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Charlotte Butterfield on creating likeable characters

Charlotte Butterfield on creating likeable characters

One thing I get asked a lot is how to write characters that readers will love, and the short answer is, if I don’t want to go out for a coffee or a glass of wine with them then I need to completely overhaul their personality until I do. That’s not to say that they need to be perfect, because who wants to read about someone (or, let’s be honest, go out for a drink with someone) who has no flaws or battle scars. Because I write in a genre I also love reading, I know what characters I enjoy spending time with in other people’s books and so when it comes to creating my own, they tend to mould themselves into fully-formed humans pretty quickly.

Spending every day in a character’s body and mind is quite an intense experience and, while I’m sure this doesn’t necessarily apply to writers of crime or horror, you have to enjoy their company or you’ll soon get bored. The idea of hot-seating isn’t new by any means, but I do find it a very useful exercise to place my character in a variety of situations and to imagine how they would react. At a party last year for instance, I found myself wondering what Nell, my main character in The Second Chance, would be doing (answer: talking to strangers, pouring strong drinks for people, and dancing barefoot). In a supermarket queue I start to think about what Nell would have in her basket (wonky vegetables and a pina colada mix) and soon she started to tag along on all my errands. Last summer, I was walking through my local town on my way to drop some things off at a charity shop. I had just passed a tattoo parlour when Nell started whispering in my ear that I should get my nose pierced. I am, for the sake of clarity, a married mother of three who is firmly nestled in my forties, yet her voice was so insistent, I did it. Nell became my voice of unreason, the little firecracker sat on my shoulder telling me to be more spontaneous, more fun, more like the me I would want to be had life not somehow tamed me.

Writing what you know is a great piece of advice (I feel the need to once again caveat this if you are a horror/crime writer, personal experience is absolutely not a recommended prerequisite!). If I look back and gather together all my main characters from my six novels, they span all my own life stages. It would also be one heck of a party, but I digress. Jayne, Leila and Eve from my first three novels are single women each searching for their place in an increasingly coupled-up world, and I wrote these three books while living in Dubai, surrounded by a pretty vibrant social scene. Jess, in my fourth novel, By This Time Tomorrow, was a harried mother of two, living in a city but yearning for a more sedate pace and that certainly had echoes of my own life at the time, while my fifth, You Get That From Me was a multi-generational story set in one house over three time periods looking at the relationship between mothers and daughters, written at a time, where I very much felt sandwiched between the generations above and below me. And Nell, my latest fictional best friend, is the me I wish I was (if I was slightly braver).

There’s that line in the front of novels, isn’t there, that says ‘This is a work of fiction, any resemblance to characters or situations living or dead is purely coincidental’ but most writers know that’s really not true. Every character has a living breathing doppelganger walking about, doing their shopping or having a cup of tea at this exact moment. They may well have features or attributes borrowed from a blend of people, but certainly no character is entirely a work of complete fiction, how can they be? One of my favourite people-watching places is on the tube, and if I’m ever stuck for character inspiration I’ll buy myself a one-day travelcard and board the next train, destination: Who Cares. The idea of hundreds of lives, hundreds of stories, converging for a couple of minutes, before splintering off again is endlessly fascinating to me and I will happily sit and make up the life story of each and every one of my fellow passengers.

So next time you’ve got writer’s block, and your characters are of the cardboard variety and need a little three-dimensioning, head underground. I’ll be on the Circle Line going anti-clockwise. See you there.

The Second Chance was published by Avon on 9 May 2024

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