Creating complex characters: Esther in Frozen Music

Creating complex characters: Esther in Frozen Music

Frozen Music by Marika Cobbold stars Esther, and I liked her a lot. She is a prime example of the 3 Cs of Character, which is one of the characterisation tools I use in my teaching and is a good way to get to know the people who take root in our heads a lot better.

Essentially, Frozen Music is a girl meets boy story but it has got a lot more to it than that. As a character study, and great example of how to bring emotional resonance to your writing through character transformation, it doesn’t even really matter that there was a romance alongside that too. Although I am partial to a good love story – as long as it doesn’t get too sentimental then I run a mile!

So what is Esther’s character like? She has always been very serious with a very well-developed, some might say over-developed, sense of right and wrong and no time for the middle ground. But this is just an attempt to find order in what for her is a confusing and chaotic world filled with people whose morals and priorities she just can’t understand.

Working as a journalist she takes up arms in defense of an elderly brother and sister who are going to lose the only home they’ve ever known as it stands in the way of a new opera house development. It’s this crusade that finally makes her realise that things in life are never as black and white as they seem.

What I liked so much about Esther was that she was flawed, a social misfit, intense, righteous and neurotic. But at the same time she was very funny, loyal, kind, sincere and filled with integrity.

As writers, we need to recognise that as much as we may love, or hate, the characters we are creating they can’t just be all good or all bad. They need to have a bit of both to make them real.

Writing exercise

Create a character that has the same traits as Esther that I’ve listed above. Write a pen portrait of them then write another piece from their POV when they have been confronted with a situation that makes them take the moral high ground.


Get more help to create your own unforgettable narrators in our Creating Complex Characters Masterclass.

Next up in this blog series, is Futh in The Lighthouse by Alison Moore. Previous posts are:

  • Adam in The Imposter by Damon Galgut – read it here
  • Bo in Exquisite by Sarah Stovell – read it here
  • Cassie in As Far As You Can Go by Lesley Glaister – read it here
  • Dolores in She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb – read it here



If you sign up as a Retreat West Author Member you’ll get weekly emails with four writing prompts, writing advice, inspiration and motivation to help you create great characters and great stories, as well as whole load of other great stuff to get you writing, learning and submitting more. Get info here.



Creating complex characters: Dolores in She’s Come Undone

Creating complex characters: Dolores in She’s Come Undone


This week it’s Dolores Price’s turn in the complex characters spotlight. Dolores is the star of Wally Lamb’s debut novel, She’s Come Undone. She’s a character that I use often in the workshops and courses that I deliver as she is amazing. Written by a 40-something man but one of the strongest and most memorable female narrators I have ever come across.

The story follows her from childhood to middle-age and although, as the novel title suggests, she goes through some really hard times I never found the book hard-going. It was compelling, heartbreaking, funny, poignant and ultimately uplifting (without having a shmaltzy ending) even though it covers themes such as sexual abuse, adultery, abandonment, mental health breakdowns and obsession.

We start with a young Dolores having a brutal introduction to the ways of the world when her beloved father leaves the family home as he’s having an affair, and never really bothers with Dolores again. Setting in motion a life for her that’s filled with mistrust, low-self-esteem, and a burning desire to be in control of people and situations, which ultimately leads to more heartache but with moments of joy and love along the way.

So why is Dolores so memorable? She’s one of the most complex and contradictory characters I’ve come across and also one of the most consistent (the 3Cs of character).

She’s surly, angry, manipulative and a liar. She’s funny, self-deprecating, vulnerable and desperate for someone to love her. She consistently behaves in ways that are really out of order but you find yourself rooting for her. She also consistently treats herself badly, physically and mentally, and you want to shake her when she looks like she’s finally having some moments of self-realisation only to slip back into the behaviours she’s always relied on, even though they are clearly harming her.

What makes her so memorable is that we’ve all been there. We’ve all done thing we know are bad for us, we’ve all shied away from dealing with the things that are making us sad. Dolores goes too far in her attempt to control things and I don’t think there’s many of us that will have done lots of what she gets up to. I’m not going to tell you what she does – go read the book if you haven’t already. It’s a brilliant book and a brilliant learning tool for us as writers.

