The Birth Of A Character

I see posts in creative writing groups all the time, where people are asking for advice on how to create a realistic character. Even naming characters seems to be something that causes many writers a lot of trouble. I’m obviously one of the fortunate ones. For me, character creation has always been one of the simplest and most diverting parts of the whole writing experience.

Characters come to me in a number of ways. Some pop into being at the discovery of a name that I like, others from a picture on the internet, a face on tv, or even courtesy of an interesting looking stranger in the queue at the local supermarket.

The character I am going to discuss today came into being as part of one of my main character’s back story, in the urban fantasy trilogy that I am currently working on. I am going to attempt to put the random workings of my mind into words so that you can see exactly how I fleshed this particular man out.

Nico, the male lead in my trilogy, is a vampire, and part of his backstory is that he grew up as an orphan on the streets of Renaissance Rome. To give Nico a proper backstory I needed to not only cover his post-transition vampire life but also his human roots, as both played a key part in making him the person that he is today.


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In my mind, for an orphan to have a chance at surviving in this era, he would either need to become a beggar, and rely on the limited charity of others, a thief and steal in order to feed himself or be taken on as cheap child labour by either a tradesman or local family to work for his meals and shelter. In Nico’s case, I decided that I wanted him to be taken on by a tradesman as the other two options have been covered rather a lot in vampire fiction, and I wanted to try something a little different.

So at this point, I needed to create a tradesman to fill the role. I already know that Nico succumbs to influenza and scarlet fever when he is 9 years old (In my books vampires are a little different in that their immortality only sets in once they reach their physical peak, which in Nico’s case is at 32 years old)

I also know that the reason that Nico contracts these fatal illnesses is due to his terrible living conditions, ergo the tradesman isn’t looking after him very well. I am picturing sleeping in a damp, cold and musty out building with barely enough food to keep him alive and little to no nutrients in his diet to help ward off illness. Clearly, the tradesman is not a nice person, to treat any child in this manner.

Okay so now we need a suitable trade. The picture that is building in my mind is of a cruel, oafish man. A hedonistic personality, every penny he earns goes towards his own indulgence and he won’t spare any to look to the comfort of his ward.

“There are plenty of motherless urchins to take the boy’s place if he can’t hack the work after all.” He mumbled through a mouthful of food, finishing his rare bit of profound insight off with a loud, toe-curling belch, and absently rubbing a thick meaty hand over his grotesquely swollen paunch. 


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At this point, we need a first name, so I spend a few minutes looking up the meanings behind Italian boys names until I find one that fits (obviously any name will do, but I like having an appropriate meaning thrown in there for my own personal enjoyment where possible) The name that I eventually settle on is ‘Orfeo’ which means deprived or darkness.

Orfeo’s surname is a different matter because in his case he is a tradesman and tradesman way back when often went by the name of their particular trade. Another few minutes on google secures me a list of renaissance era trades and I can get to work picking out his work. I round it down to four possible jobs; scrap seller, soap Maker, grave digger or casket maker. Grave digger has been done quite a few times before and it’s a little obvious for my taste. Casket maker, while it would be morbidly appropriate for this man to profit off others misery, it implies some level of skill which I’m not sure an oaf like Orfeo would possess.

This leaves us with scrap seller or soap maker. Scrap seller would work just fine but soap is just becoming popular in Italy at this point in time so it’s very current and it’s a wonderfully unpleasant job full of all the horrid smells of rendering fat and deadly eye watering lye fumes, as well as awful burns if you aren’t careful enough with what you are doing. Definitely not the place for a small child. The Italian name for a soap seller at this point in time was ‘Saponaio’ so now we have an appropriate surname for our villain.

At this point, all that is left to do is to take all that we have learned so far and fill in the rest of the blanks…


Appearance    

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Hair – probably thinning and greasy from being around the soap fumes all the time. Add to this that he is the kind of man who wouldn’t use soap himself as he knows what goes into it and is too ignorant to realise the benefits. He would instead take delight in selling his concoctions to the well-to-do’s picturing their faces if they ever saw what disgusting things he put into each batch.

