How do writers create believable characters?
This week I've been planning a creative writing session to help students explore this.
And then, in perfect serendipity, I listened to BBC Radio 4's Open Book discussing character voice this week. You can find it here. Jennifer Hodgson has interviewed over 100 writers to research how they hear and write their characters. She found that many "couldn't even begin to write the character until they'd heard their voice." And that very often the narrative process "began with a voice." It's intriguing and worth listening to. Jennifer Hodgson has written an article for the latest Mslexia issue which explores her fascinating research a little more.
Today I've been working on a new short story. Do I hear the voices of my characters? Yes, I think so. I know the tone of voice my protagonist uses when he feeds the cat and how he answers his phone and what he says to JW's on the doorstep. I know the things he mutters in his sleep and how he would react if he was caught up in an armed robbery. I can imagine all of these things although none of them actually occur in the narrative. As I'm writing a story, I mentally place my characters in positions outside of the text and see how they react. If they can 'live' like this off the page then I hope that they come across believably within the story that I'm telling.
One character in this story, however, isn't even 'real'; my protagonist has an imaginary friend. Am I filtering him through the main protagonist? I ought to be, because the imaginary friend doesn't 'exist' except through the protagonist's imagination. Effectively, he is just another layer of him. The imaginary friend should be sought through him, in every way, as he creates him. But the imaginary friend character didn't come into being after my protagonist became fully rounded. If anything he came first and the protagonist was the one who followed.
Are you still with me...?
Another thing... The imaginary friend is mute, so I don't hear his voice at all. But I have a complete sense of him through expressions, body language and physicality. I know how he would make a cup of tea. I can picture how he would hang out washing, lift a car bonnet, respond if he saw a child choking on the bus. Again, he does none of these things in my story. But the fact I can picture it perfectly reassures me that I know him well enough to hopefully be believable. I wonder if he should solely be an extension, a projection, out of my main protagonist. He does the things that my protagonist longs to do - mischievous, deviant acts. But I think I also see him as a person in his own right. I can imagine him existing even if the protagonist did not. Should I be so aware of him, as an entity outside of the protagonist? I don't know. They are, after all, just different sides to the same character, existentially compartmentalised. A bit like a ventriloquist and their dummy. Except I'm operating both.