• Joanna Campbell

Where to find your characters



How to begin to write a story? A good starting point is to find a setting which captures your imagination. Once this location has completely occupied your mind, your characters will appear. They might already be there. This sounds fanciful, but look at your favourite books and see how many memorable characters are rooted deeply in—and influenced by—their environment.


I’m thinking about the rain-soaked caravan site in Summerwater by Sarah Moss, the bleak late-winter moor in Andrew Michael Hurley’s Starve Acre, the imposing mountains and changing seasons of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. In all these novels, the actions, mood changes, conflicts and emotions of the characters are linked to the landscape.


Sometimes the setting can reveal the theme and atmosphere of the story too. Here is an example from the opening of One Horse Town, one of the first short stories I wrote years ago:


‘One horse don't mean that nothing ever happens here. The crops are parched and the dust blows in your eyes enough to make you cry just walking. But things do happen. People disappear.

There ain't many places to hide. It's just a flat space with a few tired homes and a splintered school building in the mountain's shadow. The sun can't shine there. It has a cactus garden we tend ourselves and the granmas come and help us with trying to grow corn in a triangle at the end of the yard. That's where a thin stripe of light appears for a short time each day.

If you visited this massive region, if you walked right into the heart of this little inhabited bit of it nestled in the mountain's feet like a dead mouse lying at the paws of a tiger, you would put your head on one side and look at it fond-like. It's not sweet here, though.’


I can’t explain how this setting came to mind. Maybe I had stumbled across a picture of an isolated town in a mountainous area. But once the image was there, the characters followed. You can see from these early paragraphs that the narrator—along with the story she is about to tell—is tethered to her world. And this world is going to play a vital part in the story. The tiger/mouse image suggests violence will be a feature, but the main theme this setting begins to reveal is the sense of being trapped and dominated.


In my novel, Instructions for the Working Day, the setting is a forgotten, crumbling village in isolated marshland. It is still guarded by a watchtower, a Cold War relic. This location provides a menacing atmosphere and constant tension. In stark contrast, the main characters also visit Berlin. Since this brings them into a brighter environment, I had to ensure the unsettling undercurrent of danger followed them there. Fortunately, it wasn't as difficult as I had feared. I discovered that when characters are intrinsically part of their normal surroundings, any new setting adapts to suit them and their story.


So when you want to start writing a short story or a novel, find a setting which speaks to you. Somewhere in there, your characters are waiting.

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