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1.3 Sources of characters

Activity 3

Click on ‘Sources of characters’ below and read the extract. This outlines the main methods of finding and developing fictional characters.

Sources of characters [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Activity 4

Click below to listen to novelists discuss themselves and their fiction.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: The use of autobiography in fiction
Skip transcript: The use of autobiography in fiction

Transcript: The use of autobiography in fiction

On this track you’ll hear about how some authors use themselves in their fiction, often as a starting point for the creation of someone different, such as Monique Roffey’s male character August, in her novel Sun Dog. The speakers are Abdulrazak Gurnah, Michele Roberts, Monique Roffey and Alex Garland.
Abdulrazak Gurnah
I don’t in any case expect that you can evade this, you know, that you can escape writing about your experiences, or if you do then in itself that becomes a kind of project. You can say, ‘Well, I’m going to write about everything but I’m going to keep myself out of it.’ Now what would be interesting then, if you were a reader, is to see where that suppressed self actually comes into the writing, however hard you suppress. But, you know, I don’t feel like that at all and I know a lot of writers don’t. There are a lot of writers who in fact quite happily write about themselves, Saul Bellow being one, Philip Roth being another, who quite happily write about themselves. They make themselves the subject of their fiction. V.S. Naipaul is another one in recent times. But I still believe that in fact it is actually harder to keep the writer out of the writing than people imagine, at least the kind of fiction that I write and like to read.
Michele Roberts
I think every novel has its root in the real world in that it presents me with a problem that I then try and solve. It might pose a question that the novel tries to solve. The Mistress class was inspired by, I can’t remember what now, it’s so long ago, it’s vanished into the unconscious. I think it was inspired by a real situation in my life in that I have sisters, I’m very interested in the relationships between sisters – it’s a theme I return to. I am a twin sister. I’m fascinated by twins, by doubleness, by ‘the other’, the mirror image who’s not the same as you. So there’s an autobiographical element there. But I’ve found over and over again, every time, if you just write about yourself, you’re too close to yourself, to your own stuff, you can’t see it properly. So normally you end up repressing, writing quite clumpily and clumsily, and you need to open up to the world and throw your own stuff out into the world and find what T.S. Elliot called in this grandiose term – an objective correlative. For this new novel, I knew I wanted to write about sisters again, particularly sisters who were rivals. I found a pair of sisters – Emily Bronte¨ and Charlotte Bronte¨ – and I suddenly remembered that I had wanted to write about passionate, obsessive, unrequited love. Ha ha! Charlotte had exactly that experience with her tutor, Monsieur He´ger in Brussels, so I was off. I’d found a subject in the world. But I think actually I’m writing a lot about my feelings about being a twin when I was little. It’s not directly autobiographical, but there’s an energy there.
Monique Roffey
Well, to be honest, August isn’t that different in terms of his cultural background and his age. He’s a sort of middle-class man of similar age to me when I was writing it. I think if he was a young boy who lived in China, though, I would have had to have made a much bigger creative leap. And again, I mean, it’s a book of internals and internally I understood where August was coming from and what I was writing about, and that men and women do share the same emotional territory in many ways and so it wasn’t a big leap in terms of craft – I didn’t have to sort of think of any clever techniques in which to sort of put trousers on. August internally: I knew what he was about, really, so it was very easy to make the switch.
Alex Garland
In the case of The Beach, the protagonist, and I think there’s, it’s something that young writers or, maybe young is the wrong word, but first-time writers often do is that what they end up doing is they draw a lot on themselves to flesh out the character. So I did that a lot, I think, with the narrator of that book because you could do it and then you could drop in a few things that he would do that you wouldn’t do, and suddenly you’ve got a fictional character who will take you in different directions.
End transcript: The use of autobiography in fiction
The use of autobiography in fiction
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In the audio file above, novelists talk about how they have used themselves in their fiction (‘the autobiographical method’), often as a starting point for the creation of someone different.

Activity 5

Imagine a character very like you but give him or her a dramatic external alteration. You might make the character the opposite sex, for example, or make them significantly older or younger. You choose.

Now write a brief character sketch in which you reveal the character’s appearance, their feelings about it, and their current circumstances. Use a third-person narrator (‘he’ or ‘she’).


