Knowing your characters

It never ceases to amaze me how some writers do not seem to know their characters. I have seen it a few times recently; a writer who has written some very pretty descriptions and given their characters lines to say but, when asked why they are saying what they are saying or doing what they are doing, replies, 'well, I don't really know, I haven't thought of that.'

Maybe it's just me but I think that is a very odd way of working. I personally cannot give my characters dialogue or actions without knowing them first; I mean, how can I predict what they are going to do or say otherwise?

Okay, you might point out that these are my characters, my inventions and I SHOULD know but, to me, character use is much more than just giving someone names and leaving them to it.

Consider this: If you found yourself in a crisis, nothing major, just something like a burst pipe or the need for an emergency babysitter to look after the kids whilst you went and sorted something important out, who would you call? The chances are it would be a relative; mum, dad, brother or sister, or a good friend. Why? Because you know what they can and would do. Dad has done years of DIY, he can easily deal with a burst pipe; your best friend will not mind at all sitting with the kids, it's what friends are for.

What you wouldn't do in either situation is ask a total stranger off the street to do either of these things. Why? Because you do not know them; you don't know what they say, you don't know what skills they have, you certainly do not know if you can trust them.

Yet, if you don't spend time getting to know your character, their background, what they like, what their beliefs are, who they know, how do you write them believable lines or know how they will react in a crisis? You don't, they are strangers - and will act like strangers!

That doesn't mean that they will always be entirely predictable though - isn't that also the case in real life? Aren't the most memorable episodes in life the times when someone you know well does something completely out of character? When my fictional characters start to do that then I know that they are 'real' and believable. They create problems for me when they do this but it's great when they do!

I have what I call a 'magazine' test. Think of a time when you have been sat in a room full of strangers, perhaps in a doctor's waiting room. Imagine you have to buy a magazine for each of the people in the room, one that they would really enjoy reading, that would be in line with their interests. Could you do it successfully for each person in the room? I know I couldn't because I do not know them. I might get half of them right just by guesswork. But ask me what magazine I'd buy for my characters and I'd know straight away; Dan from Touched would enjoy a high end photography magazine full of equipment he wants but can't afford; Harriet from Contrail would read Cosmo if she was around today whilst for her brother Stafford, I would buy Flight International and Motorsport.

Try it, it's a great test! The thing is, and this is important, once we as writers know all this we don't need to tell our readers. I get convinced that a lot of the description some writers' put into their novels about their characters is as much for their benefit i.e. a desperate attempt to quickly get to know the character they are writing about, as it is for the readers. If you know your characters inside and out before writing about them their traits will come out far more naturally.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going out for a drink with my character Harry from Contrail. I just KNOW he is going to be fun to spend time with!