Today’s Workshop Wednesday guest is Kim Wilkins (aka Kimberley Freeman) sharing her tips on how to develop characterisation.
Firstly, here’s a little about our guest today: Kim Wilkins was born in London, and grew up at the seaside north of Brisbane, Australia. She has degrees in literature and creative writing, and teaches at the University of Queensland and in the community. Her first novel, The Infernal, a supernatural thriller was published in 1997. Since then, she has published across many genres and for many different age groups. Her latest books, contemporary epic romances, are published under the pseudonym Kimberley Freeman. Kim has won many awards and is published all over the world. She lives in Brisbane with a bunch of lovable people and pets.
Kim’s upcoming release is Lighthouse Bay:
1901: Isabella Winterbourne has suffered the worst loss a woman can know. She can no longer bear her husband nor his oppressive upper-class family. On a voyage between London and Sydney to accompany a priceless gift to the Australian parliament, Isabella is the sole survivor of a shipwreck off the sun-drenched Queensland coast. But in this strange new place, she finds she cannot escape her past quite as easily as she’d hoped.
2011: A woman returns from Paris to her beachside home town to reconcile with her sister. But she, too, has a past that is hard to escape and her sister is not in a mood to forgive her. Strange noises at night and activity at the abandoned lighthouse raise her curiosity, and she finds herself investigating a century-old town mystery.
Nothing better than a good mystery! I’ve loved all the Kimberley Freeman novels and am really looking forward to this release. And to show that Kim can not only write beautifully, but is an amazing teacher as well, here are her top characterisation tips:
Four ways to get to know your characters
When embarking on a story, writers often agonise over their characters. It takes a while for a clear sense of them to emerge, and they seem always poised to fall into stereotype. Try these methods to flesh your characters out.
1. Fears and desires
To start with, you need to know the character’s greatest fear, and their greatest desire. These are what I call the “big engines” that drive characters at a fundamental level. But don’t ask your characters to tell you, as often they won’t even know what their greatest fears or desires are, let alone be able or willing to articulate them. Those things might be secret, or unacknowledged, or repressed. (Yes, yes, I know they’re not real people).
2. To list or not to list?
How-to-write books often suggest that you make lists of character traits. While there’s no great harm in doing this, these abstract facts are meaningless in themselves. If you decide that your protagonist is a Catholic socialist whose favourite colour is yellow, you don’t necessarily know him or her any better. Far more interesting is the character’s relationship with those traits. That is, how does the character feel about being a Catholic and a socialist? Does he talk about socialism in church? And how does yellow make him feel? What associations does it have for him? Use character traits as prompts to think about deeper complexities.
3. Off-stage life
Sometimes you’ll read a book where it seems the characters pop out of the box for their scenes, then go back into it when they’re not required. Instead, aim to give a sense that the characters have something to do when they’re not “on-stage”: that way they seem real and textured. Photocopy a blank diary page and nut out—hour by hour—what your character does in a typical week. Sure they will sleep: but how long? What time do they get up? Do they work? What kind of tasks do they perform? Do they eat regular meals? And so on. You can gain great insight into a character this way, even if you never use most of the information you create.
4. Write your way in
Really, the best way to understand your characters is to write about them. It’s like any relationship: spending extended time with somebody is the only authentic way to get to know them, and it can’t be forced. You must be brave enough to write your way into their heads and hearts, and trust that by the end of the story you’ll know them well enough to come back and fix the beginning.
Louise: Great advice! I can heartily recommend all those methods, and my favourite is simply to write the characters and see what they reveal to me. If you’ve got characterisation tips you’d like to share, or would like to comment on one of the methods above, please drop in a comment below. I’d love to keep the conversation going.