A Novel Observed #2 – Characters

The Planning Stage

The Planning Stage

So, having got our initial concept sorted, it’s time to add in the cast of main characters – those who will most shape and influence the plot of the novel, turning it into a story. This is very important, and it’s the reason I like to get the main characters as ‘alive’ as possible before beginning the first draft: characters are how ‘plot’ is transformed into ‘story’. This is because, while a plot tends to be an objective series of incidents, story shows the subjective account of how those incidents affect characters. Consider this example:

A woman is heading to a job interview, but a tree has fallen across the road which causes her to arrive late for the appointment. Despite this, she gets the job.

Lucy: single mum of two boys (aged 4 and 6). 5’6″ with mousy brown, unmanageable hair. She is intelligent and funny, though this is hidden behind her constant anxiety and sense of failure. Her husband left her two years ago, claiming she had become inattentive towards him since the children were born, so she’s had to raise them herself on state benefits. Her desire is to get a day job so she can provide for the boys herself, and, after six months of applications, she finally has an interview…

Lucy’s morning was a mess. She may just have been nervous about the impending interview, but getting the children out of the house and off to school seemed to take twice as long as usual, and it was always a lengthy struggle! At last, with only thirty minutes to get into town, she set off, still adjusting her blouse as she steered along the winding country lanes. She drove fast, faster really than was safe, and narrowly avoiding colliding with a Landrover, scraping the side of her car through the dense hedgerow.  As she rounded the last bend before the main road, she found herself faced with an obstacle: a tree, that she’d never noticed when it was upright, straddled the path ahead, it’s leafy branches mingling with the crops in the field beyond. Lucy stopped the car and stared, unmoving, at the tree, as though the force of her gaze might cause it to wither and disintegrate. The tree did neither of those things, but remained resolute, blocking the full width of the road from the hedge on the right to the ditch on the left. There was no way through.
Lucy jammed the car into reverse on the second attempt and crawled backwards, weaving along the road like a single-oared rowing boat; she had always hated reversing. Glancing at the clock on the dashboard, she released, with an icy shudder, that she had only twelve minutes to get to the interview. She was going to be late. Very late…  
(you get the idea)

While it’s not the most gripping story ever told, this example hopefully helps to clarify the difference between objective ‘plot’ and subjective ‘story’, and how character bridges that gap. Also, despite the fact most of the features listed under ‘Character’ are not mentioned in the story, they are necessary to get an idea of what Lucy is like – to turn her into a real person. This is what I’m really looking for here: characters that I can imagine as real people, so that, as they live out the plot, the story is brought into being.

When creating characters, there are certain questions I ask about them so I can best get a feel for who they are and the roles they will play. The questions are:

  • What are their personal statistics? (e.g. name, sex, age, looks – that sort of thing)
  • What is their role in the novel? (specifically with regard to the main character) 
  • What are they like?
  • What is their backstory?
  • What do they want?
  • What is stopping them getting what they want?

Here, then, are the main characters for ‘No Time To Stand And Stare’:

Sebastien Cooper

Age: 24
Height: 6’1″
Looks: Sandy, ‘perfect’ hair, slim, very well presented
Role: n/a
Character: Fastidious and slightly neurotic. Also somewhat naive.
Backstory: Born and grew up in Battersea. Only been out of the city for family holidays, which were always abroad, and a school trip to West Sussex, which only reinforced his love of city life. Works in the marketing department of a mobile application developer. His colleagues call him ‘metro’ due to his obsession with cleanliness, fashion and hair products.
Desire/Conflict: Wants to go back to London, but is prevented by his desire to prove himself to his friends and family. He also finds himself falling for Emma, the shopkeeper’s daughter in the village, but has no idea what to do about it.

Neil Symes

Age: 37 (my age as, in a sense, this is the character that will be most like me – there’s always one in every story)
Height: 5’10”
Looks: Broad and stocky, with short, dark hair.
Role: To befriend Sebastien and help him to overcome some of his neuroses and his dislike of the countryside
Character: A down-to-earth deep thinker, kind and compassionate. Solid guy!
Backstory: Born and raised on a farm in a nearby village, Neil decided to buy the smallholding after his family lost the farm. Shortly afterwards he married Virginia, who cannot have children. He has been to London a couple of times, including visiting an art gallery, which birthed in him a love of art.
Desire/Conflict: While his main desire is to keep the smallholding running at a profit, he longs to learn how to paint with oils. His excuse is that work takes up too much time, but the real reason he hasn’t tried painting is that he is afraid he will not be any good at it.

