Writing Character

Victorian Girl

I hope you’ll find the Hanged Man Rises packed with rich and interesting characters; creepy Mrs Rancer, wild Stitcher, fragile Lily. But the one I had most trouble with was Hannah, the sassy, infuriating, fiercely loyal 12 year old sister of my protagonist, Titus. She didn’t start off that way.
This is how she was introduced in the first draft:

“A sudden yelp from Hannah caught Pilbury’s attention immediately and he came over, crouching down and peering anxiously into her face.
‘What is it sweetheart, did you burn your mouth?’
She shook her head and pointed to a red mark on her leg.
‘Tooker.’
‘Ah, yes. You should not sit so close to the cooker.’”

She’s young, 3 at most, and vulnerable. The reader understands straight off that she’ll be nothing more complicated than a burden to Titus.

But as the drafts went on she became older and more assertive. She started to interfere with the plot. Titus might think his plan is water-tight, but she’s his weak point. In the final draft we meet her after she’s been arrested for pick-pocketing with Stitcher’s gang – against Titus’s strict instructions.

“Hannah sat swinging her legs on the table, giving the Inspector the benefit of her wisdom between mouthfuls of plum. A bowl sat next to her, filled with nothing but plumstones. She had eaten all the officers’ fruit. A flush of fury and embarrassment rushed up his neck.
The Inspector, smoking by the fire in his shirtsleeves, saw Titus first.
‘Look lively, Hannah,’ he said, ‘The guvnor’s here.’
Hannah jumped off the table as if it had been suddenly turned to hot iron.
‘I didn’t do nothing,’ she said, ‘I was just there, that’s all.’”

As a three year old she was just a victim, but now she’s an unknown quantity: she’s impulsive, unpredictable, she does stupid things. And she also does wonderful, heroic things. Because while real-life toddlers can elicit strong emotions, in books they’re pretty boring. I wanted the reader to root for Hannah enough that when she’s in peril, you really care what happens to her. To make that happen she has to have a mind of her own, she must display characteristics we admire, and also some that we might not but that we recognize in ourselves.

The same goes for Titus. He’s good, decent and loyal but that can be pretty boring too. The complex sibling relationship helps to reveal a spikier side that makes him someone you can relate to. It’s a fine balance, though. In the first draft he didn’t fight the stable boy, but this was missing a trick: the fight scene is exciting and reveals Titus as brave and resourceful and fair. In another early draft Titus starts the fight after the stable-boy has insulted his father, but this made Titus, as the better fighter, seem like a bully. That’s why in the final draft it’s the stable-boy who starts the fight, and fights dirty.

“Titus sighed.
‘Come on, Hannah.’
‘That’s right, run away, like your dad!’
As they stepped out into the courtyard a blow to his back sent Titus stumbling forwards. Pushing Hannah against the wall he turned round. The stable-boy swaggered towards him, fists drawn up to his chest.”

He’s brave and tough but he’s not aggressive or cruel.

The difficult thing is creating a character that will do what you want, whilst still being consistent. I had to rewrite Titus a few times to get him right, but the great thing is that once you have a solid, watertight character, they can help out with the plot. Samson’s intimidating manner was there from the start, and it was this that gave me (and Titus) the idea of how to defeat Rancer.

It should always be character that drives the action (even if you come up with the plot first and retro-fit the protagonist). We all remember the who before the what – I couldn’t tell you what Han Solo does for the plot but he’s one of the reasons I love Star Wars. The same’s true for Gollum, the Terminator, Donkey, Mr Fox – the list is endless.

And if readers like your characters they’ll like your book.

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