Eyes – He is Mediterranean in appearance so I’m going to go with brown coloured eyes. In his case quite none descript (just like the rest of him) probably a little glazed and unfocused as a result of his hedonistic lifestyle and love of wine.

Build – Again his hedonistic lifestyle comes into play here giving him a rather overweight and meaty appearance. This fits well with his oafish and lazy attitude but also makes him someone that my male lead would fear as a small child. A thump from one of his meaty fists would cause considerable pain and damage. Orfeo may even use his considerable bulk to pin the child against the wall, crushing him until he struggled to breathe before giving him a smack to the back of the head and sending him back to work.

Height – The average height for a renaissance male was around 5ft 5 inches (1.65m) but I see him as a little below average (the antithesis of an attractive male specimen at the time) maybe coming in around the 5ft (1.52m) mark. Still large enough to terrify a small child, but small enough to be unable to carry on his hard-man persona in the company of other adults. In adult circles he would most likely simper and whine to wheedle what he wants, ingratiating himself shamelessly while gritting his teeth the entire time and hating all those who he believes feels superior to him (so basically everyone)

Clothing – Badly kept but in an approximation of the latest fashion. This man clearly has no sense of personal hygiene or pride in his appearance but at the same time, he wants to fit into the society of his social betters to get access to their luxury and money in order to fund his own hedonistic pursuits. His clothes would also carry the pervasive and unpleasant scent of rendered fat so his peers would likely not want to stand too close to him, a fact that he would also be totally aware of which would add to his hatred of them all.

Health – Not good would be an understatement, but as unappealing as his poor hygiene, inevitable STD symptoms and gout might make him he is lucky and manages to avoid most of the more serious maladies of the era, aside from the visible scars from where he survived smallpox as a child.

As you can see, with each new descriptive detail comes a new facet to your character’s personality, and there are lots more details that can be uncovered but if I went through them all in this post we’d be here all day!!

The real key is to try and put yourself into the mindset of your character and work out how each factor would make him or her feel/act. Before long you will have a fully fleshed out and very believable character to add to your work. If you need additional prompts then search out one of the countless character questionnaires online and try to work your way through answering it from the point of view of your developing character.

Character development should be fun and rewarding. The really good ones can even give you further ideas for your story as they grow. The entirety of this character development brainstorm took me well under an hour, and I had the added complication of fitting him into my male leads backstory on top. Imagine what you could achieve in the course of just one day!!

Happy writing all :}


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The Trials Of Being A Writer In Rural Italy

As you have possibly noticed, the site has been rather uneventful for the past couple of weeks. While writers block and life are always presenting their own potential setbacks, my current issue is more to do with my rural lifestyle choice and its resulting crummy internet, than it is any mental blockages on my part.

I moved to Italy back in May 2014 and boy what an adventure it has been! It had been a good ten months or so between coming over to sign the final paperwork, and packing up all my worldly belongings, and animals too, and starting out on the three day drive through Europe, towing my ancient battered caravan.

When we arrived the neat garden and yard had turned into a veritable jungle of foliage and wildlife, perfect for an animal nut like me but not so good when it came to moving everything in to the property. Add to that the water to the property bad been turned off and we ended up having to utilize the well in the top field in order to ensure that the animals were looked after, and to give us some very rudimentary washing facilities!

To make matters worse, we arrived at around 2am in the pitch black…well sort of! I managed to, rather cleverly, get myself seperated from the rest of the family, who were accompanying me in my little old fiesta, to help with the moving in part. I am not known for my fantastic sense of direction!

Long story short, I found myself half-way up a road that was really only suitable for goats, on an incline far too steep for my 1.6 Astra to manage to pull the caravan up. Add to that scenario that the caravan was not only too heavy for the handbrake to hold in place, while I went off to find help, there was definitely an impressive drop off just behind me, and all my animals were sitting blissfully unaware in said caravan, and you will start to build a clear enough picture of exactly how stressed out I was at this point!!

