Let’s get back to the serious business of writing.

I wrote a series of articles for Quill on creative writing a few years back. I’ve posted the first instalment on Creative Writing: How Do I Start?

Here’s the second instalment and it deals with writing about character.

For me, creating and building a character can be one of the most difficult parts of creative writing, but it can also be the most rewarding. So, if you haven’t read the article, here goes:


Last time we met, I said that we begin writing when we have an idea. A idea might just be a man leaving a cardboard box in a coffee shop and quickly leaving.

Let’s now look at this man carefully and show him to the reader. Let’s call him Jason Lam. Jason’s a thin man with pimples. With his metal framed glasses and long hair dyed blonde, he saunters around in his trendy T-shirts, tight jeans and his favourite blue slippers. Jason is twenty-four, drives a Yamaha motor bike and lives with his mother in a shop house in Cheras. His father died in a car accident when Jason was twelve. Jason works in an electrical shop fixing and mending electric appliances.

Now we have some idea of who Jason is. But we can discover more about him by looking inside his mind and in his heart. Although Jason appears to be a confident person externally, he is actually insecure. Jason is worried about his mother because she has a heart condition and he’s afraid that one day he’s going to come home and find her dead. She needs an operation but Jason has no money. Jason’s passion is writing computer games on his old computer. One day, he’d like to have his own business selling his games but, deep inside, he knows it’s going to be too difficult. Still, it’s his dream.

Now we’re beginning to know Jason as a person. Depending on the extent of your work, you can keep developing his character. Has he got any brothers or sisters? What does he do when he’s not at work or writing games on his computer? What does he like? His dislikes? What habits has he got? Does he pick his teeth? Does he smoke? If so, what brand? Has he got a girlfriend?

Now it would be great if we could let Jason’s character lead us into the story. For instance we know that his mother is ill and his desperate to get money for her operation. Suppose he’s trying to extort the towkay who owns the coffee shop. Maybe Jason took a smoke bomb to the coffee shop to scare the towkay and unless the towkay pays up, the next time it’s going to a real one!

Beware though! Characters should be well rounded, three-dimensional. When beginning creative writing it’s easy to fall into the trap of creating flat characters because these are the characters we’re familar with. Flat characters are usually stereotypes like the forgetful professor, the anorexic model, the prostitute with a heart of gold, the shifty-eyes thief. Flat characters are predictable. Avoid them!

Characters should be complex and giving them conflicting traits only shows that they’re ‘real’. They should be people rather than caricatures. Good characters breath life into the story and your readers should recognise their own selves in the characters you create.

With good characters your story can evolve, taking it in directions you never thought about when you first developed your ideas. This is part of the fun of writing!