Instagram Creative Writing Class: Character – basics

29 May 2020

Good characters matter more than you might care to know. 

Think about your favourite novels –ones you read years ago. Can you remember the details of the plot? Maybe. But it’s likely to be the characters you really think of. Often writers focus on getting the plot right: we obsess on making it all hang together, on coming up with something surprising and ‘new’, perfecting the twists and timings. But no amount of clever plotting or elegant sentence structures can compensate for weak, dull or clichéd characters. 

– Usually you’ll have 1-2 main characters, some secondary ones, maybe a background cast
– You can find lots of advice online about creating character ‘templates’/ fleshing out what colour your character’s favourite knickers are, or what they have for breakfast. Many people find this useful. I don’t.

I can’t think in the abstract about my characters, certainly not before I’ve created them. Sometimes I just have to write and rewrite and redraft, questioning and exploring a character until I begin to get under their skin and find their voice – think like they think. It took me 5 months of frustration, re-writing endlessly the first 4 chapters of Magpie Lane until I had Dee’s voice. Then one day I got her – I knew who she was, and we were off.

You know it’s working when: they do and think stuff of their own, and lead you in directions you might not have thought of.

Do they have to be likable?

Publishers do sometimes say they want your character to be likeable but I think there are WAY more interesting things for a character to be. And what people want is interesting characters they feel are real, and in whose psyches they feel invested.

Characters need to change – they need AN ARC: they start in one place, go through things, and come out changed.


-Work on dialogue, how they speak

-Find the details: Edna O’Brien once said that the telling details, like the way someone opens a handbag, can tell a reader more than pages of writing.

-Work on what they think of OTHER CHARACTERS – how they react to them, how they feel about what others do.

Four Things to Avoid:

1/ Stereotypes and cliches

2/ Blandness – watch out for the tyranny of ‘likable’ characters

3/ Inconsistency (unless it’s deliberate on your part)

4/ Stasis (they need to change…)


1/ Research. What do they do for a living? Where do they live? What do they know? Find out everything you can about their world so you can inhabit it. In Magpie Lane, Mariah is a wallpaper restorer so I spent hours looking at wallpaper, talking to experts, engaging in the detail. Only a tiny amount made it into the book, but it helped me to know Mariah’s daily life and her inner world.

2/ Find the voice – write, write, write – try things in different ways until they start to take form, until you can hear them in your head and they aren’t you any more.

3/ Stick them in an odd setting – see how they react.

Leave a comment