Miracle of miracles, after around twenty minutes of hair pulling, frantic phone calls to my mom and brother, and with tears welling in my tired eyes, a face suddenly popped up at the passenger side window. It took me a while to realise that this must have confused the owner of the face some, considering that the passenger side of a British car is the drivers side of an Italian one!

‘buona sera’ said the man, who looked to be a little older than my dad, ‘tutto bene?’

My Italian is still rather sub standard even now, but that much I understood, and without further ado, I proceeded to burst in to tears, much to his shock and my own mortification…It had after all been a very long three days!!

‘no, no…tranqilla’ he said coming round to the drivers side and patting my shoulder reassuringly. He then went on to explain, that his farm was just a couple of kilometers down the road, and that his son would be here soon with his tractor to come and save me. My relief was profound to say the least!!

I was in the middle of nowhere, in a country that I still didn’t know very well and somehow I had managed to snag myself a passing angel.

Another twenty minutes passed and my panicked family finally managed to find me, I asked them to unload the animals first off, to make sure they were safely in the other car, and shortly after they had done so the mans son turned up in his tractor, and the two got to work hitching up the car to it.

2 hours, a cup of coffee and two rather nice glasses of homemade white wine later, we had met the angels entire family.

Italians are some of the best hosts you will ever have the pleasure to meet. It didn’t matter that it was 3am by the time we arrived at their house, and our insistance that we didnt want to cause any more of a fuss fell on determinedly deaf ears. Within minutes of arriving, we had been escourted up to their living room, with its cosy crackling fire, and all but ordered to sit down and relax, as they laid out coffee, cake, olives, salted beans and a caraffe of homemade white wine.

It didn’t phase them that our Italian was rudimentary at best, and we gestured and sketched our way through two hours of really pleasant conversation. Being British we, of course, tried to politely excuse ourselves a few times, in an effort to let them get back off to their beds but they were having none of it!

When we finally did get up to leave, we were led first on an impromptu tour of the farm and animals, before being taken down to their cool cantina. We thought they were just proudly showing us the fruits of all their hard work, but before we could even take it all in, we found ourselves loaded up to the elbows with fresh fruit and veg. It was to help get us settled in at the new property, they told us with beaming smiles, and the grandmother then procceded to present us with a bottle of their lovely wine as a housewarming gift.

It was like a strange but wonderful dream! we went from living in the U.K where you were lucky if your neighbours even noticed if water was pouring out of the front door of your house (but thats a whole different story!!) to some sort of utopian society, where people who you had never even met before behaved better, and showed more caring and genuine concern about your wellbeing, than many of those whom you’d known for years! 🤗

With the sun coming up over the horizon and bemused smiles on our faces, we drove off towards the house (the right way this time!) Needless to say my angel (and neighbour as it turned out) Vincenzo, and his wonderful family were presented with the most lovely flowers we could possibly lay our hands on, the moment we could got to the closest florists.

In the years that have passed since that night, my love and respect for the people of this wild, untamed land has only grown in measure. Yes the internet sometimes goes for weeks at a time with little to no signal, which is still definitely frustrating, but would I swap this life for the one I had in the UK surrounded by state of the art technology and consumer driven industry??

Not in a million years!! 😊

 

A Lesson Learned

Are you a plotter? or are you a pantser?

As writers, we all inevitably fit into either of the above categories, maybe even into both as we move from one project to the next.

A plotter is someone who researches and plots out the entire project from beginning to end. Plotters ensure that, at the very least, they have a simple overview for every chapter, character profiles for any main characters that they plan to introduce and a clear idea of exactly what the piece of writing will be trying to say to the reader, long before they ever put pen to paper and start actually writing the piece.

A pantser, on the other hand, is someone who ‘flies by the seat of their pants’ as far as their writing is concerned. They don’t have a plan, or even a complete plot idea, at the point that they begin to write their story. They rely solely on the organic flow of their ideas, moment to moment, in order to create the necessary magic on the page.

