Talking about writing: Claire Fuller Part II

17 Jun 2022

Claire Fuller is the author of the Women’s Prize shortlisted Unsettled Ground.

Building characters

LA: Here’s a question: I feel I have a very inefficient way of building my central character and ‘finding their voice’ (essentially, endless rewriting of the first few chapters). Can you give me a sense of how you do this?

CF: I’m not sure I’m any more efficient. I don’t do any planning on character before I start writing them on the page. It’s how they react to events and places and interact with places and other characters that makes them grow on the page until I have a clearer picture of them. I’m currently starting something new (telling myself it isn’t a novel so I won’t be scared off), and I’ve just written my main character, Ursula, going into a small office for her three month review. Her boss isn’t expecting her and it’s 1987 and computers have just arrived. I don’t know what Ursula is thinking about her three month review, or the fact that her boss isn’t expecting or the new computer until I write it, but as I write all those things help me to know Ursula more by the end of the scene. It seems to work – except that it often takes me a while to know what my characters are thinking, so often I’ll have to go back in and edit that in. All that interaction also helps me know what the boss is like too, of course. But I do sometimes get completely stuck with what a character is thinking about something or someone else. Then, I’ll open a new document and type, as though I’m talking to my character: ‘We need to talk about xxx’, for example, ‘Ursula, we need to talk about your boss.’ And then Ursula and I will have a written conversation about what she thinks about her boss. This can be very scrappy and free-flowing and all sorts of things are revealed which then go back into the novel. How their voice comes is part of that too. I’m not sure you can plan a character’s voice though? Doesn’t that just come? 

Claire Fuller

I know you teach creative writing. Are there ways that you teach character development and voice, that I should be doing? I’ve tried those lists (where did they go to school etc) but they don’t work for me. And in your endless rewriting, how do you know when you’ve got it right? 

Bored or Interested?

LA This idea of conversation with the character is inspired – I can see that would make them real. Perhaps this could save me all that time re-writing?  The only thing I do that’s similar is to open my notebook, when things are feeling grim or stuck, and start a fresh page and title it: ‘What I’m Interested in’ – I’ll then write a list of the things in the novel that interest me. Then I do a new page: ‘What I’m Bored By’ and same thing. This led to me ditching 30k of work with the novel I’m just finishing now, but it was absolutely the right thing to do because I wasn’t truly interested in that character’s voice.

 I also find that trying to write down what they have for breakfast, and what their favourite TV show is etc, is pointless and does nothing for character development. The only thing I’ve found that works for me, other than re-writing a lot, is pretending that the section I’m writing won’t make it into the book. Somehow, this sometimes liberates the character to do and say things that are more authentic and perhaps more interesting.  

There’s certainly no planning I can think of that would lead to a well-rounded ‘voice’. My teaching is focussed on finding or building an intuitive sense of connection with the character – a feeling that they start to exist off the page – I think when that starts to happen, you’re onto something. But usually that’s just a lot of writing and rewriting, rather than planning or exercises. 

I had an interesting discussion with a well-known writer recently about character names, and how they can inform or dictate a whole character’s backstory/development. How do your character’s names come to you? Where did Ursula come from? Do you feel their names are important? 

Magpie Lane

Character names – do they matter?

CF At the risk of this conversation becoming us just slapping each other on the back, I think your lists of What I’m interested in, and What I’m bored by, are techniques I’m going to immediately adopt. It’s so easy to ignore that little voice which sighs or moans each time you work on a particular element or character of a WIP, and this might help me listen to it harder. 

And yes, I absolutely agree that when characters exist off the page, then they’re working. It’s when I’m having a cup of tea and I think, what would Ursula drink? When I’m reading, what would Ursula read, that I know things are starting to work. (Or alternatively when my kids say I’ve got that glazed look in my eyes and I’m thinking about my novel.)

Sometimes – in fact, most often, character’s names just come to me and they end up sticking because it feels too late to change. But I am sometimes aware that I should probably think about them more deeply, but it’s hard to do that if you’re discovering the character on the page because I have to give them a name from the very beginning. Sometimes the names make me laugh and so they stick. I called a character in Unsettled Ground, Julius Seeder, without realising what I’d done, so I let it stay. Ursula is the perfect name for what seems to be happening in what I’m writing now, but the thing I’m grappling with is that Ursula is my mum’s name – but it’s definitely not her. I haven’t told her yet and I’m not sure what she’ll think. 

Since neither of us do those lists of character histories, I’m interested to know how much more you know about your character that doesn’t make it into the novel.

LA I have the same approach to names as you do, they sort of pop into my head, and stick. Dee in Magpie Lane was going to be a doula not a nanny, and I’d called her D in notes, and then somehow, she was Dee and it felt entirely right. And the 82-year-old ’star’ of the novel I’ve just finished (Windmill Hill) is Astrid and somehow that name was there for her, even before she existed – I have absolutely no idea why. I think much of writing happens in the unconscious mind, don’t you?

To answer your question, most of Astrid has made it onto the page, but I also have her whole childhood in my head even though I’ve never written notes on it. And of course, I cut 30K words of one character’s voice entirely.

Do you ever do radical cuts? Can you describe how you edit yourself? 


CF Much of my writing definitely happens in my subconscious. I often write something that I have no explanation for, a character says something mysterious or does something odd, and although I have no idea what it means, my subconscious gets to work and often weeks or months later the resolution or the meaning will appear as I’m writing. This is often how the central mysteries in my novels appear. Someone locks a door for example, and it’s not until a year later that I know why.

I’ve only done one radical cut and that was in my second novel, Swimming Lessons which originally had 20,000 words from the point of view of a character called Gil. I didn’t like him and so I cut his voice, but weirdly he remained very central to the novel – he just wouldn’t go away. 

I’m one of those writers who loves editing. I get the impression from my editor that it’s quite rare, but I’m not sure. I edit a little bit as a go along – I think the ‘technical term’ is rolling reviser. But because I love to edit I only allow myself to edit the work from the previous writing session and then I have to write forward.

I will also write notes for other sections or rework an earlier section if the change is massive; I can’t seem to move forward easily unless what I’ve written already is nearly sorted, in terms of plot and character, if not language. That means that by the time I get to the end of what might be called the first draft it’s taken maybe two years and is actually the 100th draft. And then there are several more months of editing.

LA: I love this – I think I’m a rolling reviser on STEROIDS.


  1. Jo
    June 18, 2022

    This is so interesting about character development, I’m definitely going to try some of the techniques mentioned here.

  2. lucyatkins
    June 19, 2022

    Good luck – hope they help

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