Virginia Symes

Age: 38
Height: 5’4″
Looks: Mousy brown hair that tends to be unruly. Plump with slightly weathered features. Wears dungarees and a wax jacket.
Role: Teaching Sebastien various smallholding crafts. As Neil’s wife, she co-runs the smallholding.
Character: Motherly and kind with a good sense of humour. Excitable, with a tendency to get carried away with her ideas.
Backstory: Grew up at the Green Man pub (run by her father, now deceased). Knew Neil for years before he bought the smallholding and they were shortly afterwards, now eight years ago. She is unable to have children, and the smallholding has, in a sense, become her baby.
Desire/Conflict: She wants to make the smallholding as good as possible, constantly looking for ways to improve it, though in this way she ends up making it less profitable. She is her own worst enemy in this regard.

Emma Standfield

Age: 22
Height: 5’8″
Looks: Long red hair with freckles. She is slim and fit, and always wears green wellington boots.
Role: The ‘love interest’, though she has a role in shaping Sebastien’s opinion of the country outside this.
Character: Mischievous with a tendency to sarcasm, though never unpleasantly.
Backstory: Born and grew up in the village shop. Her father died when she was eight and has stayed with her mother ever since, while many of her friends from school went traveling. She always meant to follow them at some point, but took on more responsibility at the shop.
Desire/Conflict: She wants to get out of the village and see the world, but feels she cannot leave her mother with no one to care for her and help with the shop.

Julia Standfield

Age: 49
Height: 5’7″
Looks: Greying red hair held up in a bun. She dresses in a rather austere fashion – mostly long, sleeved dresses.
Role: As with many in the village, she helps to shape Sebastien’s opinion of the countryside. This is achieved in part as he helps Julia with her relationship with the butcher.
Character: Very prim and proper. She has a dry sense of humour and a keen intellect
Backstory: She moved to the village when she married her husband, who ran the village shop. He died 14 years ago and ever since she has run with shop – first on her own, then with her daughter Emma.
Desire/Conflict: She wants to be ‘courted’ by the butcher, but cannot make the first move because she doesn’t want to be a ‘forward woman’

Victor “Mac” McGeenie

Age: 54
Height: 6’3″
Looks: Bald and bearded, Victor is a huge man – mostly muscle, though beginning to run to fat. He looks tough.
Role: See role of Julia above as the same applies
Character: Not as tough as his exterior suggests. Though he comes across surly at first, this is due to shyness. He is in fact very thoughtful and loving… and a romantic.
Backstory: Born and raised in the East End of London, Victor was trained as a butcher from the age of 14. His parents left the city and moved to Dorset, and he followed five years ago, when his mother died and his father was ill, buying the butcher shop in the village. His father died two years ago, but he has continued to stay in the village due to falling for Julia.
Desire/Conflict: He wants to court Julia, but is too afraid of rejection to reveal his feelings for her.

Donald Scadden

Age: 42
Height: 5’11”
Looks: Sandy, messy hair (like his sister, Virginia). Always wears a shirt and tie. Has a scar on his chin from a childhood fight.
Role: The usual – specific not yet certain
Character: Has a suspicious nature, and is cynical – mostly due to dealing with people who have had too much to drink
Backstory: Born and raised in the village, Donald grew up in the Green Man pub, which was run by his father. After his father retired, the pub passed to Donald, who has run it ever since – first with his sister, Virginia, then on his own. He was against Virginia’s marriage, partly due to losing her help at the pub, but mostly because he doesn’t like Neil – he has disliked him ever since they got into a fight at school, which he lost, gaining the scar on his chin in the process.
Desire/Conflict: He wants the pub to succeed and keeps trying new things… but competition and alcohol prices are ruining the business.

This is by no means set in stone, and each of these characters will shift, change and become more solid as the first draft is produced. But these short overviews will help to make them real people in my mind. When putting these overviews together, I tend to go through them two or three times, as they will shape each other to a certain extent, even at this stage.

And if you’re wondering how I came up with these names, it’s quite simple. The first names I choose according to how they sound and the type of person they conjure up in my mind. Sebastien, for example, suggests someone young(er than me), well presented and upwardly mobile. Virginia brings to my mind an older woman, motherly and kind. And Donald sounds to me like a guy who struggles in life and thinks himself more highly of himself than he ought.
NB: no disrespect is meant to anyone with these names!

As for the surnames, except for ‘Cooper’, which was the name of the band I was in at university, I got them from lists on the internet. Those of the Devon residents were taken from the top surnames on the Devon 1881 census and, as I wanted Victor to be known as ‘Mac’, I got his surname from a list of surnames starting with ‘Mc’. Easy.

So, having got my main characters together (other, lesser characters will appear and form during the first draft), the next stage is to work out the plot…