From what I have seen, there is a pretty even split between the two schools of thought amongst the writing community at large. Both sides have their own list of pro’s and con’s and you can get some pretty interesting and heated debate going when you open the floor to the two warring sides.

In my writing lifetime, I have been both a plotter and a pantser. I did a degree in journalism and spent many years just writing organically with only the facts of the story and a word count to keep me in check. It seemed to work pretty well, and I found that I could work pretty quickly, without all of the tiresome plotting and planning getting in the way. This is a great plus when you have lots of hard deadlines to meet, so I figured, rather smugly, that I had picked the best side.

Then a couple of years later, I found myself moving on into full-length novel writing, and boy did it take me a while to work out how terribly wrong I was! Now I am not saying that there aren’t countless highly successful ‘pantser’ authors out there, but I can assure you right now, that I am definitely not one of them!

Two years, two unfinished manuscripts and hundreds of thousands of words later, I finally realised my mistake. For me, writing organically without plot or plan was the worst possible move. With each new chapter came new disjointed ideas, new writing styles and countless soul-destroying hours of obsessive re-writing in order to try and jam it all together into something that actually fit. Needless to say, by this point in the proceedings, this was a totally impossible feat. With each unsuccessful pass, I found myself steadily sinking in a lethal pool of writer’s block fueled mental quicksand.

After all of the heartache and work, all I had left to show for my efforts was a hacked to pieces 70,000-word mess. The most tragic part for me was that my beloved characters who started out so full of promise had become nothing more than two-dimensional hollow shadows of the fierce, independent personalities that should have made them great.

After a long break to lick my wounds, I finally stumbled across a fantastic idea for a female lead. Determined not to let bright and vivacious Penny suffer the same fate as her predecessor Mara, I decided to try a far different approach and jumped, lock stock and barrel, into the ‘plotter’ camp.

I now have a well-researched concept, plot overview and well-outlined chapters to work on, and most importantly of all, I have a great story which flows.  My characters, even the side ones, are the kind of people that you would love to share a beer or a cup of coffee with and the crippling writer’s block is firmly a thing of the past.

The fantastic thing about having each chapter outlined in advance is, that no matter when or where you pick up your pen or turn on the computer, you already know exactly what it is that you need to write and what direction your words need to take in order to get your characters to the next stage in your plot.

Creating that outline also keeps your writing style more focused, as the outline for each chapter was created by the same writer, in the same mood and at the same period of time in their life. Something that won’t then change, even if actually completing the novel takes you another year or two. It turns out that this is crucial when it comes to writing anything approaching novel length work.

The moral of the story is that it is very important that you know who you really are as a writer from the outset. If it doesn’t seem to be working for you then explore new ways of working, don’t just try to smash it together in the hopes that it will one day fit. There is a style and a method out there that is ideal for each and every one of us, and once we find that magic formula, there will be no stopping any of us from becoming the fantastic writers that we all have the inner potential to be!

Increasing Creative Flow

It is often a common problem, for writers the world over, to keep their creativity levels consistent from one day to the next. There are many things a writer can do to try and boost their level though. I find that researching images of characters, places and things that would fit into my story helps a great deal.

Another thing that you could try if you are really stuck is writing from word prompts. My flash fiction piece ‘Grace Departs’ was written from a three word writing prompt. I was provided with the words ‘grace’ ‘train’ and ‘whistle.’ You can get randomly generated word prompts from various sites online, or even by just by picking up a random book, choosing a number, and then use whatever word is on the correlating page and word number within the text there.

You could also join a writers group online. I am a member of a couple of writers groups through Facebook, and as well as being super useful for things like word prompts and generating new ideas, it can be really good to get the opinion of other people who are in the same positions as you.

Here is my 3 word prompt of the day just to get you started…

  1. Window
  2. Skateboard
  3. Milo

Enjoy!! Feel free to share the results in the comment feed if you feel inspired! :}