How to create a character that lives - the creation of scheming journalist Jason Crowthorne in Charles Harris' satire The Breaking of Liam Glass

This week I talked to Bonnie D Graham on her radio programme Read My Lips. (You can listen to the recording here)

As often happens, she wanted to know how I create the characters for my novels.

So I thought today I’d tell you how I went about creating the character of the scheming, yet well-meaning journalist Jason Crowthorne, at the heart of my novel The Breaking of Liam Glass.

How I create a character

The fact is that every character comes to life in a different way. Some leap into your head while others take a long time to come into focus. Some are complete from the start while others hide themselves from you and you have to dig them out.

Jason was a mixture. Some parts arrived immediately while other sides of him remained elusive until the latest drafts.

The inspiration for Liam Glass came from a short story I’d written many years before, called Cash Card, about the single mother of a teenager who’s been mugged. The story became my first to be nominated for a literary award.

However, the novel actually started life as a movie project. I’d spent five years developing an international movie that failed to find finance. So I decided to write something smaller, involving interwoven stories set over 24 hours in London.

Enter Jason

As I expanded the initial idea, Jason was just one of a number of characters. A local journalist, he discovers the teenager in hospital – and realises that he knows him from a piece he wrote when the boy was trying to become a professional footballer two years earlier.

He sets out to turn this into a front-page story for the tabloids. However, in the process he starts doing some morally very dubious things.

First, I urgently needed to do some research. The paradox is that much that is good in fiction is inspired by factual data. We love to read about the detail of other people’s lives. How they work, who they interact with, how they think?

I’d had contact with print and radio journalism over the years. But I needed to know a great deal more if I was going to get under this man’s skin.

Undercover work

Luckily, I received an enormous amount of help from my two local newspapers, the Camden New Journal and the Hampstead and Highgate Express.

Then, unexpectedly, I found a way into a national newspaper. The Daily Mirror not only agreed to assist but allowed me the most generous access to their newsroom, staff and even editorial meetings. I have described this in Into The Mirror and Beyond.

I also managed to get into another tabloid undercover, with the help of some of the staff, who took a risk letting me in, and for which I am very grateful.

Then I bought, begged, borrowed and stole every book I could find about journalism, fact and fiction. I visited some great websites (and less great) and read some fascinating autobiographies (and some remarkably boring ones too!)

In the process, I discovered that there is remarkably little written about local newspapers or tabloids, despite their vital importance in training and also in digging out stories that often have national importance.

Putting flesh on the bones

The picture I formed of an industry in crisis was crucial in starting to form Jason’s character, the challenges he would face and the actions he would take within the plot.

It was also becoming clear that (a) this was too big a story to be contained in a movie script and would be better covered in a novel, and (b) that Jason – still as yet unnamed – was going to be more important to the novel than I thought.

But I had only just started. Now I needed to give him flesh. Creating a character is not unlike casting a movie or a play. I personally can’t write someone unless I can see him in my mind’s eye and hear him speak.

At this point, I’ll often walk around the streets watching people to see if any of them fit my idea of the character. I also keep a large store of photographs, mostly cut from magazines, which I spread over the floor.

For me, these must be real people – not actors. Actors run the risk of giving me received characters, stale copies, based on roles they have played before.

Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, a picture of the character emerges. In Jason’s case, it was quite a slow process and was still evolving as I began the first draft.

Honest pain

But while now I had the facts of Jason’s life, and could both see and hear him, I still hadn’t finished. Because the most important part of Jason would always be his inner story.

Inside is where a protagonist really comes to life, and is by far the most difficult part of the whole process. Because it takes honesty and bravery.

Here we come face to face with the flaws and weaknesses that drive him on. A character is only as strong as his own weaknesses. And the harsh fact is that those weaknesses can only come from me.

I firmly believe that good writers are only good to the degree that they can honestly depict their own flaws on the page.

This was painful. For example, Jason’s major weaknesses flow from his fear that his career is stalled. And the desperation that will lead him to take some very unethical decisions.

While this was never going to be autobiography, to write him truly, I had to dig deep into the part of me that could identify with his fears. And to face the part of me that was tempted to cross those ethical lines.

(Of course, he needed strengths too. He’s a good journalist, a caring person and a warmhearted father, who really believed he could do good in the world. Those parts were much, much nicer to write!)

What’s in a name?

Developing the inner side of a character takes time. Even during the writing of the novel, I was learning new things about Jason. How he’d react to particular setbacks. How he felt about himself and others. How much he began to see into himself and how much he deluded himself.

Indeed, I was still learning more about him right up to the very end of the final draft.

But before I started the first draft, I needed one more thing. For a long time, I had no name for him. And I believe names are very important.

Mark Flower, say, is going to have a very different effect on a reader than Bill Griffiths.

I also believe it’s important to research names that are appropriate to the character’s age. Too many writers make lazy choices of cliche names, especially names that are wrong for the character’s generation.

Mix and match

The great Georges Simenon, creator of the classic French detective Maigret, took character names very seriously. To the point that when developing them he would write hundreds of first and last names on separate manilla envelopes and spend ages mixing and matching until he was happy.

I’ve never used envelopes, but I do spend a great deal of time finding the right names for characters. A bad character name can kill a character stone dead, while a good name will bring a special resonance.

I searched around for names of men around his age – 29. Tried out many different combinations.

For the first few drafts, Jason’s first name was Worthington. Then that became his surname and his first name changed to Stephen, then Simon, then Jason. Towards the end, he’d become Jason Worthington. However, just before I finished the final draft, I discovered a number of different journalists with the same surname. So I changed it one last time, just in case.

I settled on Crowthorne, with its implications of preying and scavenging in “crow” – and painful progress in “thorn”.

But somehow everyone missed this late change when we approved the back cover. So the first edition went out with “Jason Worthington” on the back blurb! Indeed, some of those copies are still around.

They could even become collectors items! Check your bookshelves now.

Read more

The Breaking of Liam Glass

Into The Mirror and Beyond

Articles on character development