Carnegia Blog 5: Character (or, why Stephen Ferris had to be a nobhead)

My flatmates are in disagreement regarding the ‘nobhead’ vs ‘knobhead’ debate. Make up your own minds.

This is the fifth of my blogs about the process of trying to write a novella, 35k-50k words long, in six weeks. Next Tuesday is my final day; my wordcount is just over 30k.

In this blog, as suggested in a comment by Morgan Jordahl, I’ll be having a look at character, and the process of characterisation. I’m going to do a few more themed blogs like this as I finish the process; if you have any suggestions for a theme or angle you’d like me to approach, go for it.


When I started Surveillance Dugs, the characters were probably one of the least-formed elements I had in mind. I knew a lot of what I wanted to do with the plot, and with the timeline, and with the three different worlds which would be interacting. But the characters, the voices who’d be carrying the reader through that story, were quite nebulous.

To recap, there are three main strands: one set in a …we’ll call it a ‘nowhen’, one in a dystopian near-future, and one in 1822 Scotland. The characters for the first were effectively blank slates, so we’ll leave them out of this chat.

The characters for the historical section, meanwhile, fell into place reasonably easily. It plays around the tensions between three characters; Charles Lockey, a foppish would-be revolutionary from Edinburgh, Ruraidh, a sort of Bravehearty Celtic warrior from Sutherland, and Ann Kidd, a widowed farm owner on whose farm the other two meet. These characters all have very clear, well defined motivations, which conflict with each other. This makes them fairly intuitive to write; you can kind of take the ‘wind them up and let them go’ approach. Once you’ve got the feel of a character, you get the hang very quickly of what they’d do in most circumstances, and the decisions come when trying to decide what the outcome of those reactions, thoughts or inactions would be.

But my main section, my glue section, my ties-it-all-together section set in the near future. This section I knew a lot about; I knew how it mostly took place in the offices of a privately-contracted surveillance company. I knew how it would become steadily apparent how this world interacted with the other two in the narrative. I knew what the company’s motivations were. And I knew that the reader would see this world through the eyes of a rising employee in that company, a man called Stephen Ferris.

But I didn’t know a lot about Ferris. And I think at first I defaulted on his character; took the easy route. Because of this particular world’s obvious literary antecedents – 1984, Brave New World – I sort of found myself falling back on a very Winston Smith type of figure. A guy who, despite being part of the machine, was broadly speaking a decent sort, who as he found out more about the sinister nature of his employers, called L&K, would instinctively turn against them.

And to be quite honest with you, this didn’t work. I had Ferris being very good at his job, and tolerated within the upper echelons of L&K for this reason, and in a fragmenting relationship with a fiercely career-driven woman called Harriet. All of which is good material, but it didn’t really…scan. It made no sense that a man like that would have come to live this kind of life. Why would someone with such a vapidly benign heart be so good at such a morally dubious job? And how would Ferris and Harriet’s relationship ever have got to the point where he was upset about its breakdown, if she was so city-slick, and he so wooly-jumper?

So it didn’t take long before I realised that the Stephen Ferris sections had no engine. So I picked him apart, and had a look at him, and realised what was wrong.

Stephen Ferris needed to be a dickhead.

Not an evildoer. Not someone with grand schemes for great riches, or cackling-manically plans for the downfall of the earth. But he needed to be the kind of guy who would be good at the job he had. And this was a different kind of person; harder, smarter. A guy who was interested in being seen to be good at what he did, a guy who took great pleasure in one-upping his superiors in a way they couldn’t punish. His relationship with Harriet morphed greatly, too. In fact, Ferris became a lot more like the kind of character Harriet had initially been. The divide in their relationship had a much more organic source now, too: they became a couple who could only work together when both were operating at 100%, swapping snappy, cynical jargon and comparing their successes at work. So when one goes a tiny bit off the rails, this whole model is threatened.

And he became so much more fun to write. I don’t hold at all with the idea that you need a ‘likeable’ main character. You need an interesting main character. You need someone whose character (that word!) you can engage with. A Clockwork Orange. Lolita. American Psycho – these are examples which prove my point drastically, but I think it holds on much subtler levels, too. Arthur Dent, for example, is a great character because he wants tea, and he’s a bit mundane, and he’s really not very good at anything. Rincewind is a great character because his underlying decency frequently loses out to his over-lying cowardice. Harry Potter is an absolutely terrible character because he’s a total fucking White Knight; even when he does something wrong, he’s always got a reason for it, a justification founded in something good, like righteous anger or burning moral certainties. And that makes him appallingly dull.

And of course there’s the Shakespearian tragic hero, whose defining characteristic, as your secondary school English teacher told you a thousand times, is their flaw. No-one likes Hamlet; but because you get a feel, very rapidly, for the way that his character – that bundle of motivations and habitual modes of reaction – interacts with his environment and circumstances, he’s a magnificent engine for a story.

And once Ferris was a self-interested, somewhat detached man whose motivations were tangible, this made him an engine too. It became clear the ways in which he and his bosses could collide, and the ways in which they’d align. Very, very quickly, the near-future sections of the story acquired impetus. Now, around 75% of the book so far (30k!) is set in Stephen Ferris’ world. Whereas if I’d left him as a sort of washed-out decent everyman, Winston Smith with all the interesting bits removed, I think that I’d’ve written a book mostly set in 1822, thinly glued together by a dull overarching narrative which you skipped through quickly in order to get back to the bits in the lowlands of Scotland, where things actually happened.

3 thoughts on “Carnegia Blog 5: Character (or, why Stephen Ferris had to be a nobhead)

  1. You just succinctly explained everything I hate about Harry Potter, the character. Worst. Main character. Ever. Emily is quite fond of describing him as having “less personality than your average doorknob.”

    But, then, I’m partial to asshole characters, so I’m biased. They just tend to be so much more complex than “good guy” narrators, know what I mean?

    Also, way to use my real name instead of my pen name. *side-eye*

    1. *sigh* edited. SO DEMANDING.

      I love plenty of characters who I regard as essentially ‘good’, it’s that ‘utterly blameless’ thing which never works out. It does work the other way too — a villain who’s evil just because they’re evil is every bit as bland as a hero who’s good just because they’re good.

      On the other hand (the third hand?), I think another trap to avoid is going overly Freudian on your characters, and making their motivations stem entirely from traumatic/formative experiences in their childhood. That’s one of the problems with Potter — everything he does can be directly justified by him whining about how shit his early life was. Which he will inevitably proceed to do.

      1. Basically, Harry Potter is like a study in what not to do with your protagonist. XD

        I think that’s kind of what I mean when I say I prefer asshole main characters. In order for them to be your main character, you have to make their perspective understandable, if not actively likable. That’s inherently going to be a lot more interesting than a character who’s just an all-around good person, or indeed a villain who’s evil for being evil. I’ve always sort of wanted to write a story where the villain is the main character, but then Dr. Horrible happened so I lost my motivation. Haha.

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