Thursday, 10 September 2015

Guest Post: On Characterization - Gerrard Cowan

Today on Bookish I'm thrilled to welcome Gerrard Cowan, author of The Machinery! Gerrard was one of the fifteen authors chosen by Harper Voyager during their open submissions a couple of years back for his novel The Machinery. Look out for my review of The Machinery coming tomorrow but in the meantime happy book birthday Gerrard!

Don’t Forget The Grey Bits

One of the main challenges an author faces is characterisation. I have heard many different methods and techniques writers employ to create believable protagonists. You should pull together separate biographies for each of them. You should go down to the pub or the supermarket, and listen to the way people talk. You should base your characters on people you know, like your partner or your friends (not sure this one is very advisable).

For me, it was more a process of trial and error. I developed a rough idea of who each character was, but I didn’t write it down: it was just in my head. I then launched into writing, and over the course of several years and many drafts, my picture of each of them grew increasingly clear.

But that’s just the way it worked for me, and I certainly wouldn’t advise against preparing detailed sketches before you begin, or taking whatever other approach works for you. One thing I would say, however, is that you should remember to colour in the grey bits. 

In today’s fantasy genre, you rarely come across characters that are totally good or totally evil. George RR Martin’s books are the classic example, but the same applies to the other big names in the genre. I absolutely love Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire Trilogy. The main character in these, Jorg Ancrath, is on paper a very dislikeable guy, but you end up rooting for him. At least I did.

Anyway, I am likely preaching to the converted. Fantasy readers demand nothing less than rounded, complex characters these days. But how do you go about doing this? How do you find the grey bits?

For me, the trick was to focus on the details. One of the main characters of The Machinery is Aranfal, who is a member of the Watchers: a kind of police service meets intelligence agency. It’s made clear early on that he is a torturer, whose particular technique to extract information from someone is to hurt his or her loved ones. Clearly he’s not the nicest guy in the world. However, at the same time, he isn’t a fire-breathing ghoul. He has been twisted by his membership of the Watchers, whose modus operandi is torture. He joined the organisation as a bright-eyed youth, confident that he could change its ways of working: in the end, it changed him.

Now, this is not to excuse his actions. But there is more to him than a cruel torturer. One day, when I was describing his living quarters, I suddenly found myself writing about his collection: rows of shelves in which he keeps ancient trinkets that he has found through his travels around the country. In essence, this ruthless, blood-stained man is also an antiques enthusiast. That little detail seemed to add such depth to him.

In a strange way, it’s actually harder finding the grey in your good guys, who can easily come across as boring and wooden if you’re not careful. The heroine of The Machinery is Katrina Paprissi, a young Apprentice Watcher who is struggling to establish herself as a full Watcher. It took me a while to find her voice: I really didn’t want her to come across as a vapid do-gooder. I eventually hit upon the idea of giving her a tired, world-weary viewpoint, which is a little jarring in a young person. She has witnessed some terrible things: she saw her brother being kidnapped when she was a child, and the subsequent breakdown of her family. It made sense that she should have a kind of jaded view of the world.

There’s no particular trick to finding the grey bits. One thing I do, however, is to imagine the opposite of what we might naturally expect from a character. So, if we have a man who is hard and cruel, imagine him being loving and caring. You can’t do this every time. However, you can then move along the spectrum, from the very opposite point, until you find something you can picture fitting with the character.

Finding the grey bits is a challenge, but it’s also a lot of fun. You would never use just one or two words to sum up the entire personality of a friend or family member: it should be the same with the characters in your book. 
About The Author
Gerrard Cowan is a writer and editor from Derry, in the North West of Ireland. His debut fantasy novel, The Machinery, will be published by HarperVoyager UK in September 2015. It is the first in a trilogy.

His first known work was a collection of poems on monsters, written for Halloween when he was eight; it is sadly lost to civilisation...

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