Giving your characters context (tip 50) 2

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘Begin with an individual and you find you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created – nothing. And the difference between an individual and a type is whether we get to see the specificity of their being in the world – whether they have a unique context in which to come alive.

Video transcript follows below

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘Begin with an individual and you find you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created – nothing.’

I’ll tell you something, if you want to hear some bad characterisation, check out the funeral eulogy for a man who never went to church. One of the first funerals I ever went to was for a neighbour, Mr Baxter, who had been like a grandad to me. I was eight or nine when he died, and his widow ensured he had a church service. But Baxter – Baccy as we called him – had never been religious. Probably the last time he’d been to church was when he got married. So the poor minister had to deliver a eulogy for a guy he’d never met. He said something like:

James was a kind and gentle man who always maintained his sense of humour. A loving husband, much loved father and grandfather, he was also a well-liked member of the local community and will be missed by all his neighbours. He was a hardworking man with a strong sense of right and wrong, impeccable manners…

And about this point his widow turned from the pew in front and said, ‘Wha’s he talkin aboot? That disnae sound like James at all.’ So this is the questions we’re confronted with: Why was the minster’s description so vague and general that she couldn’t recognise her husband of almost 50 years?

Well, because he didn’t know Backy, he imagined a type of person – a loving husband, a hardworking man, a good neighbour – rather than starting with a unique human being who gambled on the horses but pretended he didn’t. Baccy’s front door was always open and he never minded if we went through the house to collect a football we’d kicked over the fence or to raid his biscuit tin. And more often than not he’d be hunkered down in his old armchair watching John McCirrick preview the runners and riders, and then the race would start and he’d be there shouting ‘Go on lucky star. Go on lucky star. Go on son. Go on! Come on run ye stupid dunky! Aww noooo!’

There were allotments at the back of the street, and Backy kept his patch until his arthritis got too bad. The other gardeners would chase us away but Backy would give us something to eat or give us a job to do to make us feel we were helping out. He grew rhubarb, raspberries, spuds, and that was it. It was always summer. I think he only kept the allotment so he’d have an excuse to slip out and smoke his pipe. Wonderful smell – fresh grass cuttings and tobacco. If you were writing a grandfatherly character in a story you couldn’t have him smoke a pipe because it’s too much of a cliché, but he did. Right up to his death. He’d smoke it in the bathroom and afterwards he’d open the window and spray lavender air freshener, leaving it to wrestle with the smog of tobacco.

He began every meal by categorising his food as edible (meat, potatoes, rhubarb) or inedible (beetroot, spinach, aubergines). And my granny would tell him off as he sat there, shuffling cabbage around his plate like he was playing a board game.

He’d been a good golfer in his day and he kept a wee line of trophies on the mantelpiece – the fire would be on two bars, even in the summer – and once he took me to hit some balls at a field not far from his house. He had old clubs. Heavy things, with leather wound round the handles. I could hardly lift the things but he taught me how to swing. He’d whack one – miles; the ball seemed actually to have discovered flight – and then he’d say: your shot. He taught me how to stand. To keep my head over the ball. When all the balls were gone he’d charge up his pipe and I’d scamper over the field to collect them – mine three metres away and his halfway to Aberdeen.

And I remember that day because the hospital room, the last one, where he died, you could see the field from the window – well, you could see the trees that were behind it. And I came to see him and there were people round hid bed – he’d pretty much stopped talking, but I didn’t understand. I thought he was ignoring me or he was napping or something. I know now that they were waiting for him to die. And I guess he was waiting to die. But he’d been in hospital before and recovered and come out and been active again. So I kept going on about how I could hit the balls further than him now and stuff like this. Just me talking. Then his daughter said I should wait outside and I did. I got a Lion Bar from the vending machine. And a bit later they came out and took me home. And I never saw him again.

Now, none of that’s true – I made the whole thing up! There never was any such person as Baccy. But I made you believe in him, by developing my character as a being in the world. In my story he wasn’t some vague idea floating around in the ether; he was a man in a chair with two bars glowing on an old electric heater and a set of heavy wooden golf clubs with leather twined round the shafts. He was a man shuffling beetroot around his plate as if playing a board game.

And this is the key to bringing your characters to life. You’ve got to make them beings in the world. You’ve got to give them context.

Imagine you ask a young actor to audition for Hamlet. The stage is empty. He has no scenery, no props, no costume. Undaunted he enters stage left and pauses, hoping you will read Horatio’s lines. You don’t. He launches into an early soliloquy he has memorised – ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!’ ‘No, no, no!’ you shout, ‘I don’t want you to talk, I just want you to be Hamlet.’ The determined actor, assuming you wish to inspect his stage presence, begins to pace back and forwards in a manner intended to convey Hamlet’s complex character. ‘No!’ you say again, ‘Don’t walk, don’t do anything, just be Hamlet. The actor pauses, shaking, clears his face then clenches it into a vengeful look. ‘No! Don’t do the face! Just be Hamlet.’ The actor, almost defeated, stands mid-stage, hoping to convey the whole performance through telepathy, at which point you say, ‘Sorry mate, but that could be anybody.’

The task is impossible – Hamlet can only exist in the way he moves and looks, in the things he says, and in how he interacts with other characters, with the props and costumes. Writing prose fiction’s a bit similar – if your characters don’t have stuff to do, objectives, ambitions, people and things to interact with, then the chances are they’ll get no further than being a ‘loving husband’ or ‘a good neighbour.’

Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail image uses a photograph by Tom Pine. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here:


  1. Brilliant ! I was taken in, but puzzled with your story of Backie and the allotments ! Ha ha very good.
    Really enjoy all your videos and makes a difference when I’m reading, as I think about the techniques the author has used. I’ve just finished ‘ The Secret Baby Room’ – what a great story! Thanks. Anne

    Liked by 1 person

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