When my characters first appear to me, it will be in a climactic scene from their story. I don’t know why or how, but they just appear in my mind. I’ll see how they look physically, what they’re feeling and how they react. Picturing the character in their pivotal scene will form the core of their being, capture the essence of their personality, and the rest just seems to radiate out from there: where they came from, how they got to that pivotal place, and where they will go from there.
With Carrie Welles in Aurora: Darwin (book 1 of the Aurora Series), I first pictured her being made aware of the awful truth behind Station Darwin. I felt the tension, saw her fear, and tasted the devastation of the predicament she was in. And I wanted to know more. In particular, I wanted to know how she was going to get out of this situation. And the truth is, I knew she wasn’t going to do it alone. Not because she was weak or incapable, but because the situation before her was grave.
So, if Carrie wasn’t going to make it out of this situation on her own, then she needed someone to help. Captain Saul Harris was an obvious choice. He first came to me as a man under immense pressure, trying hard to keep his team together and alive. For whatever reason, I subconsciously pictured these two characters different in every way possible: male/female, black/white, 40’s/20’s, American/Australian, Captain/Corporal. And knowing how opposite they were, I wondered how I could bring these two together? As I began to explore the characters, however, I discovered that they had two things in common: a good heart, and the determination to survive. So this odd pair suddenly didn’t seem so odd. And it was out of this exploration of character that I found the crux of my story: Two very different people, with one common goal: survival.
There are strong themes of sexism and gender issues throughout the Aurora Series, but it’s not in the way that most people think. I didn’t want my heroine to single-handedly save the day and prove herself better than the boys. Why? Because I thought that was unrealistic. Nor, did I want Saul Harris my hero to single-handedly save the day either. The true theme behind the Aurora Series is teamwork. No-one is better than the other. If they were going to make it out of this situation they were going to have to work together on an even playing field. And not just my two leads – I have a whole cast of characters to contend with. The theme behind the series doesn’t just relate to equality between the sexes. The Aurora team is made up of a mix of nationalities, skin colour, ages, talents, career rankings, etc. This is a story about everyone banding together to survive, despite their differences.
And this is where characterisation plays a huge part, not just with the leads, but also with the minor characters. In order for a reader to feel the tension and to care about what happens to the crew of the Aurora, I needed to have well-rounded believable characters – that weren’t just there to stand in the background. To make them believable I had to build them with real life personalities that readers could potentially see part of themselves in, I had to give these characters each a part to play in the story, and I had to let the reader spend some time with the characters before the shit hits the fan.
I think all characters in some way inherit certain characteristics from their creators. I’m the first to admit that there are small elements of myself infused into all my characters. I mean, they say write what you know, right? So, in order to make these characters real you need to insert a piece of yourself, or someone else you know, into them to lift them from the page. And not just the good characteristics, you need to give them flaws, because that is what makes them truly life-like. That said, you shouldn’t just focus on their personalities, because sometimes it’s the little physical characteristics that can help ‘flesh’ them out too. Take Harris and the way he often arches his eyebrow. He’s a captain who thinks, studies, analyses, and questions, and this little physicality underpins this personality trait.
Each one of my characters makes mistakes, but they also do some things right. It’s the ebb and flow of the character’s personal journey, and also the ebb and flow of the overall story’s journey – how the characters, in their ebbs and flows, relate and interact with the other characters. But don’t just stop at the personalities, physicalities, or relationships, and how these relate to the external turmoil of the story. To really flesh out a character there needs to be inner turmoil too.
To quote author Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
This ultimately means they should have something driving them, be it as simple as the desire for a glass of water, or a need to prove themselves to someone, or a more critical goal of something like survival.
Harris is clearly a man facing great external turmoil, trying to keep his team safe and fighting a foe he didn’t imagine possible. But as the story grew, it became clear to me that he is also a man facing great inner turmoil. The Aurora Series follows Harris as he travels through a journey of self-discovery. Slowly but surely with each episode in the series, he begins to find out who he really is and what his life really means.
Carrie’s story began as a simple ‘horror for chicks’ tale, about a woman facing the great external turmoil she discovers on the Darwin. But as the series progressed, she too became faced with a lot of inner turmoil. She, like Harris, is on a journey of self-discovery. She’s a woman who has her whole life planned out, but is suddenly side-swiped and forced onto another path she hadn’t planned. Battling the chaos around her, she is faced with the inner turmoil of questioning her career choice, dealing with the prospect of a love she hadn’t expected, and trying to resolve the widening gap with her estranged father. Slowly but surely with each episode in the series, she begins to discover what she’s really made of and what she wants her life to be.
All characters, be it major or minor, should have a back story -just like everyone in real life does. Each story in the Aurora Series peels away more layers and reveals more about each of the characters. Some of the character’s inner turmoil comes to the forefront and mingles with the overarching storyline, and some of the other character’s inner turmoil takes more of a backseat – there simply to add depth to that character.
Creating characters is not a simple thing. Strong characters are built from the ground up in a detailed 3D modelling kind of way. You need to consider every facet that a normal human has: particular physical looks, personality type, habits/quirks, background, relationships, family life, flaws, everything right down to their favourite drink.
I’ve spent about five years with the characters of the Aurora Series now, so they are like family. I laugh when they laugh, fear when they fear, and love when they love. They are as real to me as any of my friends, and I hope I have managed to translate them into words well enough, so that my readers can feel like they are part of their family too.
Books discussed in this post: