Creating Characters · The Writing Process · Writing Tips & Advice

Constructing Layered Characters

Are your character descriptions flat and dull? Probably not, but I felt mine were a bit… lacking. Hair, eye colour and height are all very well, but I knew I was a long way from how I’ve seen other authors make characters come alive.

So I’ve been taking a FutureLearn course on Writing Fiction and have learned a lot about how to construct real, layered characters – here’s some of the best of what I’ve learned.

We were asked to dissect this passage to see how the author constructs her protagonist.  The amount of dense, layered information and inference weaved into these two paragraphs is incredible – there’s so much to learn from it. You’ll probably find you think of extra points as well – please comment and add them!

Extract from Case Histories by Kate Atkinson:

Victor met Rosemary when he had to go to the casualty department at Addenbrooke’s, where she was a student nurse. He had tripped down some steps and fallen awkwardly on his wrist but he told Rosemary that he’d been on his bike when he was ‘cut up’ by a car on the Newmarket Road. ‘Cut up’ sounded good to his ears, it was a phrase from a masculine world he’d never managed to inhabit successfully (the world of his father), and ‘the Newmarket Road’ implied (untruthfully) that he didn’t spend his whole life cloistered in the limited area between St John’s and the maths department.

If it hadn’t been for this chance hospital encounter, accidental in all senses, Victor might never have courted a girl. He already felt well on his way to middle age and his social life was still limited to the chess club. Victor didn’t really feel the need for another person in his life, in fact he found the concept of ‘sharing’ a life bizarre. He had mathematics, which filled up his time almost completely, so he wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted with a wife. Women seemed to him to be in possession of all kinds of undesirable properties, chiefly madness, but also a multiplicity of physical drawbacks – blood, sex, children – which were unsettling and other. Yet something in him yearned to be surrounded by the kind of activity and warmth so missing in his own childhood, which was how, before he even knew what had happened, like opening the door to the wrong room, he found himself taking tea in a cottage in rural Norfolk while Rosemary shyly displayed a (rather cheap) diamond-chip engagement ring to her parents.

 

Wow, this is so good. Character description, thoughts, situation, job, desires, all combined. Deep POV (Point of View). We’re given his prejudices. His conflicts… It’s so well woven together.

 

First paragraph
Establishes Victor’s feelings about himself, his father, his life succinctly and with many layers.

 

  • This is all about Victor’s own thoughts. He reveals himself to us, not the narrator revealing. This could equally be in first person. Establishes intimacy.
  • First thing we find out is that he lies to impress a woman. He feels that he isn’t as masculine he should be – as his father was. Plus, he feels he leads a boring, confined life. The lying is used to:
    1. show Victor is interested in Rosemary – he wants to impress her and thinks about how to do it.
    2. reveal Victor’s shameinsecurity, weakness and unreliability.
    3. set up an appearance & reality/ surface & what lies beneath mismatch. More depth, more interesting. And most people are like this but it takes us years to find it out. Here we get it straight away.
    4. but because we’re shown his insecurity straight away, we feel sympathetic towards him. We feel a bond. We’re sort of on his side, despite prejudices revealed shortly after. We need to feel on his side or his misogyny might put us off the book completely.
  • In the two lies that Victor tells we find out, by contrast, about his self-image, his job, his routine and his father! This is a structural device of describing what did not happen in order to describe what did.
  • Victor – an ironic name?

 

Second paragraph
Zooming in on the actual meeting, his thoughts about women and himself in relation to women.

 

  • First two thirds of the paragraph sets up that Victor is suspicious about women, afraid of them, finds them “other”, is quite happy with how his life is without them, and doesn’t feel the need for one!
  • The phrase “physical drawbacks” – Victor considers the male body to be the human ideal, and any deviation from the male body to be a flaw. This suggests he will regard Rosemary as less than himself. Cold, detached tone of the passage: has Victor only learned about women from textbooks?
  • Then in one beautifully constructed sentence we get why he was tempted to a relationship – a fairly flimsy, nebulous reason, and then, suddenly, he’s engaged! BAM!
    • “Yet” – he felt his childhood lacked “warmth and activity”. So he’s getting married to make up for a nebulous lack in his childhood, not because he loves Rosemary. Poor Rosemary is expected to make up for his childhood.
    • “The wrong room” – the reader knows this is heading for disaster.
    • He’s given Rosemary a cheap ring – he’s stingy? Going by his occupation, he could certainly afford more. Is it he who reveals the ring is “rather cheap”? Presumably, because it’s deep POV… It hints at his lack of commitment, probably, rather than being stingy. And the fact that he doesn’t value Rosemary much.
    • The huge omission here is: Rosemary. In a passage concerning her courtship and engagement she’s barely mentioned. This tells us a lot about Victor’s self-centredness. The only description of Rosemary we have is: “shyly displayed”. Poor thing.
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