Traditional Publishing

Colette Dartford on writing believable characters – Saturday August 20, 2022

As a reader I have a hundred-page rule, which means that if I’m indifferent to the main characters and what may become of them at that point, I don’t read any further. Some people find this heretical (two members of my book club, for example) but honestly, what’s the point? There are so many wonderful novels out there, and with so little free time, I feel entirely justified cutting my losses and moving on.

It’s quite a different matter, however, when I look at it from the other side, as a writer. Then I am acutely aware that the characters I create must be complex but believable, flawed but likeable, unpredictable but relatable. Not so easy now, I tell myself, staring at my laptop screen, longing for inspiration. The namesake of my latest novel, The Mortification Of Grace Wheeler, is a case in point. Grace is conventional, undemanding, not one to make a fuss. The danger in writing such a character is that initially they may come across as dull and uninteresting. My task is to peel back the layers of her apparent ordinariness and expose the contradictions that swirl beneath. For example, Grace’s husband, Cal, is much older than her and the age gap has become a gaping chasm. A lifelong Tory who voted for Brexit, she considers him staid and old-fashioned, yet when their son introduces his first girlfriend, an exotic creature with multi-coloured hair, a nose stud and tattoos, it is Grace who is quietly shocked and disapproving. Cal finds her an absolute hoot. Similarly, having been raised by a devoted single mother who often struggled to make ends meet, Grace prizes the stability of her twenty-year marriage and the security of her modest but comfortable home.

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