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Character In Action: A close reading exercise

So I did a class on character building for a writing conference recently, which was an interesting experience, especially since it forced me to think about what I do instead of just doing it. (Which, as regular readers will know, ends up being the root of all my advice anyway. Think harder, look deeper.)

As one exercise, I took the opening of a book I wrote and did a deep dive into analysing how it builds character. (I don’t use my own work for examples because I think I’m all that as a writer, by the way. I do it because I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to type long passages out from scratch when I could just copy paste my MSS.)

Anyway, it was a really useful exercise (for me at least), so I’m going to reproduce it here.

Okay. So the thing is, people often think of character as a collection of traits. (“My hero is a recovering alcoholic who has tragically lost his wife. He’s half Swedish and collects Ottoman pottery.”) But that isn’t character. Character is how that person behaves, including how they speak because speech is an action, and how they think in a book where we have access to their thoughts. That behaviour/speech/thought is influenced by their past, their traits etc.

And therefore, when we’re trying to convey character, it has to influence, and thus seep into, every aspect of the book—dialogue and narrative. You can’t just reserve chapter 4 for character development. Every sentence in a character’s POV is an opportunity to show character, and so is every sentence about them.

To demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to reproduce the opening of Slippery Creatures here. I’m then going to break it down line by line with what I think is pretty much every piece of character work in the passage.

And then, for your delectation, I will provide you with a version from which I have stripped out all the character work, so you can compare and contrast.

Note: this is very far from the only way to build character, and this example is specific to writing in deep 3rd person (that is, where we are inside the character’s head). This is incredibly far from a be-all and end-all. But it is a close work exercise that I found useful even though I’d written the damn thing in the first place, so I’m sharing it for what that’s worth.

OK. Here’s the passage. You might, if keen, want to write down any character notes you pick up as you go along. I found 16.

Will Darling was outnumbered by books.

It hadn’t always felt this way. When he’d first visited his uncle at Darling’s Used & Antiquarian, he’d simply thought, That’s a lot of books, and when he’d started helping here, they were just work. As he took over the running of the place in his uncle’s last illness, though, he became increasingly aware of them looming around him, full of knowledge and secrets and lies. So much that, when Uncle William had died, Will remembered an ancient piece of lore about bees, and he’d cleared his throat and told the books, “He’s gone.”

He was dead, and Will, his sole heir, had inherited Darling’s Used & Antiquarian: the premises on May’s Buildings off St. Martin’s Lane, the goodwill such as it was, and the stock. He was master of an entire building with a shop floor, two upstairs rooms, and a cubbyhole at the ground floor back which was all the space his uncle had allowed for human life. He’d have Uncle William’s savings too, once probate had been sorted out. And he owned a lot of books, although just now and then, when it got dark and the shelves loomed over him, he got the feeling that they owned him.

He occupied some of the extremely long periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had stuck him with, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory, and was increasingly convinced the old bugger had kept his records in his head. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows. Bloody books.

The place reeked of old paper over the fainter odours of damp, dust, and rodents. He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible as well as to the accumulating cobwebs on the fog-stained ceiling. It had had very little effect. He’d probably get used to the smell of second-hand books one day, just stop noticing it, and then he’d be doomed.

On that gloomy thought, he swung his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. Uncle William had spent good money on this chair once, and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable. That was good enough for Will.

He was damned lucky to be here, even if he lived in danger of being crushed by a book landslide. Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. In Flanders he’d been a grizzled veteran, a fount of professional expertise who knew the ropes and had seen it all. Back in Blighty he’d become a young man again, one with little training and no experience. He’d been apprenticed to a joiner before the war, but that felt like decades ago: all he was good at now was killing people, which was discouraged.

OK? Right. I shall insert a separator in case you need a moment to think and then give my breakdown.


Here we go.

Will Darling was outnumbered by books.

‘Outnumbered’ is an odd word choice for books. It’s adversarial: we gather Will is an ‘us and them’ kind of guy. But obviously he’s not at war with books, so there’s a suggestion of humour in his response.

looming around him, full of knowledge and secrets and lies

This isn’t the response of a bibliophile. ‘Looming’ feels slightly threatening. We deduce Will isn’t an intellectual: he’s no Belle whizzing happily around on her rolly ladder. (We might also suspect foreshadowing in the books full of ‘secrets and lies’.)

Will remembered an ancient piece of lore about bees

Why does he know obscure folklore? It hints that he’s not a modern city type.  

he’d cleared his throat and told the books, “He’s gone.”

