Out of Character

There's a famous story about the film Marathon Man. Due to film a scene where his character was strung out, Dustin Hoffman apparently stayed up all night to achieve the desired look. Seeing him in a state of some disrepair, his co-star Sir Laurence Olivier asked after Hoffman's welfare. Explaining the "method", Larry responded, 'Dear boy, have you tried acting? It's much easier.'

I tell this story because I've neen struggling with one of my characters, Alex. In The Sad Club, Alex is an upcoming movie star who is known under the identity James Lorenzo. The real Alex is a nervous, pessimistic man, while James Lorenzo is a surly, closed (and somewhat attractive for it) type. Because my own personality only contains traces of Alex or what I think he may feel, he’s been quite a challenge to get to the bottom of. To me, the idea of being at the start of a spectacular career seems amazing, yet in the story, it’s necessary for Alex to both hate it and desire it at the same time.

I’ve found that it’s been useful to use what I’ve learned about famous people I admire to inform the duality in Alex. A great many artists have been torn between their desire to be loved and their desire for independence. Kurt Cobain, for example, meticulously planned album covers, names for his early bands, and complained to his record company that MTV wouldn’t play his videos enough. At the same time, he’s seen as a totem for the outsiders, railing against the corporate monsters who wanted to compromise his art.

I realise that makes Cobain sound like a complete wanker, but he quite clearly wasn’t. He was human, and contained the inherent contradictions and overwhelming desires that make us human beings. It’s important to me that my characters are as realistic as possible, but it doesn’t make writing them a doddle to just ape what I’ve learned of real people. They differ because I’m telling a story, so that realism has to be mixed in the correct proportion with the fictional element.

My bully character, Paul, is also difficult. In certain respects he’s the lead character in The Sad Club, because not only is he the conductor of my other character’s feelings, but he also has an arc of change that needs to be completed by the closing chapters. When I first came up with the idea for my novel, I thought Paul would be easy, because bullies are bullies and I still believe in the concept of karmic justice. But Paul is no MacGuffin (the word Alfred  Hitchcock used to describe the item that moves the plot forward). He interacts with my protagonist, Elliott, and my antagonist, Lol. He learns and his character changes. Everybody hates bullies, so it’s my job to get you to understand him. If I can’t, I won’t have done my job properly.

Lol Blackstone, on the other hand, is a doddle to write. He’s real, but he’s everything I’m not: flash, double-dealing, always out for number one. It’s great to come to a Lol bit because he’s so dislikeable, and I don’t really want you to. There are some elements in there which may muddy the waters, but what we’re left with is three people (Alex, Sam and Paul) trapped between good (Elliott) and evil (Lol). But which is which – the man who wants to redeem a bully, or the one who wants to punish him? Is it unfair to make one a cartoon while one is flesh and blood?

Dustin couldn't hide his dismay as Laurence pulled out a second row of slides of his holiday in the Peak District.

I’d like to know how many writers have a famous person in mind when they create a character. Myself, I start with the bare bones of what will help drive the narrative – in this case, I wanted four successful people and a bully. But then over time, I imagined build and face based loosely on celebrities I could imagine in the role. If they’d played a similar character, that helped. Imagine sculpting five people: you see a huge block of marble that couldn’t possibly be a statue, and then you start chipping large lumps out of it. You chisel, and chip, and out comes a head shape, or the crook of an arm. At this stage, coming to the end of my first draft, I have some very finely sanded bits of all of them, but none of them are for public display yet.

I’d recommend not being very tied to what your character looks like. The chances are that you’re the only person who can see who you want to play them in the film. If they have something that makes them distinctive, great, but don’t get hung up on sticking rigidly to their looks or personality straight away. Just like people, you have to really get to know a character before you can describe them fully. And how much do you ever really know somebody? As much as they tell or show you, I suppose. What’s the point in dressing your protagonist in a silver jumpsuit if by the end of the book you’ve realised they’re an introvert?

At the moment, I could give you some very specific details about Alex, but only a broad guess at how he’s going to finish up. He’s currently following my stage directions, but when he starts to walk and talk exactly how he wants to, your guess is as good as mine. But again, this is first draft country, where a man can have green hair, a second head and speak like Porky Pig if he wants to. He sounds interesting, but whether you want to spend three hundred pages and your entire summer holiday with him is another matter.​

I told the Olivier story because I wanted to show you that however you approach characterisation, it's valid, but just as a movie star gets take after take, a writer has as many drafts as it takes to get it right. Sometimes you feel like if you stay up all night, like Hoffman, you'll get it spot on. But I'm with Larry here: relax, don't worry about the fluffed lines, because we all make sense in the edit.


  1. Well said Chris. Wish you all the best with the novel and very much look forward to the finished piece!


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