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Wake up the writer in you

There are many different ways to wake up the writer in you, and a Google search will provide countless tips for creative writers on all aspects of writing, from getting started to pointers on grammar and style and advice on how to end a story. But what about the characters in the book you’re planning to write? How do you go about creating them?

Characterisation is an important literary device used for creating the characters in a story. Characters may be introduced to the reader through their appearance, deeds, speech or thoughts. These characteristics can be conveyed directly (first person) or indirectly (third person).

Bring your characters to life

Many years ago, before the days of the Internet, one of our English lecturers at university gave us a valuable tip. He advised us that when studying a play, a book or any other literary work it was always a good idea to bring the characters to life by imagining real people playing the parts, and suggested visualising movie stars when doing this. For example, in the play we happened to be studying at the time, he said Peter Sellers would have been perfect for one of the characters, bumbling his way through the part, and (a very young) Goldie Hawn would have been ideal in the role of the dizzy blonde. That was a long time ago!

Of course you don’t have to imagine your favourite film actors. Real-life people you happen to know, even only vaguely, can work just as well. But what does this have to do with writing? Nothing at all, except that the same principle would hold true if you wanted to wake up the writer in you and make a start on the characterisation in your new novel – something you have long been pondering about. Visualising real-life characters as the protagonists in your writing can be useful, but you shouldn’t make it too obvious that the characters you are describing can be too easily identified in real life.

Use your imagination as a writer

Creative writers develop their characters by using many methods, but in every instance imagination is the key – at least to some degree. The physical appearance of characters is relatively easy to describe, but what about their personality, character traits and other intangible qualities? Not quite so easy. But still you can use what you imagine to be the traits or character flaws of your favourite movie stars or the people you know and place your newly constructed imaginary character in a fictional situation of your own making.

You could also base your characters on those you’ve read about in books, or on a combination of several different real or fictional people. The possibilities are endless. Give free rein to your imagination and let it add extra dimensions to your characters, but keep it within the bounds of realism.

A work in progress

Characterisation is a vital element of creative writing. By describing the protagonists’ appearance, behaviour, actions, interests and mannerisms it helps to make the narrative more convincing and interesting. It helps the reader understand their actions and thought processes, get to know them better and possibly induce him to admire and identify with them – or just the opposite. Remember that characterisation never stops – it’s a work in progress.

As your characters’ creator you should always remember their traits and foibles. They can’t appear to be too erratic. Avoid making your characters too perfect – it makes them highly improbable. They should appear to be as life-like as possible, in what they look like and in what they say, think and do. Backstories – their personal histories – are often frowned upon, although they can work if used well. But introduce this facet of your characters at the right time and in the right place.

As in real life, we usually get to know people over a long period of time. So too in your writing as your characterisation develops.

Keep it real when writing

You may borrow the general personality of a fictional character you’ve read about, but make the necessary changes after doing your homework. Real people have weaknesses and strengths, flaws and good qualities. With a bit of imagination you can also make your characters seem like real people – warts and all. And don’t forget to give them real-sounding names. Good characterisation gives readers a better sense of characters’ personalities and complexities, making them appear more life-like and credible.

Points to consider

To make your fictional characters seem real consider the following:

• Personality and mannerisms
• Physical appearance
• Thought processes
• Dialogue to reveal and develop personality
• Careful choice of name.

By keeping these points in mind and using your imagination, you should find it easier to wake up the writer in you and improve your characterisation development.


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

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