By Rachel Abbott
One of the great joys of writing novels is the fact that – as the author – you get to build the characters you want to. You can make them as evil or as wonderful as you like, and they can embody the worst of human behaviour, or the best.
I am a great people watcher, and I am totally fascinated by the way individuals treat each other and react to situations. When I see a behaviour that is interesting, I store it up, ready to paste it into one of my character profiles, usually exaggerated to make a fairly simple human failing into something considerably more sinister.
Not everybody has the same obsession with character detail as I do. For some authors, the characters mature as they write, and that’s undoubtedly true of me too. I always go back and rewrite the early chapters so that I can incorporate the new facets of my characters that I have discovered as the story has developed. Having said that, one thing that I do in great detail is work out exactly what my characters look like, dress like, enjoy eating, drinking, love, hate – I could go on. Every detail is not just mapped out in my brain, but it is written down in detail.
I think this worked most successfully in my second novel, The Back Road, which had a large cast and I needed to be sure that each character was distinguishable. I had a mental picture of how they might look, but that wasn’t enough. I needed an actual photograph so that each time I talked about the character, I could be absolutely accurate. I scoured the internet looking for people who resembled my idea of how they looked – and grabbed the image to add to the character’s profile. I needed to know their quirks, their preferences – even down to what drinks they like, what phrases they use.
I think that Leo Harris – who first made an appearance in The Back Road but has since appeared in Sleep Tight and Stranger Child – was one of the most successful. Indeed, for such a small part in the whole story, she invites more controversy than almost any other character. Tom is attracted to her from day one, but she’s quite a difficult character and it takes him time to woo her. I find that people either love her because her character is so strong, or they hate her because they don’t think she’s good enough for Tom. Nobody is ambivalent – and that has to be good!
The character profile obviously includes basic details such as full name, date of birth, ethnicity – but for me that’s not enough. That doesn’t allow me to know them.
First of all, as well as the photograph, I want to know more about how they look.
Leo is tall and slender, with long very dark hair, swept back from her face. She is aloof, and this shows in her haughty appearance. Wears black and white almost exclusively, but always well-cut dresses, figure hugging – or tight black jeans, black and white top. A bit vamp like. Dark red lipstick.
Just the fact of defining her wardrobe made it so much easier to write Leo from this point forward.
Other key aspects of her personality had to be listed, including the fact that she hates men because it turns out that her adored father had a second wife and daughter in another town – something neither Leo nor her mother were aware of. This aspect of her past resulted in some key character traits.
Slightly aloof, acerbic wit, brazen – likes to take the mickey out of men. Not everybody will like Leo, but I want them to feel deeply sorry for her, and the armour that she wraps herself in.
She has a tendency to think that a lot of women are very stupid when it comes to men. She thinks they are naive and trusting when it is inappropriate.
Vodka on the rocks
Silk next to her skin
Women who think all men are ‘marvellous’ – particularly simpering women
Women who say they can’t possibly eat something because it’s fattening – rather then eating it and then starving the next day.
Soppy music, films, books
Women who say they’ll ‘just have a white wine spritzer’ as if a proper drink would be sinful.
These sections are just a part of the character profile. I also had a basic goal for Leo, details of her desires, past traumas, her job and her character secret (because they all have to have one): altogether about another five hundred words. It made writing her so much easier, because by the time I had finished the character profile, I knew this woman. I could see her and hear her, almost smell her perfume.
Leo’s character developed and moved away slightly from some of these initial thoughts as I wrote. But it was a great starting point. To know how Leo would react to other people’s conversations; to visualise what she would be wearing without having to think about it; to understand what has shaped her character and made her the person she is – all of these are valuable tools when writing.
Over the course of three books, Leo has softened, but I have never lost sight of her inherent lack of trust in men, and this comes to the fore in Stranger Child. Where she goes from here, I’m not yet certain. But I’ll know by book five!
Without these initial guidelines there is a danger that all characters become vanilla – all tasting and feeling the same, with no edge to their dialogue and nothing to differentiate them, and if I can’t see the character and know what he or she is thinking, I can’t really expect my readers to either.
A huge thank you to Rachel for contributing this post & to Diana Morgan for having me as part of the blog tour. To get hold of your copy of Stranger Child (released 24th February 2015) click here.
Rachel Abbott was born and raised in Manchester. She trained as a systems analyst before launching her own interactive media company in the early 1980s. After selling her company in 2000, she moved to the Le Marche region of Italy. When six-foot snowdrifts prevented her from leaving the house for a couple of weeks, she started writing and found she couldn’t stop. Since then her debut thriller Only the Innocent has become an international bestseller, reaching the number one position in the Amazon charts both in the UK and US. This was followed by the number one bestselling novels The Back Road and Sleep Tight. Rachel Abbott now lives in Alderney and writes full-time. Stranger Child is her fourth novel.