Behind the Scenes: Part 4 – Characters

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea), Part 2 (Plot and Structure) and Part 3 (Setting).

I wrote in my earlier post on plot and structure about ‘architects and gardeners’ – those who like to plan out the whole structure of the book and see where everything is going to go, versus those who just plant a seed and see what grows. As I mentioned, previously I’ve produced in-depth character studies for my books, but this time I just took the four main characters – Nell, the Professor, Sophie and Lucy – and decided to see how they turned out.

The results from the first couple of drafts were mixed. Nell (who is the first-person narrator) had started to develop a strong voice, but was sometimes inconsistent, and the Professor was quite two-dimensional and risked becoming a bit of a caricature villain – what I like to think of as a ‘moustache-twirler’. Both of these things were pointed out by my beta readers, who read the second draft (more on that in Part 6 – Editing), so when I was doing the revisions for draft three, I sat down and did character studies for Nell and the Professor. The template for this came out of James Scott Bell’s Revision & Self-Editing, which is part of the Write Great Fiction series and which I swear by.  These are the questions I asked about Nell.

Personal problem:
Plot problem:
Risk (what she will potentially lose if she doesn’t achieve her objective):
Main positive traits:
Main negative traits:
Moral quandary:
Reasons not to act honourably:
Adhesive between Nell and Professor:

The questions I asked about the Professor were very similar, but I also gave him around 1500 words of backstory, because it was clear that I didn’t really understand who he was or where he came from. Once I’d figured this out, I was able to give him a lot more depth and, hopefully, make him a bit more sympathetic, because a completely blackhearted villain isn’t in fact very interesting. One of the most important things I learned in this process is that characters need to have yin and yang to make them believable – even the most likeable heroine needs the capacity for moral ambiguity, and the worst villain still requires a sympathetic streak. Above all, they need motivation, for if you can’t explain why they’re doing what they’re doing then you’ve got a massive plot hole.

In the (Australian) summer after I wrote the first draft, I spent a week at an artists’ retreat in Tasmania. There, I collaborated with a good friend, Pamela Horsely, who is a talented portrait painter – I gave her a 400-word description of the Professor, and in 24 hours she’d produced a portrait of him. She captured him exactly as I’d envisaged him, and really brought him to life. She very kindly gave me the picture afterwards, and he now hangs on the wall of my study. There’s nothing quite like seeing your character in the ‘flesh’ to bring a book to life.

Professor Nathaniel Greythorne by Pamela Horsely
Professor Nathaniel Greythorne by Pamela Horsely

 

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