Putting Mud on the Boots of your Characters

Your stories are about people – characters – whether human or otherwise, and you’d better make them believable.

If your reader can’t see the characters in their mind’s eye, or can’t identify with them in some way, they won’t care about them and will soon lose interest.

Characters with habits, mannerisms, relationship difficulties, dark histories, hidden agendas, successes and failures, are far more interesting to read about than someone with none of the above. The reader will identify more with a character because they recognise the complications that make up who we are. Life isn’t plain-sailing!

So how do you do that as a writer?

You get to know your characters, especially your protagonist/s (you may have more than one story thread each of which requires its own protagonist). You don’t need to know everything about them, but you need to know enough to make them the person we meet in the story. The person who is going to careen through your story in their own inimitable style in their desperate search for the truth.

It helps to think of significant events and situations that your characters have encountered. What has affected the way they think and feel, the way they cope with life, their in-built beliefs about themselves and the world? Their past will dictate the way they deal with things now.

Mannerisms, speech patterns, appearance, motives, emotional responses, will start to pop into your mind as your characters grow. Maybe you like to have this all planned out before you start writing, or you like to watch them grow as you write.

Don’t forget that the interaction between characters, coupled with events and the backstory you have given them, is what will steer your story. It’s what creates intrigue, conflict, and revelations.

So, why the boots?

There has to be a starting point for your inspiration. It could be a glimpse of someone on the street, an actor in a film, someone you know, or a vase on a windowsill. Something sparks your imagination.

I’m going to take the boots in the photo as my starting point and run a quick Q&A about them to see what I can find out.

  • Q: Whose boots are they?
  • A: They look like male boots to me so I’m going to give them to a woman.
  • Q: Why?
  • A: Because it is unexpected and because I had an image of a young woman who wears them because she’s just lost her husband.
  • Q: How did she lose her husband?
  • A: I don’t know yet, but I’ll figure something.
  • Q: Why is there mud on them? Where have they been?
  • A: She’s been gardening; tending to his vegetable plot because he would have hated for it to go to seed. She hates/hated gardening.
  • Q: Where is she now?
  • A: She’s not long come in and padded off to the kitchen in her socks.

I could go on. I know I’ve had the chance to edit the Q&As but I promise you I haven’t. I wrote them by hand and kept them as they are, so the exercise kept its spontaneity. Already I’m getting an image of this young woman and an idea of what is going on in her life. She is also coming alive visually. I’m seeing slim, about 29, shoulder-length mousey hair, minimal makeup, practical, sensible, and lonely (I’m warming to her already).

The result is I now have a bigger picture than just a pair of muddy boots and, possibly, the basis for a story. The questioning can go on as much as you like. It depends how much information you need. In the end you will reveal things about that character that have nothing to do with boots.

Build characters your reader can form a relationship with

What you should end up with is a character who is plausible at worst and totally believable at best. The more real your characters are the more your reader can form relationships with them and identify with their every move along the way – even if they don’t like a character.

We’ve all come across the one you love to hate. The reason they fascinate you is because they have human traits and flaws, and the reader recognises this.

The villain who was brought up in a convent as an orphan creates a level of pity in the reader. They want to know whether his childhood made him the villain of today, or whether something about his past instigates change in his behaviour now or the possibility of it in the future. Is there something that will be his saving grace, or will he meet the grisly end he deserves?

You can create your own list of questions about the villain and the orphanage. The important thing is to trust your imagination. Ideas will come to you and you may not always like them. If that happens stop and ask yourself why. Is it because it makes you feel uncomfortable? Great. Go with it. Readers love discomfort. Or is it because it doesn’t fit with your story idea? Fine. Ditch it.

The story is yours, you are its architect. It goes where you want it to go, though often it will take its own unexpected directions. You are free to imagine what you like and use what you like.

It should go without saying – but I’m going to say it anyway – you don’t need an in-depth history for a minor character; you only need enough to introduce them as real enough for the role they play. The depths you go to for each character will depend on how major their role is. You will inevitably end up with more than enough background, most of which you will never use, but all of it will inform you of who this person is and what sort of person they are.

Don’t overdo it

If you can build a clear image of your characters then so will your readers. Don’t overdo it and let the reader fill in some of the gaps with their own imagination. They want to do some of the work themselves.