When I received feedback from my beta readers on By the Feet of Men, the consensus was that - outside of the protagonists - it was difficult to make a distinction between the different drivers. They went so far as to say the vehicles actually had more of a personality than the humans did. That was a problem: the novel couldn’t work if the drivers were as interchangeable as, say, the drummer in Iron Butterfly. With the world bleak and grey, the characters absolutely had to provide the colour. And so, to get into the heads of each driver and reshape them into personalities worth caring about, I used five techniques, all of which are discussed below You know what the result was? When Starburst Magazine reviewed the novel, they said “[it] has no shortage of rich, colourful supporting characters.”
It’s almost as though they knew I would one day write an obscure blog post and need a punchy sentence to prove I at least halfway know what I’m talking about.
1. Cast an actor to play the character
This is the easiest one for me, because I have scenes storyboarded in my head before I start writing. Imagine that your novel is going to be adapted for the big or small screen. Who would play your protagonist? What about the antagonist? The love interest? The irritating sidekick? The old gas station attendant with a moustache? Each time I wrote about Cassady in By the Feet of Men, I saw Ed Harris in The Abyss. Late 30s, early 40s, bald, slightly grizzled, fallible, prone to outbursts, a glint of humour around the eyes. When you cast the right actor to play your characters, you’ll see them more clearly in your mind. The character may take on some of that actor’s tics or tendencies and make them more human. They may end up being the complete opposite. Whatever the case, having a fixed image of what they look like is a strong basis on which to mould them into a personality that leaps off the page.
2. Make the character a mixtape
As Brent Katz wrote recently for The Rumpus when discussing Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, the novel’s mixtape scene cleared away the fog from the page: “I began to see its natural laws, its structure, and its illusive main character more clearly”. What better way to get inside the head of a character than choosing a few songs you think they would listen to? Play it before you start or at low volume in the background while writing.
Here’s a mixtape I made for Clark in Static Age. It’s frenetic, angry and slapdash, just like my misunderstood boy.
1. Queens of the Stone Age – Regular John
2. Captain Beyond – Dancing Madly Backwards
3. Merchandise – Become What You Are
4. Television Personalities – Part Time Punks
5. The Music Machine – Talk Talk
6. Temple of the Dog – Your Savior
7. The New Christs – No Way on Earth
8. Minutemen – Sickles and Hammers
9. Baikonour – Proto Coeur
10. Leaf Hound – Freelance Fiend
3. Choose an accent or dialect and have the dialogue reflect this
For this point, I’m thinking any character from Peaky Blinders as an example. If you were asked to pick someone from the main cast and describe them, chances are the accent – whether Brummie, Northern Irish or cockney – will be one of the first things mentioned. What’s more, each regional group in the show uses vocabulary and grammar structures that the others do not. This colours the dialogue, makes it more unique and enables the viewer to differentiate between characters instantly. And, seeing as everybody has prejudices towards certain accents and regions that are easily made and difficult to break, the use of accent/dialogue is a simple way to get the audience to root for, pity, suspect or despise a character even before paying attention to what they have to say. In a novel, simply changing one character’s speech to use informal contractions like gonna, woulda and ain’t will mark them out as different from the rest. It’s up to you to decide if you want to lean on this to make the character appear unrefined, juvenile or feverish, or to subvert expectations by having them speak like that in order to disguise their true persona.
Note: it’s probably best to avoid doing a full D. H. Lawrence and adopting unusual grammatical patterns and vocabulary choices so wholeheartedly that you end up with sentences like “Asn’t ’e! Oh, Jack’s been ’ome an ’ad ’is dinner an’ gone out. E’s just gone for ’alf an’ ’our afore bedtime. Jack never said nothink about your Mester.” Nobody wants to read that, even if it is lifted from the pages of a masterpiece.
4. Give the character a backstory (even if it doesn’t appear in the novel)
I watched an interview with Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino the other day, in which they speak about how DiCaprio developed his character of Rick Dalton for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. According to DiCaprio, he identified with the real-life story of an actor from the 1960s who had played a gunslinger on TV before committing suicide due to depression, and based his interpretation of his character around that. Tarantino then goes on to explain that while the backstory was strong, very little of it makes it into the actual film. There was no need to rewrite the script; rather, Dalton simply had to be brought to life in the right way, and DiCaprio found a way to do it without impinging on the narrative. When you create a backstory for the characters in your novel, you know who they are, where they come from, where they grew up, what they had for breakfast and why they’re carrying that gnawing anger around in the pit of their stomach. The reader doesn’t have to know every tiny detail, but the more fleshed out your hero is before you sketch them out in digital ink, the easier it will be to turn them into a living, breathing entity.
5. Write a short story featuring the character
Some characters pop up in multiple novels. Vonnegut was famous for this, leaning on recurring names such as Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater and Rabo Karebekian to make point after point about how absurd life is. Brett Easton Ellis did it too, with Patrick Bateman turning up in Glamorama and The Rules of Attraction outside of his endearing turn in American Psycho. This can be cool if you’ve written multiple novels – take a character that already exists, update them and throw them into your new work. You already have a feel for the character’s voice and, through your use of intertextuality, you build a connected world.
If, on the other hand, you don’t have multiple novels or simply want to write something entirely new, a short story can be the perfect way to ease into a character. William Gibson did exactly that with his razorgirl Molly Millions, who first appeared in a short story, “Johnny Mnemonic”, back in 1981, before making the step up to primetime in Neuromancer in 1984. She even refers back to Mnemonic in the novel. Thanks to the short story, Gibson already had a template for his character, with a clear tone, history and visual identity, which (I’m guessing) made it easier to add her into his digital dystopia when the time came.