OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI got into conversation with writer Hugh Thompson a few days ago on the subject of characters in fiction.

He was telling me how he ‘finds’ his characters by their back-stories. I, he told me, find them by their voices. His perceptions are sound, I think, but it made me question what those two different routes to character bring with them.

Back-story, it seems to me, would bring momentum and direction, would create characters who have come from somewhere and who have, implicitly, somewhere to go. Voices give personality, identity, but imply little about back-story, or future direction.

Might there be other qualities of character that we could use to create them? I remember hearing actors say that they ‘find’ the characters they are set to play by a variety of techniques. Some say the walk, for example, one said ‘the shoes’, echoing that old saw about walking a mile in someone else’s. I can remember, when working in the criminal justice system, trying to get an insight into the motives and feelings of clients – we’re talking convicted criminals here – by trying to hold myself, physically, as they did, by trying to walk as they did. There’s a phrase in Tom Wolfe – he used it in Bonfire of the Vanities – ‘the pimp roll’. Walk the pimp roll, my theory goes, and you’ll get an idea of how the guy feels about himself.

Trying to visualise the characters we are going to create as fiction writers, we might choose their actions, or their appearance, their interests, or that classic creator of identity, their occupations. Each starting point will set us off on a different type of journey though. Perhaps what we need to do is to have a blend of such points of origin. On the other hand, we are creating fictional characters, not real people.

A story, particularly a short story, needs a focus, and that is likely to be on a character in interaction with a situation, a situation created by a location (in time and space). That character may strive to bring about change, or to resist it; it may be driven by hopes or fears, but the likelihood is that our interest, as writers and readers, will be focussed on on or two elements of the character, of the situation, and the location, and our route to having, as writers, imagined the character in the first place, will throw certain elements into sharper focus.

Like arriving at a place, we arrive at a character, from a particular direction, and in this analogy, that means arriving via the character’s back-story, or voice, or appearance, or whatever we have taken as our own particular route.