Alan Dapre: Tips for Creating Characters

Alan Dapre holding a book
Tagged: young writers

I like to fill the books I write with fresh, funny, engaging characters. But where do I get my inspiration? Like most writers, it comes from the world around me. All characters require a dose of reality, even imaginative ones like Porridge the Tartan Cat, my most recent creation. He’s a typical cat. You can never tell Porridge what to do. Just encourage him along with a tasty fishy biscuit – or ten!

If you're going to write believable characters then you need to know your audience

There's no denying that the best characters in books are the ones who are truthful. They reflect something back that the reader recognises. In my latest book – Porridge the Tartan Cat and the Pet Show Show-Off - I have a character called Isla who is adventurous, resourceful and caring. I based her on my young daughter, Isla. I deliberately gave the fictional Isla a twin brother, Ross, so both characters could solve things together as intrepid equals. I was keen for this dynamic duo to appeal to girls and boys. 

Ross and Isla - two characters from Porridge the Tartan Cat

If you're going to write believable characters then you need to know your audience. Consider the things your readers say and do. The games they play. The programmes they watch. The books they read. The words they use. Only by listening to their language can you speak and write their language. 

Every genre uses formulas, some successful, some not. Why not have some fun spotting character clichés? Whenever a book sails up the charts and becomes a bestseller you will see a lot of imitations in its wake. It's often the case that by the time you see it then try to jump on're already too late! Better to ignore the hype and write well-rounded characters into a memorable setting and give them stimulating and interesting conflicts to solve. 

 Ensure your characters earn their place in your story

Characters are not statues. Rather than just seeing things, get them doing things instead. It's so much more satisfying. Characters need to move with a purpose towards a clear goal – but not get there too easily. After all, conflict provides tension. It may come from characters stopping each other from reaching their goals. Or a character being frozen by internal doubts and fears. Regardless, the actions of your characters must push the narrative on. Also, have them undergo some sort of transformation. Scrooge in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is an obvious example of this. (Enlightenment is a key part of such stories.) Only when characters are aware of a change can they reap the fruits of it. Fully engage your characters and you'll fully engage your readers. 

You will save yourself from endlessly revising your story if you plot it out first. Ensure your creativity floods into the first draft so there is plenty to refine later. Whenever I begin a new book I'm bursting with ideas about the things my characters will say and do. But before I get too attached, I work out which characters are necessary. Having a well-defined plot will help you choose who stays and who goes. It often boils down to the choices your characters make. (A good or bad decision creates consequences – and consequences are essential if a story is to have meaning). Make your characters care about the consequences of their actions (or the actions of others). Ensure they earn their place in your story.

The McFun family - characters from Porridge the Tartan Cat

The world is full of distractions and interruptions. As I was settling down to write this article my dog barked to be let in. Use interruptions in your writing. Have your characters distracted by a ringing phone or an erupting volcano! It's fun to see them react to unexpected situations. What's fresh for them is new and exciting for us too. The only time you can get away with them doing nothing is when they're lounging in a deckchair... on the Titanic. If you do feel the need to write static scenes then always swaddle them within a more active, bigger picture.

While I was devising my series about a fantastic family (and their awesome talents and secrets), it soon became clear that I needed something to hold the six different stories together. That something turned out to be Porridge the Tartan Cat, who exPURRtly cat-a-logs each adventure. The crafty feline has built up his part so much he now appears on the cover of each book! 

Beware! Some characters take on a life of their own!

Porridge and the Tartan Cat and the Pet Show Show-Off is out now, published by Floris Books.

If you've read and loved the Porridge and the Tartan Cat series, why not try some of the other books on our list of titles featuring cats and dogs?

Alan Dapre

Cover of Porridge the Tartan Cat
Alan Dapré has written across a range of genres. His plays have been on BBC Radio and published for use in schools. A former TV scriptwriter whose work was BAFTA nominated, he now spends his time writing children's story books. Porridge the Tartan Cat and the Pet Show Show-Off  is the 6th book in his zany new series. Alan is available to carry out Live Literature sessions. Alan has also created a range of teacher resources that are free and easy to download.