Creating Compelling Characters
This week I started a new day job (and welcome to everyone visiting from Value Hearing!).
One of the things I’ve been doing is creating client avatars. In marketing speak a client avatar is a distillation of a ‘typical’ client – their demographic profile, creating a backstory which leads to their moment of decision.
It’s not unlike creating compelling characters in a novel.
The way I look at it is that all of us of human beings are like concentric circles.
The outer ring
The outermost circle is the one we project out to the world. It is a very low resolution version of who we are as people.
I hesitate to use the word stereotype because of its negative connotations.
Perhaps it is better described as the series of common and familiar elements which helps us decisions on how to interact with a stranger on how they present.
For example, if someone is wearing a police uniform, that tells us how we should relate to them. If they instruct us to do something, we do it.
A person wearing a white coat with a stethoscope around their neck is likely to be a doctor.
In fact, it’s become a trope – The Clipboard of Authority.
That comes from a line from Michael Keaton in The Paper: “A clipboard and a confident wave will get you into any building in the country.”
Another example would be the NPC, the non-player characters in video games. They are simply there to add colour or give basic instructions, but they are not someone we spend a lot of time with and have little influence on the game.
Unfortunately a lot of supporting characters in novels can be like that. They serve the purpose of steering our protagonist down one road or another and resort to stereotypes to do it.
Examples abound in entertainment – the heroine’s waspish gay best friend; the sassy African-American woman; the weak-chinned vicar; judgemental church lady; the technologically savvy children; the dopey dad.
Now, I realise that the thing which drives a novel (at least in popular fiction) is the story. Literary fiction can be character studies, but popular (or genre) fiction has to show the characters doing something.
Having a cast of characters is great and they have to be there to serve a purpose (even if it is simply to add a bit of colour).
The second ring
But I recommend going a little deeper in these characterisations and that’s where the tools to great customer avatars in useful.
This is the second concentric ring. This provides motivation of these characters that is quite outside any interactions your main protagonists (your hero and heroine) have with them.
If the traffic cop is surly, ask why? Is he at the end of a long shift? Has he just returned from doing a death knock? Has he broken up with his wife?
Not that you have to create a family tree for him or even include that level of detail in your story, but what it does is give you the opportunity to do more go skin deep.
Perhaps the cop has dark circles under his eyes. Maybe the protagonist notices that there is a pale band on his hand where a wedding band used to be.
Just go that little bit deeper and make sure they are as least as motivated as your main characters.
The final ring
The last ring in the concentric circle is the full POV (point of view), that means we not only know what motivates them and infer why, that inner circle is also the inner dialogue will actually tell us why.
This is actually the most intimate form of relationship. Done right, we actually have a visceral reaction to the words on the page.
The compelling characters are fully fleshed out human beings, we feel we could see them in the street and know them. And great authors can make you feel that way about all of the important characters, even those you’re not supposed to like
In the world of romance novels, that tends to be limited to the hero, heroine and villain.
That little bit of extra detail to those all important secondary characters creates a universe your readers will find compelling.
Excerpt Live And Let Spy
The Angler’s Arms barn was dressed for the troyl. Swags of greenery festooned the walls, studded with posies of wildflowers of white, yellow and shades of pink. Outside, a pig was roasting on a spit, the smell of which was already making Adam famished.
He had been looking forward to this event all week. Frankly, it was exhausting to be on alert all the time; mindful of every action in case one is watched, and watching everyone else around you, looking for a hint they might be a spy and a traitor.
But tonight was all about the simple pleasure of a country dance among friends, where he could give himself in to the moment without reserve. It would be like furlough.
He settled himself on the edge of an unopened barrel by a door near the back of the inn.
He noticed Will lurking around the back of the kitchen. They shared a nod. No doubt the young man was waiting for his mother and one of her maids to leave in order to help himself to one of the fairings, a crisp, sweet and spicy ginger biscuit that had been left out to cool.
A moment later, the lad lunged out of sight a moment before emerging with two of the delicious morsels. Adam was surprised to find himself presented with one half of the spoils.
The young man grinned at him.
“If Mamb catches me, I’ll tell her you were the pilferer, then I won’t get a clip around the ear for it.”
Adam laughed. “Don’t be so sure your mother won’t give me a pinch for it either, so we’d better eat these now and leave no evidence.”
“William Bartholomew Trellow!”
The young man jumped and the winced at the sound of his full name being yelled in top voice by his mother.
“Make yourself scarce, Will. I’ll try to delay her for as long as possible,” Adam said with mock urgency.
Will didn’t require a second invitation. Adam chuckled as he watched the large young man sprint down the length of the barn and nearly losing his balance skidding on loose gravel as he rounded the corner.
He heard the sound of a woman’s footsteps and was conscious of the fairing in his hand, the smell of warm ginger reaching his nose. For a half-moment he considered taking off after Will.
Instead he turned, waiting to face his punishment like a man. But instead of seeing the thunderous face of Polly Trellow, he saw a vision of beauty instead. He immediately got to his feet.
Olivia smiled at him nervously and lightly brushed the back of her hand down the skirt of her cream dress embroidered with flowers of light blue, pink and green.
Adam held up the filched fairing. “Share this with me?”
Olivia shook her head. “Miss Lydia made a gift of this dress when she left and this is the first time I’ve worn anything so fine. I’m afraid I’ll spill something and spoil it.”
He took her hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed it. He loved the way her lips parted when he did that. The dress was flattering to be sure, he considered, but it was still only a dress.
“It is only the wearer who can make a piece of fabric and thread look so fine,” he told her and she blushed.
Live and Let Spy is book 1 in The King’s Rogues series.