I like writing characters; I like basing them on people I know and then manipulating them to do what I want. It sounds a little creepy but it’s true and I’m not going to sugarcoat it.
But today I read a small section of my latest work to my partner, and something unexpected happened. I am acutely aware that some of the characters in this current work are close to home. However, all I did today was read him a scene between two characters that I didn’t think would have anything to do with him. But one in particular struck a nerve. So clearly I got something right.
So what does it take? Characters have to have backstories, that’s a given, but sometimes it can be too much. Think about a sad scene. Think about an elderly woman in a bed. Think about her lying in that bed asking a doctor to help her die. That scene is sad in itself but I can make it sadder. Let me show you:
“… “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Her voice was sure and steady. Despite it’s low volume and lack of impact, it had an underlying conviction that told Anton exactly what she meant.
“I can’t do that Mrs Grail.” He always dreaded this conversation. It wasn’t the first time. It wouldn’t be the last. But the heavy feeling in his chest pressed down on his lungs, restricting his ability to breathe.
“But I cannot do this anymore.” She sounded so matter of fact. Like this was the only solution. She wasn’t going to get better. She had no reason to pray she was going to get better. Suddenly the lack of pain medication made sense; she’d wanted a clear mind. His heart broke a little.
“I can’t do that Mrs Grail. I’m sorry.” And he was. More sorry than he could accurately express. The heavy feeling in his chest began to hurt a little. …”
As you can probably guess, Anton is going to think about this conversation a lot in the next few chapters. And this isn’t going to be the first time they have this conversation either. How do you feel about Mrs Grail? What kind of life do you think she’s had? Obviously, if you’re asking a doctor to die, then you’re in a horrific place in your life.
But in the paragraphs proceeding this, you learn one thing about Mrs Grail; she’s seventy (but looks older). Anton also doesn’t like talking to her.
What does this tell you? Something about her makes him uncomfortable? What makes her look older? Is she very very sick? Or maybe she’s given up? All of these things can be true. The conclusion you draw will likely depend on your experience of the ill and elderly.
This leads me to the end of the scene. I’ve excluded this section from the above passage because without this next bit, there is something missing.
“… “I do not want to be responsible for your demise Mrs Grail. I’m sorry, I cannot do it.” He tried to add stress to his voice, removing any natural sounding contractions.
“Oh come on, I’ve been dead inside for years. No visitors, no real relief, no friends. You would be doing me an immense kindness; moving me on to my next life.” It was a beautiful way to think about it but Anton’s stomach still twisted in knots. He couldn’t think about it. It was a slippery slope. He’d had three colleagues get in trouble for this sort of thing. Two lost their licenses and one of those saw jail time; they would never help another patient again. …”
Now this tells you about another aspect, and it should confirm some of your suspicions about her as a person. It also tells you about Anton too; he’s the more vital character (being one of the main characters). But just because he’s a main character doesn’t mean that the characters around him, his ‘supporting’ characters, are any less important. I find that the best way of showing the readers the mettle of the characters is to have them interact. Nothing tells a story faster than watching how one character relates to another. They’re people. Just think about the old adage; you can tell the kind of person by how they treat others. Remember this. How does your character feel about death? Rather than telling your reader, maybe let them have a discussion with someone; let them see a funeral procession or witness something that reminds them of a traumatic event in the past.
Run forth and write! Write PEOPLE. That’s all characters are. People.