The Day I Burned My Books

Many years ago, when my bookshelves were filled with ‘how to’ manuals on developing character, with titles like 'Write a Million', I remember struggling with the popular wisdom that writers should make a ‘character board’ for every character they invent. I associated these kind of pictoral boards with the ‘mood board’ that you’d use to collect decorating ideas for a bedroom or kitchen, not with a narrator for a story. But several how-to-write books were very specific on the character board and its contents, instructing budding novelists to cut out magazine or catalogue photos of somebody resembling your character (fair enough, I suppose, if your narrator needed to be young, skinny and glamorous), and to write down details of everything from the character’s favourite colour to his or her pet hate. Eager to put these words of wisdom into practice, I battled through the list of character board tasks, holding question-and-answer sessions with my heroine or hero, pondering over the relationships they might’ve had with their parents and siblings, trying to discover answers to questions about what had shaped their characters. After all, the how-to-write books explained that if you didn’t know your character’s quirks and deep-seated motivations, then how could you convincingly tell a story through their eyes? 

The trouble was, by the time I’d reached the end of each character board, I felt utterly miserable. Despite the time they took to put together, I remained unconvinced by my characters – and I hadn’t even put them into a novel yet. Pondering over what they might wear to an office meeting or what kind of pasta they’d order at lunch (and sticking a picture of it onto the board) didn’t help me unfold the story and it certainly didn’t make my would-be characters any more fully-fleshed in my head. They were just pictures on a piece of card, accompanied by lists of facts and speech bubbles containing random words. I worried that there must be something intrinsically wrong with me as a writer. 

Understanding character, and character development, as I was later to find out, doesn’t come through following a list of tasks in a certain style of how-to-write book. It took me many years of trying things my own way to realise that characters spring out of the page best when you put them in a situation and let them show you how they will handle it. In other words, start with a blank page and just write. Your character will reveal herself gradually. You don’t know her yet but pretty soon you’re going to, as she shows you how she handles having her car stolen, or being dumped by text by the man she thought she was going to marry. Somewhere along the line you may have cause to reveal that Lucy had a bad relationship with her mother or that Anna’s favourite colour is green because she was brought up in a hippy commune in the middle of a forest, but these aren’t facts you necessarily need to know when you start to write. 

Among published writers, there’s a theory that characters, like stories, emerge whilst being excavated by the writer. It’s an image which comes up again and again. Ursula Le Guin noted: ‘If William is a character worthy of being written about, then he exists. He exists, inside my head to be sure, but in his own right, with his own vitality. All I have to do is look at him. I don’t plan him, compose him of bits and pieces, inventory him. I find him’ (from 'The Language of The Night', Dreams Must Explain Themselves, 1979). 

The day I finally realised that characters need to be found and not inventoried was the day that I collected up a selection of my how-to-write books and threw them on an Autumn bonfire in the back garden. Well, at least the books that insisted on a character board...


For some recommended 'How To Write' books, see a selection on the Free Guide To Writing page

May 2020