remember, you can strengthen your story if you can include two or more of the above main conflicts. The more conflict strands you have, the more emotive a story you create.

Next time: The art of characterisation.