A riveting plot is great, but it’s the characters that really make (or break) a story – their loves, their troubles, their journey make them complicated, interesting or (hopefully) lovable.
There are many wasy to create characters. Some writers compile a list of traits, likes, dislikes, quirks, even eye colour. Others consult the I-Ching or astrology manuals for ready-made character profiles. Then there’s the ‘ask 20 questions’ method: answer questions as your character would, with anything from the existential (what is their role in the universe?) to the mundane (what is their favourite ice cream flavour?).
Like real-life humans, character backgrounds and experiences can shape their personality, ethics system/beliefs and emotional responses. Ultimately they shape the character’s goals.
All this background builds up the base of the ‘writing iceberg’ (1.) not just for the story and adds stability to the final characters and their place in each story.
I find one of the most interesting parts of writing is discovering various characters’ personalities (especially the villians). My mantra for character creation is: each character thinks they are the hero of their own story (especially the villians!)
One of my current WIP villians has always been the side-kick, second to brilliant inventors and scientists. He’s hell-bent on being accepted into the Royal Society (2.) He’d do almost anything to achieve his goal: stealing invetions, research or allying himself with the nefarious Men in Grey (The Society), even willing to risk the consequences of betraying The Society.
His latest stolen invention becomes the focus for other characters in the story (whether they realise it or not). He fled from Australia to London, changed his name and plotted his ascent to glory and fame.
But, for all the planning of a character and their background, there’s always a small detail not covered in the lists or the twenty questions.
Here’s my current dilemma:
Our villian gets angry and swears at his second-in-charge. Simply put in the first draft: ‘he cursed‘. Now I’m in rewrites, I need to lock down the dialogue of the interaction. But which particular swear word shall I use?
First there’s the question of the story’s time period. 1883, London to be exact. I could use anything popular at the time; there’s some lovely Victorian era vocab – from mild to explicit.
Next there’s a question of not only his background, but also his emotional state. Think about it. If we are angry, we can say things we don’t mean or revert back to our native language or accent.
Our villian spent most of his life in Australia. Surely, he would revert to something more Australian and less English? Thus began an unexpected line of research. Two hours on the internet and still nothing. So much for a quick fix.
I could have given up and used words like botheration, blast or damnation – all good Victorian era curses. But I couldn’t. I had to be true to his character.
So I took a break and consulted my FB friends (many of who are widely read, professors, librarians, or historical re-enactors) for references I could use to find a swear word used in 1883 (or nearabouts) Australia.
And they didn’t disappoint. The best suggestions were:
- Green’s dictionary of Slang (online) . This is now one of my bookmarked research sites. You can search for words with country of origin, word type (noun, adverb, exclamation) and year. It provides the date, origin, reference (play, book, movie and page reference). It’s fantastic!
- Singer of the Bush by Banjo Patterson (book). This is a compilation of his work, many from a colloquial Australian point of view. I’ve got this book via the local library and am hoping it may provide time and geographical-relevant words I can use. Though this may be twenty years later than I want.
I have a backup plan if I can’t find an appropriate word: consult the local library’s resident historian and see if he can chase up some references for me…
All this for one word. But an important one. It will highlight not only the character’s background, but show the cracks in the facade he has created to hide his true identity.
So, now it’s back to the research books so I can continue with rewrites.
- The iceberg theory of writing (Ernest Hemmingway). “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows…”
- The Royal Society is a fellowship of eminent scientists. It first met in 1660 and was known as ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’ (1663) . The Royal Society has published papers by Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin, approved Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and documented the eruption of Krakatoa and many other scientific achievments.