There’s a sense here of Will doing the ‘proper’ thing with the throat-clearing. Ceremony, a sense of doing the right thing, or superstition?

goodwill such as it was

A dryly amused thought: along with ‘outnumbered’ we’re building a picture of his sense of humour.

a cubbyhole at the ground floor back which was all the space his uncle had allowed for human life

We get a sense of the uncle living in a hole among the books, and deduce that Will is not of his ilk.

he owned a lot of books, although just now and then, when it got dark and the shelves loomed over him, he got the feeling that they owned him

Will has an imagination which tends to the sinister. ‘Loomed’ again, which might be a deliberate echo to amplify the sense of oppression, or might be an unconscious repetition the author failed to pick up before now, who can say. 

He occupied some of the extremely long periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had stuck him with, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory, and was increasingly convinced the old bugger had kept his records in his head. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows. Bloody books.

Will is a man very much out of his depth, aware of it, and perhaps slightly worried about the viability of his new business.

He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible

He’s practical, doing the necessary stuff.

then he’d be doomed.

Dark imagination again, and the same half-joking sense of ‘us and them’ as in the first line: Will in battle with life.  

On that gloomy thought, he swung his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair

The casual action doesn’t match ‘doomed’ or ‘gloomy’. Despite the preceding paragraphs, Will isn’t letting the oppression of books get him down.

and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable. That was good enough for Will.

Not a man of exacting standards as long as things work.

He was damned lucky to be here

He does in fact have a sense of proportion about his situation. He has also sworn twice in a short passage of thought, which may or may not be noteworthy.

even if he lived in danger of being crushed by a book landslide

His sardonic/gloomy sense of humour again, which we may now be seeing as characteristic

Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. In Flanders he’d been a grizzled veteran, a fount of professional expertise who knew the ropes and had seen it all. Back in Blighty he’d become a young man again, one with little training and no experience.

And here we see what his dark humour is characteristic of, as well as his adversarial cast of mind. He’s survived the First World War (quite possibly in the trenches because Flanders) and had his entire adult life shaped by it; he’s now adrift and disconcerted by his experiences, not quite fitting in with peacetime life or normality.

all he was good at now was killing people, which was discouraged.

An important piece of information about Will’s particular skill set, which you may suspect is likely to come up in the plot. Also another touch of his sense of humour in the sardonic word choice ‘discouraged’.


Now, obviously nobody reads the opening of a romantic suspense novel that closely. The reader isn’t scribbling down character notes. The vast majority of people, asked what they have learned from that passage, will say, “Well, he’s an ex soldier who owns a bookshop,” and a few more will add “and he’s not super happy about it”. Some people will be more like, “I don’t know, is he a beekeeper?”

But. But.

But readers do take this stuff in, even if they don’t realise they’re taking this stuff in. (That’s not a snark. Critical analysis is a learned skill: we can be affected by things without knowing how.) And it works by accumulation: you keep on drip feeding the information, infusing it through the book. When we see him stubbornly going toe to toe with a criminal gang and the War Office even though he’s completely outnumbered, we won’t find his attitude surprising.

We can show that people take this stuff in by seeing the response when we take it out.

I now present the opening of Slippery Creatures with exactly the same information and text but without the character notes. Read carefully. See what you think.

Will Darling had a lot of books.

He hadn’t always noticed. When he’d first visited his uncle at Darling’s Used & Antiquarian, he’d simply thought, That’s a lot of books, and when he’d started helping here, they were just work. As he took over the running of the place in his uncle’s last illness, though, he became increasingly aware of just how many there were.

Now his uncle was dead, and Will, his sole heir, had inherited Darling’s Used & Antiquarian: the premises on May’s Buildings off St. Martin’s Lane, the goodwill, and the stock. He was master of an entire building with a shop floor, two upstairs rooms, and a cubbyhole at the ground floor back where his uncle had lived. He’d have Uncle William’s savings too, once probate had been sorted out. And he owned a lot of books.

He occupied some of the periods when nobody came into the shop by trying to calculate how many volumes his uncle had left him, and had concluded it could easily be forty thousand. He had yet to find an inventory: he doubted his uncle had made one. So here he was, at the shop desk with books double stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves that turned the room into a maze, books piled on every flat surface and against every vertical one, books half-obscuring the windows.

