Today, I am lucky enough to have the lovely Suzanne van Rooyen on the blog, giving her thoughts on characterisation. Thanks for joining me, Suzanne.
It doesn’t matter how fantastic the premise of a story might be. It doesn’t matter how nail-biting the plot or epic the world-building. If the characters are one-dimensional cardboard props readers can’t relate to, never mind like and let alone love, the story will fail. Characterisation is the most important aspect of any story. Without a character to invest in, readers won’t care about the world ending or the government’s nefarious agenda or any of the other ‘cool’ stuff in the novel. Characterisation is even more important when there isn’t an exciting plot or tons of world-building on offer.
As a science fiction writer, I was absolutely terrified by the prospect of writing a contemporary novel. No ruined cities or futuristic tech? No explosions? No thwarting the end of the world? What did that leave? Characters and character development, and I was truly terrified.
Characters need to feel real and real people are complicated creatures. We are the sum of our experiences, but we can choose whether or not to be defined by those experiences. In short, real people are a mass of contradictions and quite often don’t fit neatly into prescriptive boxes like ‘preppy cheerleader love interest’ or ‘melancholy goth best friend’. When drafting The Other Me–a story largely inspired by my own high school experiences–I wanted to capture at least some of those contradictions and complexities in my characters.
I have two MCs–Gabriel and Treasa. Gabriel was far easier to create because he’s a lot like me in some ways: he loves classical music and metal. The two are not mutually exclusive and I wanted to show that a boy who gets good grades at school and does karate can also play the piano and paint his nails black before headbanging to Immortal. He didn’t have to be one or the other because real people aren’t like that. Exhibit A–me! As a teenager I lived to play classical music and was a total nerd, but I also did my math homework to Children of Bodom and my school books were covered in images of Marilyn Manson. But Gabriel is more than just his taste in music–he is also struggling through a myriad dark emotions and self-destructive tendencies because of a certain awful, tragic event in his past. This too was inspired by my own experience–although thankfully my brush with crime in South Africa did not have the same devastating result it did for my character. Gabriel was as close to a real person as I could make him while providing certain defining characteristics so that readers could hopefully ‘get’ him and relate to him, if not always like him since he does make some pretty stupid decisions, as most 18-year-old boys are wont to do.
Treasa was a lot more difficult to create because she’s a lot like me, and she’s like me in ways that I found quite difficult to write about. Treasa’s character was born out of a specific idea I had around the age of 14. For a while, I genuinely believed I was an alien–you can blame my obsession with the TV series Roswell, but I honestly thought I must’ve been from a different planet because I didn’t fit in with my peers at school and felt totally weird about almost everything. This was the starting point for my character and her story blossomed as soon as I started answering the question: Why does she think she’s an alien? The answer created a foundation for the character, colouring her experiences, which in turn influenced her growth and development as she came to terms with some really big identity issues over the course of the book. Some of the issues Treasa faces, I faced, and instead of shying away from writing about those difficult memories and emotions, I poured it all into my character. Allowing Treasa to work through these issues in her own unique way, proved truly cathartic for me as well even as Treasa’s development took her further away from me and my personal experiences.
When it came to supporting characters, I didn’t want to have the stereotypical sidekick best-friends. I wanted to create side characters that could just as easily be the star of their own stories. Jordan – Treasa’s best friend – was lots of fun to write. She’s the beautiful athletic type who instead of becoming the stereotypical jock, dyes her hair black and devotes her time to art. Although there’s some pretty dark stuff in her own personal history, Jordan provides some much needed levity in the novel with her snark and humour as she navigates her own tricky character arc. Gabriel’s best friend, Dirk, is also a complicated character and is an amalgamation of many boys I knew growing up. He presents one side of himself to the world, but his happy-go-lucky punk-rocker facade is just that and Gabriel knows it. Their relationship is almost brotherly in the novel and I loved writing their scenes together because their was an honesty to their interaction, an honesty that came from that sense of comfort, of being to be who they truly were with each other the way they couldn’t be with the rest of the world, which is the core theme of the novel.
At the end of the draft, I was exhausted and emotionally drained. The Other Me was one of the hardest books I’ve ever written because it’s all about the characters. I can only hope that I did Gabriel and Treasa’s story justice and that their multi-dimensional personalities come across in the book the way I wanted them to. But I guess that’s for readers to decide.
Fifteen-year-old Treasa Prescott thinks she’s an alien. She doesn’t fit in with the preppy South African private school crowd and feels claustrophobic in her own skin. Treasa is worried she might spend life as a social pariah when she meets Gabriel du Preez. Gabriel plays the piano better than Beethoven, has a black belt in karate, and would look good wearing a garbage bag. Treasa thinks he’s perfect. It might even be love, as long as Gabriel doesn’t find out she’s a freak.
As Treasa spends time with Gabriel, she realizes she might not love him as much as she wants to be him, and that the reason she feels uncomfortable in her skin might have less to do with extra-terrestrial origins and more to do with being born in the wrong body.
But Gabriel is not the perfect boy Treasa imagines. He harbors dark secrets and self-destructive tendencies. Still, Treasa might be able to accept Gabriel’s baggage if he can accept who she longs to be.