27 August 2014

What’s the One Thing Your Character Can’t Live Without?

This is in direct response to a post written by Janice Hardy on Pub(lishing) Crawl, a great blog I’ve recently started following. I suggest reading her post first as this one answers the questions it poses!

What is the one thing this character can’t live without? How would they react if they lost it? What would they sacrifice to keep this thing?

The character I’ll be using to answer these questions is the protagonist from my long suffering novel-in-progress, Cricket. The story is a dystopian so she comes from a time where valuing material possessions provokes conflicting reactions; when your life is in constant danger, it becomes less important that your iPod is constantly on your person. However, it does cause people to form sentimental attachments to the few possessions they do own and increasing the likelihood of them being categorised as ‘can’t live without’. It also means that if you are to find something as exciting as a pretty piece of stone, you’re going to want to hang onto it. No one else has a piece of stone this pretty. It’s your pretty piece of stone.

For Cricket it's the misshapen, freying jumper she was wearing when she fell through a hole in time that she can’t live without. 

Cricket knows absolutely nothing about her past; the clothes she was wearing when she tumbled into an unknown time are the only clues she has to who she used to be. Most of these clothes are fairly non-descript, but the jumper is so ugly that Cricket believes there has to be a reason she was lugging it around on her back. It’s not something she wants to wear all the time (it is pretty hideous after all)

Knowing who she ‘used’ to be is not really a driving force in Cricket’s life (or the plot), but she does struggle initially with her own identity. Hanging onto what might have been important to her in her past acts as an anchor in her chaotic life. Cricket values strength in people, including herself. But knowing that if she starts to feel a like a lost little girl she can wriggle into her disgusting jumper and shut out the world goes a long way to helping her maintain that strength. It’s a flimsy support structure for her, but it works.

For the most part, Cricket is a fairly practical person. You have to be living in the tattered ruins of civilization in a desolate dystopian wasteland (they put that on their travel brochures). Losing an old jumper would not cause an emotional breakdown, especially as she can’t say why it’s so important to her. She wouldn’t leap through flames to save it from a burning building, or otherwise sacrifice her personal safety in order to keep a hold of it.

But if someone was to carelessly misplace, steal, or dispose of this unattractive piece of clothing?

Cricket may not know who she used to be, but who she is now would happily rearrange the face of that careless someone. 

Addition question: Where do you start when you create a character?

When I first start to imagine up a new character, it usually happens in the context of a particular scene with an existing character. It will usually explore how they would interact with other characters, or if it’s a completely new story then how the new characters would interact with one another. I might write a ‘mock-up’ scene of the characters in a tense or dangerous situation, and feel out their personalities whilst free-writing them for a little while. 

Once I have this initial scene and can visualise them with the existing characters/within the setting, I start to flesh out their character. I’m a big fan of mind-maps for this part, with different sub-headings such as appearance, character traits/quirks and ‘role’ within their group (what they bring to the plot). Depending on the story I would also think about their family, what they might do in their spare time and things such as the above; what they can’t live without.

Most (sometimes all) of this might never make it onto the page. But that’s okay. The fact that you know this character so well means that you can breathe more life into them, making them feel real for the reader. And it’s always good to remember, you’ve never going to know your characters 100%. But where would the fun be if they couldn’t still surprise you every now and again?


  1. I love this post! I just stumbled onto Pub(lishing) Crawl for the first time the other day, and I read your original comment on Janice Hardy's article! Looking forward to reading more of your posts and also The Nopebook!

    1. Thank you! Wow this was written ages ago now, glad that it's held up! I don't post much on here anymore but I've got lots on The Nopebook, so happy you're following us there!