Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writers have a lot of different ways of getting to know their characters. Character biographies, for example, allow you to figure out a character’s backstory, defining who they are and where they’ve come from. Hot-seating, a technique borrowed from actors, involves either imagining a character or pretending to be them, answering a series of questions designed to burrow down into their subconscious. They’re great devices, but they’re limited by perspective – you’re dealing with either the literal truth about a character or that character’s understanding of their own story.
As has been observed before, we’re all the hero of our own story, but your novel can’t be peopled entirely by heroes. That means you need to find a different perspective and, in this article, I’ll be sharing a device that does exactly that.
In his article ‘The Best Advice I Ever Received’, Andrew Ellard, who has worked on TV series such as Red Dwarf, Doctors and The IT Crowd, shares a piece of advice that helped him in writing character biographies for sitcom characters.
Have [your characters] write each other’s biographies.
Isn’t that immediately more interesting? Joey writing Chandler’s character description pops right away – uncertain what his flatmate does for a living but knowing it’s ‘something in an office’, baffled by his lack of success with women, oblivious to the fact that Chandler does all the washing up.
Showing how characters see each other tells you twice as much about them both. It’s basically a sneaky way of writing a scene. Hell, why not write it as a scene? Mark from Peep Show being interviewed about Jez. The failure to pay rent, the dreadful music “career” (you can hear those quote marks), the drink-drug-curry experiment that left a streak of shit half way up the lounge wall.
‘Have the show’s characters write each other’s biographies’. It’s a great tip. And if, when you try it, it doesn’t give you anything funny or interesting, you’ve immediately identified a problem with the show.
– Andrew Ellard, ‘The Best Advice I Ever Received‘ from The Sitcommission
Ellard is passing on some great advice, here, but it doesn’t just work for sitcoms. Having one character explain another is a great way of understanding not just the character being explained (or the one doing the explaining) but the relationship that exists between these characters.Having one character describe another will flesh out their relationship.Click To Tweet
Writing one character’s assessment of another tells you a great deal about who these people are in each other’s lives. You start discovering the vices that really bug one character, the virtues they miss, and vice versa.
This is especially useful if your character exists in many different spheres. Do their staff, for example, really think of them in the same way as their friends and family? It’s not impossible, but it does suggest your character only has one setting, no matter who they’re dealing with. Doesn’t an old friend, privy to their youthful indiscretions, see them in an entirely different way than their child, who knows only the strict authoritarian who doesn’t want to see them make the same mistakes?
I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan and Alan Partridge: Nomad are books written by the fictional comedy character Alan Partridge. Mostly autobiographical, they deal with characters and events that readers have already encountered in various radio and television shows, and the movie Alan Partridge.
Because of this, part of their appeal is that they offer the dramatic irony of Alan’s warped perspective – a pitiful scuffle is rewritten as an action-packed fight, a frantic argument is peppered with bon mots that never materialized, and various characters are reimagined according to Alan’s likes and dislikes.
Throughout Alan Partridge: Nomad, Alan studiously avoids using the name of his assistant Lynn Benfield, to the extent that in some passages, it’s clear that he’s performed an auto-replace to swap her name for the less affectionate ‘my assistant’. There are also passages where Alan refers to her more obliquely – referencing the reaction of ‘a Christian’ he knows in a way that fans immediately know refers to Lynn.
In this way, the books showcase a unique aspect of Alan and Lynn’s relationship, but also of Alan’s psyche. While it’s previously been made clear that Alan doesn’t want Lynn to be seen as anything more than his assistant, it’s never been more clear how much of this comes from the value he places on her as an accessory to his supposed professionalism – he doesn’t want to acknowledge Lynn as a presence in his life because he wants to think of her as ‘my assistant’, and therefore of himself as someone who has an assistant.
That he can make his life seem fuller by splitting her identity is a bonus, but by seeing Lynn through Alan, the reader is privy to one of the deep needs that drives him, and better understands his frequent callousness towards her. Hearing Alan’s account of Lynn makes it immediately clear how they interact and, more importantly, the ‘why’ behind it.
This device doesn’t just help flesh out relationships and cast what you already knew in a new light, it can also help ask new questions that you hadn’t previously considered. Generally, when you write two characters, you’re deliberately aware of the differences between them. These differences drive conflict, which in turn drives the plot.
Because of this, focusing one character’s lens on another can reveal minor details that the latter character would never have considered. The basic model for this is a fashionable character commenting on the clothing of a character with no sartorial instincts whatsoever. The unfashionable character would never think about why they wear the clothes they wear, but if they’re realistic, there is a reason. Maybe they buy from one place because it’s cheap, maybe they avoid brands and logos, or maybe they were once told they look good in a certain color and (secretly) buy it whenever they can. Even if you hadn’t considered their personal fashion, the eye of another character could reveal something like a ratty shirt that they think of as their ‘best’, or a tendency to buy whatever the mannequin is wearing. These are small details that characters can’t find in themselves – and that authors have trouble seeding – but which another character would catch in a moment.
