Joe Dunthorne is an award-winning poet, journalist and novelist. Here he shares his techniques for developing characters and tackles the semi-mystical concept of character ‘writing themselves’.
This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack on Character. It was made possible by Arts Council England. Discover more here →
Never trust a novelist who says their characters “write themselves”. As though they just sit at their computer and the mouse starts moving of its own accord like when a ghost controls a ouija board. In my experience, there is nothing mystical about pecking away at a keyboard in my eggy joggers. But while a character may never actually do the typing for me, there is an element of truth behind the cliché. When I know a character sufficiently well, I can hopefully imagine how they would feel and act in any situation. With luck and time, that feeling of intimacy can sometimes feel natural and automatic.
For me, my way into a character is usually through voice. Even if a character is not narrating the story, I find it useful to write some pages from their point of view – using the first-person perspective. It’s essentially free writing, letting that character blab, paying attention to what makes their thoughts and language interesting. Sometimes a single word choice can unlock a character. I think of Ned Kelly in Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Because Ned is telling the story to his daughter, he is careful to edit out the swear words. Recalling one of his many violent adventures, he writes: “she would blow their adjectival brains out.” “Adjectival” becomes the most used word in the book, capturing perfectly Ned’s uneasy blend of sweetness and savagery – a man straining against his own instincts.
Another good exercise is one I discovered from reading an interview with Hilary Mantel. She recommends sitting quietly, letting the room around you fade from your attention. Then you imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it. Once he or she is comfortable, you interview them. Mantel tried this for the first time when she was writing The Giant, O’Brien. The giant came into the room but, before sitting down, he bent down and tested the chair to see if it would take his weight. On that occasion, Mantel was so excited that she never got any further with the exercise. She punched the air and shouted “Yes!”
When I’m developing a character, I also like to hear them in dialogue with other characters. Again it’s a kind of free writing. I try to write the dialogue fast, almost at the speed of speech itself. What anecdotes do they tell? Are they a good listener? A good liar? What are their preoccupations? When do they hesitate or backtrack?
I realise that, at this point, I’m coming dangerously close to saying that characters do “write themselves”. And it’s true that when you write at speed there should be a healthy sense of not being in total control. But when it comes to the slower and arguably more important process of deciding what to keep and what to cut – assembling a character from the mess of your notes – then I’m happy to report that you are the one true god.