Characters in Context (where all good stories begin)

Without a character, a story can’t even get started. The whole movement of a story – from one state of affairs at the beginning to a different state of affairs by the end – springs from character. Or more precisely, from character in context.


When a particular character (with his or her distinctive outlooks, beliefs, skills, strengths, foibles etc) is thrust into a particular context (normally some complicated or challenging situation), we get to see how they respond – and that’s when a story gets started. One character might respond to a given situation in one way, while a different character would react in another way entirely. And when we get different characters interacting with one another, we get an even richer story – that’s where human relationship enters in, and that’s normally what interests us most of all.


So who a character is, and the kind of challenges they’re faced with, is like the engine that drives a story. That’s why we begin with character, and with getting to know our characters.


Who are your main characters going to be?  Will they be interesting, engaging and believable?  Good writers spend a long time thinking about what their main characters are like before they begin to flesh them out on the page.  You may not go into details of your characters’ dietary tastes, level of education, political views, etc in your story, but if you have thought about your character at this level of detail, it is much easier to think about how your character will react in different situations and what kind of things they are likely to say.  And while readers are unlikely to pick up directly on the background thought that has gone into your characters, they will have a sense that the characters are consistent and believable.  Characters in stories who suddenly do random or unexpected things without explanation are frustrating to the reader and are the sign of a lazy writer who has not put sufficient time and effort into getting to know the people they’re writing about.


To help you think about your characters, make a list of them and briefly describe their appearance, vital stats, personality traits, likes and dislikes etc.  Try sketching your character, or search magazines and online for faces that help you to visualize what your characters look like.

Also, give careful attention to your characters’ names.  The name should fit the personality.  You don’t want an evil or sinister character with a name like Justin Goodman or Charity Lovelace.  Some of the masters of character naming include Charles Dickens (Pip, Mr Sourberry, Uriah Heap), Roald Dahl (Charlie Bucket, Mrs Trunchbull, Bruce Bogtrotter), and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter, Severus Snape, Albus Dumbledore). Your characters’ names needn’t be so suggestive, but they should seem a natural fit. For example, if your story is set in a particular historical era or cultural setting, research some likely names to suit the setting; don’t name your medieval heroine  Kylie, or your NASA astronaut Gertrude.


So where does one find good names?  The best place to search for first names is in a good baby name book.  Every writer should have one by their desk.  Read through the names, making a shortlist of those that might suit your character.  And the Internet is a great source for tracking down popular names from particular eras.  For family names there is no better source than your local phonebook.  You couldn’t make up better, and often quirkier names, than the ones worn every day by real people.


Last modified: Thursday, 11 February 2016, 1:51 PM