One of the most enjoyable such details is from Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, in which Doctor Watson first meets Sherlock Holmes.
His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the solar system. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
‘You appear to be astonished,’ he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. ‘Now that I do know it, I shall do my best to forget it.’
‘To forget it!’
‘You see,’ he explained, ‘I consider that a man’s brain is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things… It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.’
‘But the solar system!’ I protested.
‘What the deuce is it to me?’ he interrupted impatiently. ‘You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon, it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’
– Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
This is a great moment for both characters, and their relationship, but consider for a moment how vital Watson is in discovering what Holmes doesn’t know. Holmes considers this information worthless and even an author with the idea of showing Holmes’ failings would struggle to find a good example. It takes Watson to not just find the thing Holmes doesn’t know, but to become blusteringly outraged by the ignorance.Your characters have noticed things about each other that you’ve missed.Click To Tweet
It’s moments like this that characterize Holmes not just as a genius, but as a transgressive figure, outraging the more traditional Watson. Not only that; ‘But the solar system!’ does so much character work for Watson that it’s hard to unpack all of it. He’s clearly of a curious, scientific bent, but also a traditional thinker, sticking rigidly to society’s idea of intelligence. Not only that, but he’s on the same side as the reader, promoting the idea that they, too, should be less strident in their assessment of what someone ‘should’ know, and subtly promoting an affection for Watson and his point of view. He’s set up immediately as someone in need of Holmes’ tutelage but also someone who’ll make the most of it, all because Doyle chose to look at Holmes not through a removed, omniscient perspective, or even via Holmes’ idea of himself, but through Watson, who can’t believe Holmes doesn’t know a Thomas Carlyle quote when he hears it.
This type of personal outrage is great, turning difference into affectionate conflict, and it’s always lurking somewhere in a relationship. It might be a deep political difference or a regional difference in behavior or speech, but using one character to look at another will uncover the differences that make for a great story.
Expanding difference into conflict
In his article, Andrew Ellard mentions Joey and Chandler from Friends, and how Joey doesn’t really know what Chandler does for a living. This is a difference between the characters – they live very different lives and have very different concerns – but it’s also the seed of potential conflict.
This conflict could take many forms – Joey, for example, might not fully understand if Chandler was stressed out by work. After all, he doesn’t know what Chandler is trying to do all day, so he can’t properly ascertain what’s a bad day and what’s a disaster.How are your characters different? These are the places conflict will flourish.Click To Tweet
In fact, the show uses this difference to spark a different kind of conflict; in The One with Five Steaks and an Eggplant, the characters are divided down income lines, with the poorer characters, like Joey, frustrated that the others don’t seem to appreciate the financial burden their choices can bring on their friends. In this case, Chandler, a well-paid professional, doesn’t quite appreciate how little income Joey has. This is an issue that runs deep, and the best scene sees the richer friends trying to navigate a response that’s respectful of an issue they haven’t previously considered.
Joey: Okay, um, uh… We three feel like that, uh, sometimes you guys don’t get that, um… (Long pause) We don’t have as much money as you.
Monica: (Awkward) Okay.
Ross: (Awkward) I hear you.
Chandler: (Awkward) We can talk about that.
Phoebe: Well, then… let’s.
Ross: Well, um, I, I guess I just never think of money as an issue.
Rachel: That’s ’cause you have it.
Ross: (Immediately) That’s a good point.
– Chris Brown, ‘The One with Five Steaks and an Eggplant’ from Friends
This is a scene that depends on the writer understanding what six characters (formed, admittedly, into two clear blocks) think about an issue, how they’ve misunderstood the other characters’ take on that issue, and the worries each character has about what will upset the others.
Ross’ birthday, for instance, is used as an example of an upcoming event that will cost money, causing an instant issue as Ross tries to hide his excitement that his birthday was going to be an event and the other friends try to reconcile their guilt over complaining about a celebration. Scenes like this hinge on an understanding of all the relationships in play that can only come from seeing your characters through each other’s eyes.
Interview your characters
For all the reasons above, having one character give a short biography of the others promises to do great things for your writing, but you don’t have to stop there. You can hotseat your characters, interviewing them to get an even better idea of what they think, or, as Andrew Ellard suggests, even write a few scenes to delve deeper, whether they’ll fit into your finished story or not. The work you put in will be rewarded with pearls of wisdom you can’t find any other way, and an enhanced understanding of your characters that makes for a way better story.
Do you have an example of a character who really comes alive when seen from another perspective, or want to share your own tips for writing great character development and interaction? Let me know in the comments below. Or, for more on writing great characters, check out This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters and Don’t Let Fake Minor Characters Ruin Your Story.