Identifying your characters

Like many others, I wasn’t born here. I was born, and spent the first part of my childhood, on the other side of the world. Culturally similar, sure; English-speaking, by definition. But unmistakably different.

I’ve spent more of my life here, however, and if you were to meet me for the first time now you’d have no idea I wasn’t a local. Mate.

This means that people, even close friends and those from my “native country”, tend to strip me of my historical identity. “Pfft,” they sneer. “You left years ago. That doesn’t even count.”
I find it breathtakingly hurtful – what “doesn’t count” is part of my make-up, but there’s no malice intended behind their words. Perhaps it’s even a fair point – I have yet to make it back to the country of my origin. No accent. Gone too long. I don’t belong there and if I went back now, I am sure I would feel out of place.

But none of this takes into account that even in this country I was still raised by a family who followed all the customs and culture and language (yes, English, but used in subtle and different ways) of their origin. And there’s much to be said for memory and the formative years. I’ve lost count of the times as an adult I’ve recalled something poignant from childhood that has no relevance here; or similarly, failed to catch the significance of a story or witticism that any true local would only have needed a hint of to nod knowingly.
It’s rare, but every now and then there is a jarring moment of displacement, like a flicker of TV static; a reminder that something doesn’t quite fit – and that something is me.

This by no means a cry for sympathy or empathy. It is merely an acknowledgement that sense of self, of place and identity, can be subtle, yet pervasive. It’s the little things that prompt each of us, every now and then, to ask the question “who am I?”

And as it is in reality, so it is in fiction.

One of the best compliments an author can receive about their writing is when a reader says that they really believed in a character. But characterisation is one of the hardest things to get right and a lack of believable characters can let down even the most powerful story. So how do you go about creating them?

Some of the most successful stories are those that build worlds and characters around those themes of identity and place – either deliberately or subtextually. Even if that is not something you are concentrating on, it can be helpful to keep these things in mind when you’re creating your characters. You don’t have to spell everything out, but when a character is placed in a given situation, it is worth remembering their background even if the specifics don’t make it to the page. Ask yourself who that character is, and why.

Your character’s childhood, their upbringing, their interactions with others and the world around them all link back to the identity that, as author, you have created (or failed to create) for them. How they react to things and how they are placed in the world are equally informed by their background, and can feed into their characterisation and differentiate them from other characters in the narrative.

What do you think? How do you feel about identity? And how do you “create” your characters? Do they spring fully-formed, complete with life-history, into your head? Do you make character notes? Or do you prefer to work with a blank slate?

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