Carla Acheson

Historical Fiction Author

Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and wondered if others see you the same way? Do you ever wonder why some people say ‘you don’t look fat’ when the scales tell you differently? Are they lying to avoid upsetting you, or are you really not as bad-looking as you think?

I think similar questions could be asked about ‘character.’ We couldn’t just label people as either good or bad. Most of us are quite judgemental. I know that I am. I can look at a person and I will likely have a personal estimation summed up within a few seconds. But my assumptions of a person are likely to be as hypothetical as the ‘love at first sight’ theory. We cannot sum up a character on first appearance, or can we?

A  young business entrepreneur wearing a suit, we might associate with the words, clean, aspirational, articulate, hardworking etc. When we look at a scruffy fellow in ripped clothes and ragged hair we often associate him with the words dirty, lazy, untidy or unkempt. These are stereotypes and are used often in fictional tales.

What we don’t actually know is whether Mr Scruffy is actually lazy, or whether he is exceedingly nice to talk to, easygoing in nature, respectful and has a considerably tidy abode. Spend some time with Mr Businessman and you might find he isn’t all that clean or aspirational at all. He may also live in an apartment which is diabolically untidy and he might be unreliable, prone to a short temper and spontaneous fits of anger.

So who would you rather spend time with?

When I think of stereotypes in fiction I think it’s much more interesting to add ‘flavour’ to a character as I’ve described above. In reality we are complex so we should pass some of that on to our characters too.  No body likes to reveal their bad habits either, but in fiction it’s fantastic that we can show these things off and have the reader laugh or grimace at them. Here’s a few quirks that could be useful in designing a character, I often find quirks like this amusing:

  • The housewife that must make sure all the beds are made up neatly as soon as everyone is up.
  • The hospital patient that always anxiously tugs the bedsheet every time she spots a doctor.
  • The man who always stands in the exact same spot on the bus even though there are available seats.
  • The cab driver who constantly spits tobacco out of his window.

By the way feel free to use any of the above quirks if it sparks an idea for you. And lastly, I’m going to post here a paragraph example of good characterisation taken from Orson Scott Cards excellent book ‘Characters & Viewpoint.’ Just look at how effectively he has given us the view of an irrational and delusional character..

“Do you think I don’t know what your doing?” asked Nora softly. “I know why you brought me here”

“Yeah,” said Pete, a little confused. “I brought you here for dinner.”

“You just want to impress all your friends,” she said. “You just want them to see me with you, but it won’t work I’m in diguise. Thats why I wore this red scarf. Nobody ever recognises me when I wear this red scarf.” She leaned forward and whispered a secret. “I took it from my mothers coffin before they buried her.”

Oh great thought Pete. Not only is this the most expensive blind date I’ve ever gone on, not only did Steve and Grace back out at the last minute so I’ve had to go alone, but also this Nora turns out to be crazy. If she isn’t at least OK in bed, Steve will not live to see another day.

“Don’t eat any of the shrimp sauce,” Nora said. “It’s poisoned.”


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