In my attempt to broaden my scope of the written word and acquire a deeper understanding of the genres I write in, I’m currently ploughing through every John le Carre book that I can get my hands on.
Though his writing is dense – especially his earlier works – there is something that stands out in these spy espionage novels. In many of his novels, the main character is George Smiley, an intelligence officer for the British Government. But Smiley is no James Bond: suave, attractive, an unassailable ladies man. Rather, Smiley is fat, awkward and scared of the dark. He’s human.
There is a certain appeal to create characters that are flawless, beautiful specimens that have arbitrary flaws, that make the reader want to know them. But le Carre has taught me a valuable lesson in characterisation and storytelling. Your characters don’t have to be likeable, they just have to be relatable. George Smiley’s honesty and weaknesses make him a complex character and real.
So what lessons can you or I use in developing our own characters?
Emphasise with your characters in your daily life. This is an experiment that I love to do. Whenever I’m confronted by a certain situation or confrontation, I think what would my characters do to overcome this very ordinary, daily struggle? Not only does this create a growing personality foundation for these characters but actually helps me deal with my own issues more effectively, writing related or not.
Make sure your characters have opinions. All of us have opinions. There is no one in this world that is truly objective. It’s unrealistic. So if we create characters that have a too neutral outlook, the reader won’t believe them. Don’t be afraid to create characters that have very different opinions from you. I found this harder to implement than first thought. Your characters opinions are not necessarily yours and it’s important to learn how to separate the two effectively.
Be patient with your characters. As we all know patience is everything in writing. Creating characters is no exception. If you are like me, you want to show every facet of your creation to the reader at once, to make sure they aren’t misunderstood or misrepresented. But you need to be patient. Don’t be afraid to be ambiguous. It’s better to slowly reveal personality and certain weaknesses of your character so the reader remains continuously surprised as they learn new things about their favourite character. Just like it takes a while to understand and get to know people in our own lives, getting to know a character should take the same amount of patience and dedication.
So in short, to create great, intriguing characters for readers, focus on their humanity and smallness. Don’t be afraid to emphasise their weaknesses. And most of all, treat them like a real person.