‘Write what you know’ is a familiar piece of advice often given to writers. But ‘what you know’ can expand through imagination and sympathetic identification with others who are not like you at all. This is similar to what actors do – they are not confined to ‘playing themselves’ – and neither are writers.

Activity 6

Click below to listen to novelists discussing how they develop their fictional characters using a mixture of methodical research, accident and empathy.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Creating characters
Skip transcript: Creating characters

Transcript: Creating characters

Here, writers discuss how they develop their fictional characters using a mixture of methodical research, accident and empathy. The speakers are Tim Pears, Monique Roffey, Alex Garland and Louis de Bernie`res.
Tim Pears
My first book was written from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl, and I never felt when I was writing it that I had to make some kind of special effort, you know, to get into the mind of a female, or a young person, whatever. I think I just thought how I would think about things, and with a little bit of sympathy, empathy towards somebody else and that was it.
Monique Roffey
I think it’s very much a mixture of accident and design. I think your characters find you in the same way that your ideas find you. I think they settle on you – snatches of people you’ve seen in the street, sometimes, or snatches of someone you might have met, someone you might have, you know, have had a brief encounter with, and they tend to kind of morph, they tend to kind of mix. You’ll have somebody’s hairstyle with somebody’s height, and somebody’s vanity with somebody’s nose, you know, so you kind of have a mixture come to you. But once that’s happened I then, absolutely, treat it in a research-like, a sort of scholarly way. I use a character outline and I, I work on that and develop and, so that I’ve got sometimes 7, 8, 9, 10, 15 pages, so that I know everything about that character. I know what the character’s grandmother’s maiden name was, whether they’re good at dancing, whether they like Marmite, you know, I know everything about that character by the time I’ve worked on it. So I use both, I use conscious and the unconscious to sort of, to make someone.
Alex Garland
Characters came from all sorts of different places. There’s this gangster in The Tesseract called Don Pepe who was sort of based on a guy I ran into in a very remote part of the Philippines, who came from Spanish ancestry and had never been to Spain but was obsessed with Spain and he’d lost all his money, he didn’t have a hacienda or anything. But he still somehow clung on to that colonial past even though it was a long, long time ago. And there was something about that that just interested me and I kind of lifted him out and dropped him in there and some you just invent.
Louis de Bernie`res
There seem to be two different types of character. There’s the type that just turns up at your shoulder like a ghost and insists on being written. This is rather spooky, it’s a bit like being a medium. The other kind of character is the sort that you invent more or less from scratch or create as a composite of various people that you’ve noticed or come across. And the one thing that does happen though is that as soon as the character begins to become real, he or she starts misbehaving, and they don’t do what you tell them to do. You often find yourself altering the story to accommodate your characters. Your plans always go wrong [laughs].
And now Alex Garland talks about ways of handling a large cast of characters.
Alex Garland
I did have a problem with some of the minor characters, of losing track of them. I remember when I was copy-editing the book, finding that people switched nationalities halfway through and having to sort of make a little list, you know, this guy’s from New Zealand, this one’s from Israel. But I think in the case of The Beach, often what I did was a kind of cheap trick in a way, which was you pin a particular characteristic on a character. So there’s this guy, Bugs, who is the boyfriend of the woman that runs the camp and his thing was that he’s stoical but he’s also a bit of a bullshitter, that stoicism is his thing that he gives out an impression of being a terrific stoic but actually he’s not, and then everything just follows from that. Yeah, you find a little peg to hang them on and leave them on it.
End transcript: Creating characters
Creating characters
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In your notebook, as an ongoing exercise, try Monique Roffey’s method of building character outlines to flesh out your characters and see how much you can discover about them.

Use headings:

  • Physical/biological: age, height, size, state of health, assets, flaws, sexuality, gait, voice.
  • Psychological: intelligence, temperament, happiness/unhappiness, attitudes, self-knowledge, unconscious aspects.
  • Interpersonal/cultural: family, friends, colleagues, birthplace, education, hobbies, beliefs, values, lifestyle.
  • Personal history: major events in the life, including the best and the most traumatic.

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