Mr Johannsson, are you off duty?
Good. I was hoping you could spare a moment of your time and allow me to introduce you to my readers.
Yes, I do understand how busy you are and how important the Head Lighthouse Keeper position is but I assure you, it won’t take long.
You can? Oh, I am grateful.
Welcome! In today’s blog I’ll talk through how I went about creating my characters. For this example, I’m using one of the central creations of my novel, the fearsome Head Lightkeeper, Mr Frederick Johannsson.
It is Mr Johannsson’s duty to manage the lighthouse, it’s keepers and their families as well as the newly appointed Head Teacher, Miss Kathleen Devine.
Mr Johannsson’s sense of duty is his strongest personality trait and his greatest flaw. In maintaining strict discipline he is in danger of alienating those around him and yet, such order is necessary for the proper functioning of the lighthouse. For Mr Johannsson, there is only one understanding and that is his sense of duty to the care of the lighthouse and, by default, all who sail past his post.
Every task, every decision is determined by one criteria: to keep the light burning bright.
Mr Johannsson’s reputation as a Head Lightkeeper is fierce and his dedication, legendary. If there is one thing Mr Johannsson understands, it is the absolute necessity to keep the light burning bright. Nothing must detract from this task.
The question remains then, is Mr Johannsson’s unlikely friendship with the lonely eldest daughter of the new 3rd Assistant Keeper a distraction or a furthering of his duty? What is it that propels Mr Johannsson to befriend Isabella? What secret regret is he harbouring? How will he maintain order and keep his unruly subordinates in line?
When creating complex characters, I had to ask myself these and many other questions, to understand both the internal and external motivations which drive the heart of the story.
The Guardian’s article on ‘How to Write a Book in Thirty Days’ helped here – www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/20/how-to-write-premliminary-outline-day-one
Here is a picture of my early notes for the character of Mr Johannsson.
And here are some of the questions I worked on when developing my characters:
- Physical descriptions – what does the character look like, sound like, move like, smell like? What peculiarities do they have? What gestures do they use? The more these can be built into the narrative, the more the character will come alive. Their mannerisms can reveal much about their internal worlds. For instance, Mr Johannsson’s booming voice perfectly reveals his backstory as a mariner and his long lighthouse duty where orders need to be heard over the worst of the weather.
- Background – even if this doesn’t enter the story, it’s vital the writer knows who their characters are. Where were they born? How old are they? Who were their mother and father and siblings Where did they grow up? What brought them here? Not only can this information help give flesh to a fictional character, it can reveal much about their motivations and bring new ideas to the story you’re trying to tell.
- External conflicts – what circumstances have led the character to this place and time? Mr Johannsson has many conflicts, both external and internal, as does every well-rounded character. Mr Johannsson V the uncouth Seamus Brown. Mr Johannsson V his keepers. Mr Johannsson V his son and Mr Johannsson V the vast and forbidding ocean.
- Internal conflicts – the most interesting of all! What gives the character spark? What infuriates them? What do they want & don’t want? Mr Johannsson’s internal conflicts fall into a desire/belief dichotomy. He has a strong desire for a relationship with the son he’s not seen for years but also, a belief in integrity of character that he does not think his son displayed. Mr Johannsson has a belief that his subordinates must follow instructions in accordance with the strict lighthouse hierarchy borne out of a motivation to maintain order. His desire for order and civilisation is at odds however, with the isolation and wildness that he must attempt to control to keep the passage safe. As well, he has a desire to ensure his keepers’ souls are safe by providing theological instruction believing that living a Godly life is the key to discipline. Discipline is central to his understanding of who he is and his role in life.
From these initial thoughts, the character then developed in relation to the other characters and the story as a whole. It’s interesting though, that in these early sketches are the seeds of who Mr Johannsson would become and although the story developed and changed, the essence of the man stayed pretty much the same.
I would love to know how you develop your characters and if any of this has resonated with you.
Happy writing & reading and, as Mr Johannsson would say, ‘back to work’!
Until next time,