Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Characters not caricatures.

When writing a novel a writer should create living people, people not characters.

A character is a caricature.

Ernest Hemingway.


Last week my sister in law borrowed two DVD's from the library. I hadn't seen either of these movies before, but the first was an incredibly popular film in the 70's.

I'd often seen it on the library shelves but had never picked it up, simply because I had tried reading the book and found it oh so boring.

It was titled Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Most of you will remember this title from John Le Carre, who also authored The Constant Gardener.

I found myself not only enjoying the movie, but drawn to the characters. Told in flashback form, it was a story of betrayal, murder and greed.

The second movie was called The Debt and starred Helen Mirren. Another movie written about spies and everything that goes with it. Because it starred Helen Mirren, I saved it to  last. There's something about Mirren that I find compelling. She brings her own style and influence into every role.

In this particular instance, I was quite let down. Don't get me wrong, the performances were good, very much so, but the story itself, for me, was unbelievable.

Mirren's character, one of three Mossad spies who embark on capturing a sadistic doctor responsible for the death of thousands of Jews, is bland and unappetising. I couldn't reconcile my thoughts of spies, Mossad spies at that, being so…emotional. Surely spies should unemotional, bent on getting the job done at all costs?

In every book I've read, or every movie I've watched, the characters which draw me in and hold me long after the end are the ones steeped in reality. They share similar traits with us, which help us identify with them.

What makes characters such as spies or serial killers chilling is their charm. We can easily imagine them committing atrocities simply because we can picture them, and their quirks, as our neighbour, odd relative, or dare I say…close friend? After all, how well do we really know someone?

Caring enough about your characters to study the intricacies associated with their lives, or learning more about what makes them tick, is how you'll find readers falling helplessly head-over-heels in love with them, and you.

In John Le Carre's interview he said, "Stories are the ultimate escape: the fictional world is the one in which you really want to live”.

If this is the world our readers want, then it's up to us to make it as real as possible for them.


What lengths would you go to so your characters become people?


Lee Franklin lives in a small country town, where every one of her neighbours could possibly be a serial killer, either in real life or in her imagination. It's a good thing she doesn't mind things that go bump in the night, but it does help to have three dogs guarding you...just in case.


  1. I actually really enjoyed the movie 'The Debt' with Helen Mirren. But then perhaps I don't mind my characters being just a little bit larger than life. Some interesting points to ponder.

    1. I still enjoyed parts of the movie, The Debt, but I kept thinking 'surely spies wouldn't carry on like this.' Perhaps it was being bought up on James Bond, where he enthuses charm yet doesn't overact. Not sure.

      Give me a good science fiction, or Schwarzenegger film, and I don't care how larger than life or unrealistic the guns are!

      Thanks, Meredith.

  2. Interesting post Lee. I too do like characters I can identify with. We watched an old Alfred Hitchcock movie recently and I didn't enjoy the first part because the characters were all rather 'seedy' individuals. But as it went on - I did like some of them and by the time it ended I had enjoyed it.

    I do agree that making characters as real as possible makes perfect sense! :)

    1. Which Alfred Hitchcock movie was that Anusha? We're big fans of just about everything he did between 1936 and 1959. The later movies didn't have the same feel.

    2. I think one of my favourite movies from Hitchcock, Anusha, is North by Northwest. I do agree that it's very hard to stay with a movie to the end when it doesn't grab you, or the characters don't feel real. :)

    3. And of course Cary Grant is in that, so that's a plus. Rear Window is another good one.

  3. "Stories are the ultimate escape: the fictional world is the one in which you really want to live”

    Love that quote, Lee. Super post. It's a great challenge for we writers to pen "living people" & not characters...

    Great reminder to keep working the craft. Thanks Lee

    1. Thanks, Ian, I'm glad you love the quote. It's one of my favourites. Working the craft is so important, isn't it?

  4. Great post Lee. I know what you mean about "The Debt". Parts of it were good, but at another level it just didn't work for me either. I hadn't thought about the characterisation, but that was probably it.

    Although some fictional characters can be larger than life, I think it's important to be able to identify with them at some level. I've read some Christian novels where the Christians in the story were just too perfect and the baddies were just too evil. I think it's important to include a few flaws in the heroes/heroines, but still make them likable. And for the baddies, it doesn't hurt to have some glimpse into their past and what made them the way that they are so there can be some empathy for them even if we don't like them or condone what they do. If I don't care for the characters by about p. 60 of a novel, I don't feel very motivated to finish the story. Maybe that's why I still care about Anne of Green Gables, Atticus Finch, and the girls who went missing at Hanging Rock.

    Thanks Lee.

    1. Whatever happened to the girls at Hanging Rock? I still ponder that one, even though it's years since I saw it...and it's fiction. Like you, the characterisation stayed with me. The same goes for Anne of Green Gables.

      Flaws are so important in characters. I think one of the most endearing characters I've read was in a romance novel. The heroine kept forgetting where she placed items, and the servants kept finding them and placing them in a chest for her. :)

    2. Hi Lee

      Your comment about Hanging Rock made me remember that they did release the final chapter of the book after Joan Lindsey's death, but I'd never read it. Just found it this morning on the internet:

      After reading it, I'm glad it was left out of the original book. A very strange ending. I think it was better to leave it as a mystery.



  5. What lengths? Well...quite far, really. I consider it a necessity to study books, movies, documentaries and people if possible in order to really understand the whole character of my 'living people'.

    But I find the best source to ensure they end up 'living' and 'real' - is God. Prayer is my best research tool. For only He truly knows the heart of any man.

    1. I love people watching. Especially at shopping centres. Isn't it great how if you ask God to help you with your character, invariably He will send you someone who has a peculiar flaw, or quirk, that you can use?

      Thanks for stopping by, Catherine.

  6. That's so true, Lee, even a cold-blooded killer will cry over his dog dying. I'm finding myself studying protagonists on screen like I never did before simply to understand what makes them tick.

    As writers we do have to work had at it because we don't have great actors to bring a script to life by their brilliant interpretation. They can capture an emotion by a look, a gesture, or a certain tone of voice. Ah well, it keeps us on our writing toes.

    1. Totally agree, Rita, it's what drives a person to do what they do, which is interesting. Sometimes it takes the fun out of watching a movie, othertimes it's riveting just to try and work out what makes a protag tick. :)

  7. Great post Lee.

    I think all characters have to be realistic enough to be a believable being, and it is up to the writer to understand the character enough not to be found negligent in their writing.

    Through painting I quickly learned that if I am going to represent anything as real publically, there will be experts that pick out assumptions my your work. For example; horse people know horses and sailors know there rigging on a boat or ship. With a character you cannot create them to have personalities you don’t understand.

    Your question: What lengths would you go to so your characters become people? My answer would be researching everything about them

  8. I've just discarded a book because ecven though the theme and plot should have been good, I felt removed from the characters and didn't like any of them.

  9. I'm also finding I'm drawn to characters in fils that show lots of depth and side stories that aren't even featured in the main storyline.
    In my own writing my characters need to be ones I care about. If I find myself not caring about a character I'll go as far as to ditch them or the entire story they were in. So I suppose I often view it from the other way around. :)