The place smelled of old paper over the fainter odours of damp, dust, and rodents. He’d put down traps, checked the walls, and taken a broom to what floor was visible as well as to the accumulating cobwebs on the fog-stained ceiling. It had had very little effect. He’d probably just get used to the smell of second-hand books one day, and not notice it any more.

He put his feet up onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. Uncle William had spent good money on this chair once, and though the red leather was cracked, it was still comfortable.

Will had gone to the War at eighteen, and come back five years later to find himself useless and unwanted. He’d been an experienced soldier, but back in England he was starting again, with little training and no experience. He’d been apprenticed to a joiner before the war, but that was a long time ago: all he knew how to do now was kill people, which was illegal.

I mean, that could have been written by AI. We learn that Will is a soldier turned bookseller and that he’s practical but inexperienced, and that’s your lot. There is very little in the writing to interest or detain us, no depth of personality. It has, in fact, no character.

(It is possible to write entire books like this on purpose, of course, giving the reader only surface facts and letting them infer the character from the actions. Don’t let me stop you. It’s not going to fly in romance, though.)

But if you’re actively trying to build character? Remember it’s there all the time, and let it percolate throughout the whole book—action, speech, infodumps, description, to build up to a whole.


Slippery Creatures is available from all the usual places. Note for romance readers that it’s the first in a trilogy and you don’t get the HEA till book 3.

9 replies
  1. CompostWitch
    CompostWitch says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I have trouble understanding a lot of subtler aspects of fiction, and this really helped me see what you meant clearly and explicitly. (Especially by negative example! The passage with the characterization stripped out is eye-opening.) I think I’m definitely gonna notice this stuff more in my reading now.

    Reply
  2. Anne
    Anne says:

    Thank you. I love close reading insights. It makes me think so much more about what I am reading and really understand the skill of the writer and what their (your) intention is. I am always in awe of the ability to create and the focus that goes into every word. There’s a website dedicated to this: closereadingromance dot com which I often refer to after I have read a particular book. (Band Sinister is featured)
    As a comparison, I attended a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at the BBC Proms this year in which the first half was an instructive dramatisation of how the composer came to create the piece and why it was so different to anything that had come before. It gave me a whole new understanding and enjoyment of music that I had previously found challenging.

    Learning is great, isn’t it!

    Reply
  3. chacha1
    chacha1 says:

    Coincidentally, I have just re-read Slippery Creatures (3rd or 4th time through). On re-read one does very much notice all those bits of deep characterization because they inform the character’s approach to every single event & interaction. You do it so very well. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Courtney M-C
    Courtney M-C says:

    One of my favorite moments in your books is in A Seditious Affair, when Dom has left to use the bathroom– we get both Dom’s and Silas’s phrasing for this moment. Dom, the gentleman, calls it the “privy;” Silas, the proudly working-class man, calls it the “jakes.” SO much character work in just two words. Loved this post!

    Reply
  5. azteclady
    azteclady says:

    I know I’m an oddity but I write my reviews as I read and I do take notes–not as precise as your, because I have never been trained/studied/learned critical analysis as such–but you are right; readers notice, especially readers who read for character rather than plot. We like a good yarn as much as anyone else, but we want to care for the people who lived it.

    Aside: I’ve been trying to follow your blog via wordpress, and it won’t let me add neither the blog title, the url nor the rss–grrrrmmmm

    Reply
  6. maj
    maj says:

    How Goes the World was so much fun..I know this comment is off topic.. I’ve been dying to know more about these characters and NOW I’m imagining them in the murky spy world of the 1940’s. But I’m on topic in the sense that even though there are parallels ie Daniel and Kim.. a few words express Kim’s need to be punished .. his unique issues. Anyway, I am so hoping for more books about these characters and their world . I’ve imagined Maise & Phoebe in WW I Paris..

    Reply
  7. Bel
    Bel says:

    The second version feels like reading a textbook–informative, but dull and hard work. You’ve so clearly articulated one of the reasons WHY I love reading your writing. And why, I think, sometimes I just can not get into a book even though it seems like something I should really enjoy. I love learning the why and how of things. I’ve learnt something about myself, thank you!

    Reply
  8. Writer at Large
    Writer at Large says:

    This is so good that I passed it on to a friend just getting started. Thanks for taking the time to go into depth.

    Alas, I’m seeing a lot of readers who don’t appear to care or know anything about the craft and would find your second take just as good as the first. Some would even prefer it. Truly frustrating, as is the growing number of people saying there’s nothing wrong with letting AI write for us, because there’s no difference.

    All we can do is keep going, right?

    Reply

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