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How to Write a Book (3) Characters

August 24, 2017

Skull Murgatroyd lives at the other end of the village. He is hailed as a ‘real character’ by those who live at this end of the village. His neighbours, however, see his eccentricities as a nuisance.

He falls into their bushes on the way home from the pub. They complain when he leaves the contents of his stomach outside their houses. They witness his unsuccessful attempts to find a secluded place to empty his bladder when caught out in the open.  

I am not referring to Skull when I talk about creating a character in my books, unless of course the character in question is modelled on Skull.


Characters are the root of all successful books. Readers may be attracted by descriptions of scenery, mesmerised by accounts of passion and drawn in by intrigue, romance or adventure. But the real hook in any story is a character dealing with a life changing event and its knock-on effects.

Manufacturers test their creations to destruction. Writers push their characters to breaking point. Readers turn the pages to see what the character will make of it all.

Reading is a spectator sport. As in any sport, we like to see people struggle to achieve their goal. Characters become our avatars and we can participate without paying the personal cost. We read from the comfort of the sideline.

I introduce the main character in Snuff O’Brien’s Private War as he witnesses an attempted murder in the early morning. When he finds the half-dead victim he could have walked away and the book would have stopped there. Reluctantly, he decides to help the man. Snuff’s life is changed and I had a book to write.

I made it tough for him. He is not long back from fighting on the losing side in the Spanish Civil War where he lost a leg. His home town turns against him. A friend and a relative are murdered. He is hunted by enemies who want him dead. Those he thought were on his side betray him. A bishop batters him with a poker before he is tied up as bait in a rat infested sewer. Finally he is trapped in a lighthouse surrounded by a gang of armed men who will not leave until he is dead.

Had he stuck to his poaching and left that man to die on the riverbank nobody would have been interested in him. At the very least, the reader will want to know if he escapes from the lighthouse, or do I have something up my sleeve for him.

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