Sunday, 7 August 2011

Cooking up characters

The other day I baked a cake. Unlike the chefs in my family, I didn’t make it from scratch. I confess I bought cake mix. In my defence, it was a reputable and always delicious brand. I couldn’t make up my mind between moist vanilla and smooth lemon. Being a reader, I blocked the supermarket aisle while I scoured the ingredients on both packets only to discover the oddest thing. The ingredients were exactly the same. The lists were arranged in a different order but that didn’t fool me. It got me to wondering what distinguished them aside from the obvious name and slightly altered image on the packet. And when I start thinking, it always takes me back to writing. This time it was characters.

What makes your characters stand out from one another? Do they have distinct voices? What are they scared of? What makes them happy or sad? What’s important in their life? What do you want your readers to know about them? What do your characters need, want and desire? What can’t they live without? What makes the reader care about them? What do you know about them? How are you going to find out more about them? I've learned much about developing characters by listening to other writers to stop characters being sliced from the same cake. Something that works for me is writing a few pages as if the character is telling me about his or her life. Not all of this information is used but it makes great background information when I'm writing scenes.

Sometimes it takes me a while to build a relationship with my characters. The relationship is as real to me as any I have. I have to interact with my character to get to know him or her. Some I've taken to easily, others have had to grow on me. There are times I look for them in the street. I wonder what they would do in any given situation. 

Like baking a cake, you can start off with the basic mix, mix it up, raise the temperature and wait for it all to rise. And for those who really want to know, I chose moist vanilla. It was scrumptious but only after I added a few extra ingredients of my own. I finally figured that the difference in the cakes mixes was the additives in the icing’ I didn’t use the icing. 

For me, the flavour should be in the body.