An Atticus moment: Creating strong characters

As we prepare to welcome our first writing students to The Hard Word Writing School, here are some thoughts about character development in a work of fiction.
Recently my husband faced a moral dilemma. It involved our son’s Under-9 soccer team and it wasn’t life or death, but it affected my husband greatly. When he related the incident to me and described his conflict, I let him in on a secret. When I’m faced with similar predicaments, I always ask myself the same question. What would Atticus Finch do? Once I have the answer, I act accordingly.

Harper Lee’s fifty-something father from her novel To Kill a Mockingbird has become the yardstick for parents and people all around the world. There aren’t many characters in literature who are as upright, ethical, balanced and believable as Atticus Finch. Lee’s achievement is remarkable. Few authors have ever been able to create a such a perfectly drawn character. But there is a crucial first step all writers must take when building strong characters.

Building a profile

A ‘character profile’ might be a detailed report the author writes before they begin, or something more fluid that matures with the growth of the plot and with subsequent drafts of the novel. All authors work differently, but without this profile it is impossible to create anything more than a cardboard cut-out.
Each character, major or minor, has to be rounded. They must be a whole person who lives and breathes on the page. And, like real people, they are brought to life by specific individual qualities.
An author has to understand their characters so well that they are able to predict how they will react and feel in every situation. They have to hear the character’s voice and laugh. They must be able to picture them walking across a room. An author must be clear about their fears and foibles, even their dietary habits. A writer has to know their character as well as they know themselves.

How are authors able to get to this point of intimacy?

Like a journalist who researches a public figure or a dogged detective who profiles a murderer, questions must be asked and answered. This will help you write a vivid backstory for the character and assist in your understanding of how the characters’ pasts have made them the people they are today.
The two most vital questions that will drive the plot of the story are:

  • What do the characters want?
  • What is stopping them from attaining it?

But before you can answer these you must first know the following:

  • What does the character look like?
  • What do they sound like?
  • How do they think?
  • What do they believe in?
  • How do they present themselves to the world?
  • Who do they love?
  • Who do they despise?
  • What relationships do they have?
  • Where do they come from?
  • What are they good at?
  • What are they bad at?
  • What do they love?
  • What do they fear?

And that’s just a starting point! Authors continue to probe as the story is written and more questions arise. Not all the information you gather will be used in your novel, but it will definitely help you to develop an authentic character on the page.

I’m pleased to report my husband took Atticus’s lead and embarked upon the most ethical, if not the most popular, road. Perhaps the impact of a well-drawn, engaging character is greater than I realised.

Further reading: Here’s a comprehensive summary of what the experts say about building character -