Don't put your back out - knowing your characters' histories.
"The writer should know their characters better than the reader does."
I don't know who came up with that suggestion, but I couldn't agree more.
As a series writer in particular, I find it essential to have the backstories for each of my characters written out and easily accessible.
Doing so helps you remain consistent to the character and means that you don't have to keep on leafing through old manuscripts to find facts that you mentioned in passing once and half-remember (but your Amazon reviewers will know in exacting detail and castigate you for if you get them wrong). Sometimes, it even provides story inspiration.
I would suggest that a basic biography is essential for your primary protagonists and antagonists, advisable for more minor characters and at least a one or two line sketch useful for those characters that just wander in for a scene or two.
If you write a series, then you should definitely jot down at least a couple of lines for recurring characters.
How you choose to record those biographies is up to you. It could be as simple as a Word document or paper notepad, with a page of notes for each character or something a little more technical like a spreadsheet with a template, or a character chart. Some specialist writing packages have tools that help you keep track of characters.
The document should be a dynamic affair that you add to as you write. It's easy to get carried away writing, mention that somebody has a cat called Gertrude, and then, six-months later write a scene where they come home and are greeted at the door by a hungry ... Dog? Cat? Maybe called Colin ...?
It sounds like a bit of a faff, but it can pay dividends.
First of all, spending a little time planning a character - even if you are by nature a panster, not a plotter - can help you picture them in your mind's eye, making it easier to write them and find their voice.
Second, it can provide story inspiration.
Let's imagine that your character is a large, well-built male with plenty of testosterone. The door to an apartment is locked, and there were reports of what sounded like a struggle... There's a good chance that he's going to put his shoulder to the door. Inside there's a dead body etc etc.
Now let's imagine the same scenario, but your character is a petite female. She's never going to smash that door down, so she starts knocking on neighbouring apartments to see if anyone has a key. The older lady two doors down says somebody left the apartment moments before the police officer arrived.
Your female protagonist has just found out a key bit of information sooner than her male counterpart would have, since he might not have started door-knocking until after the body had been dealt with. Whereas the female officer has just alerted colleagues in the area to be on the look out for a suspect.
From a story-teller's perspective, either scenario gives you options to play with and could influence later choices that you make.
Third, as mentioned before, it helps keep you consistent throughout a book or series. There are some eagle-eyed readers out there, and whilst most are lovely and forgiving, human nature is such that others delight in loudly proclaiming on social media that the change in a character's eye colour between book one and book seven 'ruined the whole series for them' and they advise others to steer clear of such a sloppily written set of books (at which point they skulk back to Amazon and change their original gushing 5 star review to 1 star).
So what should you include?
Date of birth / age of character:
You do not have to state this in your book! But knowing roughly will help you write a character. How do they speak? Are they young or old? Are their references to pop culture broadly appropriate? If they aren't, have you discreetly justified the apparent discrepancy?
"Your knowledge of fifties swing music is pretty good for someone born in the twenty-first century".
"Yeah, my Nan was a huge fan, we used to listen to it when she babysat me."
Knowing their age may also inspire sub-plots. A younger officer not getting the significance of a clue that an older officer would take for granted, and vice versa.
In a series, characters may reach certain milestones over time - how do you reference this?
I'll write more about this in a later blog post.
As much as you need or want, really.
Height, weight, build, fitness, disability (even something as minor as wearing glasses)
All of these can influence your story choices, as demonstrated above.
Eye, hair, and skin colour, piercings, tattoos, clothing etc.
Are they age or character appropriate? Could they be commented upon? Do they affect the way that others see them? Is there overt racism or implicit bias? Is an older woman with grey hair and a fondness for cardigans perceived as less dynamic than a thirty-something man in a sharp suit, with an even sharper haircut?
This is a tricky one that should be used with care, but can be important to a story. Try not to embarrass yourself or your readers by being overly descriptive (I'm thinking especially of male authors who think that female characters spend hours in the bathroom mentally assessing their boobs by way of a detailed inner monologue). Our society is such that perceived attractiveness can impact on the way that people are treated, women in particular. Are 'attractive' characters assumed to be less intelligent? Are less-attractive characters over-looked by colleagues? Remember, unless the story is told from first person perspective, the perception of attractiveness should be from the character doing the judging. Leave your own peccadillos out of it!
How we are brought up can profoundly influence our choices and attitudes over the rest of our lives, but so can more recent life events. Take poverty for example. What affect would childhood poverty have on someone in later life? Would they be overly cautious with money once they earn a decent salary, or would they be a spendthrift, making up for everything they missed previously? What effect would poverty in later life have on a person who had a comfortable up-bringing? Knowing this can help you shape your character.
What about bereavement? Childhood or adult? Everyone reacts differently, so there is no 'correct' way to write this. But by considering it beforehand, you can remain consistent and your character will feel more real.
Religion, culture, sexuality and beliefs:
I've grouped an awful lot into this deliberately, as they tend to overlap. They can have a profound impact on the way that your character treats, or is treated by, others. How much you decide to work-out in advance will be determined by the needs of your story, and how much you feel it is relevant. But as always, knowing a bit more than you actually write down can help. And again, it can inspire plot points and avoid errors.
Take a practising Muslim character for example. It's easy enough to avoid basic errors such as them consuming pork or alcohol. But if you explicitly mention the date that your book is set, will that character be observing Ramadan during that period? If so, they are unlikely to join in with the breaktime donuts. Or perhaps they are itching to leave work on time so they get home and break the fast with their family?
Does your character have a favourite colour (that could influence their wardrobe), what about music, film and books? DCI Warren Jones loves cheesy 80s music - DI Tony Sutton teases him about it most books. Food? Warren is basically me, so he is a fussy eater. Again, I try to get something into most books. He and I also share a taste in biscuits.
Knowing your characters is so important to your writing. Not everything here will be relevant to every character or every book, and there are loads more things I could have suggested.
What are your thoughts? Is there anything else you think I should have included? Feel free to comment here, or on social media.
All the best,
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Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.
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