How to Write a Bestseller: Matt Haig on Characterisation

On the 6th September I attended a Guardian Masterclass titled How to Write a Bestseller. The course consisted of a series of talks by Matt Haig (on Characterisation), Alex Preston (on Creating a Sense of Place and Atmosphere), and Evie Wyld (on Writing Fact and Fiction), followed by a general Q&A led discussion with Sebastian Faulks (which was very exciting as he’s one of my all-time favourite authors). It was a really enjoyable day, and all of the speakers were extremely charismatic and funny. They all had so many insightful things to say and I found it to be really useful, so this is a summary of the notes I took in case it’s of interest to anyone else. I’ve broken it down into the individual talks, but check the tags or links at the bottom of the page to see all four parts.

Matt Haig – Characterisation

‘Character is plot, and plot is character’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Always start with your character – characters create stories.

Characterisation is created in part by the character’s situation.

Characters must be relatable, but don’t have to be likeable. The readers need to have an emotional response to the character, but don’t need to like them. They must be memorable and believable.

There are two types of character: an ordinary character in an extraordinary situation, and an extraordinary character in an ordinary situation.

All writing is autobiographical to an extent (yikes!). But that doesn’t mean the author is the characters! – Need to have some distance.

You don’t need too many characters – less is more. Think about why each character is in your story – they must serve a purpose. Are they necessary?

Recommended reading: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. There are lots of characters, but they are all distinct and believable.

As a minimum, you generally don’t need more than three characters for a story. Three is enough for a conflict – love triangle etc.

Characters need to have contradictions. It makes them more believable and human. They need to have an external conflict.

Don’t get bogged down in character research – don’t lose the human element of your character.

Think about characters when you’re choosing your narrative style, whether to use 1st or 3rd person. If you choose 1st person, you need to have a valid reason to use that narrative – it depends on the strength of your character as to whether it will work.

The physical description of characters is not important.

The only reader you’ll ever know is you! Write what you want to write, and what you would want to read.

When editing, lose 50% of your text.

See also my post on Screenwriting with Harry Oulton, and check back tomorrow for part two of How to Write a Bestseller.


3 thoughts on “How to Write a Bestseller: Matt Haig on Characterisation

  1. Pingback: How to Write a Bestseller: Alex Preston on Creating a Sense of Place and Atmosphere | The Steel Review

  2. Pingback: How to Write a Bestseller: Evie Wyld on Writing Fact and Fiction | The Steel Review

  3. Pingback: How to Write a Bestseller: Sebastian Faulks | The Steel Review

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