Lucy Ribchester, author The Hourglass Factory and The Amber Shadows rocked up at Grrrl Con to give a crash course into building extraordinary characters. She begins with questions on character and reading to get a feel for the room: is reading key for writing, to whether people find the strong woman trope condescending.
“Plot comes from character.”
Next she offers pictures as prompts, a snapshot of a person that you can build a character from. A simple thing you can do at home to work on character-building. Take an image, and ask the following questions from the perspective of the character:
- Who are you?
- How do you feel?
- Where would you rather be?
- What would you like others to think of you?
- What keeps you awake at night?
- What’s the best and worst thing you ever did?
- How would you like to be remembered?
You should know these things about your character even if you’re not writing out full lists. Their behaviour, context and motivation takes them from being a human to a character. It’s where motivation meets plot, story and conflict. Regardless of the timeframe, there is a reason why this period matters.
Next consider what your character sees when they look in different directions if north is the future, south is the past, east is fear and west is ambition. This will flesh them out further. After this think about placing your character in a setting and ask what are they doing there? Keep building them up through answers.
Lucy chats a little and takes a few questions to close: “Plot comes from character.” She started with three separate women for The Hourglass Factory, and it’s natural to give them things to fight against and the plot will form around that. She likes accessible literary fiction, but “I like good storytelling first and foremost.”
Don’t try be genreless for the sake of it – take a genre you know and use it as a template, like crime. Look at the plots of your favourite stories and see how they’re done.
But what if you keep spending time with one character above all others? “I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” she notes. If you really do like one character above all, write in first person, so the other characters are all seen through their lens and you don’t need to flesh out their lives as fully. The protagonist’s view is autonomous.
And what about getting autobiographical, even when you don’t want to? “I was worried about that,” admits Lucy. Create someone as different from you as you can but that you have an admiration for, or that you would hate to be. It can be difficult, but it gives you something you feel strongly on to work from without it being you. “Stop worrying – every writer inevitably puts themselves in every single character. Don’t worry if it’s like you.”