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Character Building

By M S Clements.

When I began writing The Third Magpie, I had a physical picture of my characters but not their traits, those little things that they do or say, that defines them. I found that these develop over time and soon you see your character grow into their own person. In my mind, I find myself arguing, ‘No, that’s not Tara! She wouldn’t do that.’ Their personality becomes ingrained within you, and I have heard more than one author comment on how they have woken in the middle of the night because their character is angry with the plot-line (I may or may not admit to having done this too).

I found that being very precise when defining a character and giving them a believable voice is the first step towards making them credible. It helps me imagine how they will behave or react to certain situations.

But what if you’ve drawn a blank? You have a name and nothing else. How does your character go from John Smith to Jonny, the lovable rogue? How do you go from a collection of letters into someone you’d recognise if you met them?

Let’s get physical

Appearance is arguably an area we all dwell on. Some will describe the character in detail, others provide merely subtle hints, leaving the reader’s imagination to do the work. How much you do will be a personal style choice.


Sometimes my character’s physical appearance may come from a picture or have elements of someone I know (maybe don’t base the antagonist on your nearest and dearest though). Or, the character may have the physical features of a multitude of people. You might take the hair of Uncle Joe, wispy, fine with a curl that falls over his eye. They might have the height of someone like Tom Hiddleston or Queen Latifah. They might have an identifiable physical feature like a limp or scars. One of Finn’s defining traits is his poor eyesight. I imagine his glasses slipping down nose. The frustration of lenses that aren’t up to the job, but to replace them is expensive. So this minor physical feature because a plot-line in itself.

‘Cat picked off his glasses from his face and sat them on her nose. “You are truly blind. I can’t see a thing!” She laughed as she returned them onto Finn’s face, pushing the gold bridge upwards. “How long have you needed specs?”
“Quite young, five or six, maybe younger, I can’t remember to be honest.”

Happy Birthday

I gave Finn a birthday, 27th May, and this would make him a Gemini.

I am not someone who adheres to astrological beliefs, but the way these are written can be useful if you want examples of characteristics and attitudes. On some sites you can get a whole astrological birth chart. I fed in the date, place and time of Finn birth and it said his Moon would be in Cancer (no, I don’t know either). However, it does provide a fairly decent portrayal of Finn’s sensitivity. Sometimes, simply feeling that a ‘pre-packaged’ description doesn’t fit, gives you clues as to what your subconscious may already have decided about them.

Here’s an example: ‘Cancer Moons tend to be sensitive and driven by emotions. Similar to the ocean’s waves, their feelings ebb and flow, making them a bit moody at times. Like the Crab, this sign may hide their emotions from others until they are comfortable enough to come out of their shell. This sign is also known to be very imaginative and creative, as these endeavours are a good emotional outlet for them.’

Interesting Interests

We all have our likes and dislikes. It is part of who we are. Bringing those hobbies and pastimes into play has been used to form a character in many books and films. Think of Inspector Morse, and his love of classical music and crosswords, or what about Sherlock Holmes playing his violin?

From the start I knew that Finn was a sensitive child and later adult. For me, that sensitivity would be demonstrated through music. Both listening to and playing music has long been shown to have therapeutic properties, and given Finn’s sentiments, finding relief through music would be critical to him.

In this flashback, Finn recalls how music help him as a small child retreat from a world he didn’t understand:

‘I shake my head. Parties aren’t for me. Silly games and strange adults talking at me and asking Mum if I have learnt to talk again. I take Kitty from Evie’s hand and go to my piano. Headphones on, I block out the world.’


This was a very brief overview of my creative process for one of my characters, The steps from the first hints of a possible name to a living, thinking, emotional model of the person in my mind. Creating a three dimensional character took longer than anticipated and required thought, observation, and many refinements.

Inspiration came from many sources, and I enjoyed experimenting to find out what sat well with their role in the story, and finally bringing them to life.

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