Writing exercise

Create a character that shares the traits I’ve listed above for Dolores. Play around and find a voice for them by writing for 20 minutes from the sentence starter: I wish I could…

Then write a scene where they are doing something most people would think is a terrible thing to do but that will keep the reader on their side anyway.


If you’re feeling brave, post your scene in the comments below as we’d love to read it!



Creating Complex Characters: Cassie in As Far As You Can Go

The third in this blog series, which is looking at memorable narrators and how we as writers can create them, is Cassie in As Far As You Can Go by Lesley Glaister.

Everything about this novel is memorable even though how the plot would eventually play out was quite predictable. The oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere and how the Australian landscape is portrayed is stunning. The creeping sense of menace and paranoia, and the not being quite sure what exactly is going on even when you think you do. There are four main characters, Cassie, an organic gardener wanting more out of life than she’s  got – mainly an adventure, a family, a commitment from her adulterous boyfriend, Graham.

In trying to get all of these things she signs them both up for a year-long job as housekeepers/companions on a remote sheep ranch in Australia. Here they meet obese Mara who they are to care for – she’s got some serious mental health issues, lives in a shed, and takes a lot of meds. Then there’s Larry, Mara’s partner and the person Cassie met in London to get the job. And that’s it. Just these four people stuck a very long way from anybody else, apart from next door neighbour Fred who lives miles away and a man in an old bus in the middle of the outback several hours walk away.

As soon as they arrive it becomes clear that things are not quite how they were led to believe. There’s no phone, no computer but there is a lot of sexual tension. Larry makes it clear he wants Cassie and Graham suddenly believes in monogamy. Mara likes to wander around nude and lure Graham into her shed at every opportunity. Cassie has convinced Graham they should try for a baby. And it’s very very hot.

The clever thing about how Cassie has been written is that initially she doesn’t appear complex at all. She seems, if anything, rather dim and gullible. As if there’s not much beneath the surface at all. She’s self-absorbed to a startling degree and all of the things that should be setting alarm bells ringing in her head, don’t. As she’s too busy worrying about what Cassie wants. But at other times, she’s nurturing and caring, sympathetic and insightful, trying to see the good in things no matter how bad they might be. Glimmers of a different Cassie hiding beneath the narcissistic surface.

My feelings about her veered from complete frustration to sympathy to disbelief to wanting to give her a hug and back and round and back and around again. For a writer to play with your emotions repeatedly like that, they have definitely created a complex character.

Writing exercise

Create a character that is completely self-absorbed and put them in a dangerous situation that they can’t recognise because of their self-absorption. What makes them see the danger and finally take them out of their own head into the real world? How do they react?


Get more help to create your own unforgettable narrators in our Creating Complex Characters Masterclass.

Next up in this blog series, coming in a couple of week’s time, is Dolores in She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. Previous posts are:

Winner of Complex Characters Retreat

Thanks to everyone that sent in stories to win a place at the Creating Complex Characters Retreat taking place in Devon in March 2018. There were a surprising number of stories that had the same storyline about teenage pregnancy so Devon must have a reputation that I knew nothing about! The winner really stood out for taking a different approach, it’s humour, lightness of touch and the strength of the narrator’s voice.

Congratulations go to to Alexis Wolfe for her winning story, Target Weight, which you can read below.

I loved the way food imagery was layered throughout the whole piece to describe everything from the Devon countryside to fingers and shoes. Devon’s food and how we all envision the county as a place of picture perfect villages where everyone’s eating cream teas was nicely done. It really captured how we often aim for the wrong target to make us happy and I liked how the ending left me wondering if the narrator’s new target would be the right one or if she was seeking happiness in the wrong place again.

Target Weight by Alexis Wolfe

Stepping onto the scales, I’m hoping none of my ladies will arrive early and catch me in the act. I glance down at the numbers, leaping off again before they burn my eyes. That sticky toffee pudding last night was a big mistake.

I’m 9lbs over target now and according to Slender Seekers terms & conditions, should disclose this to Headquarters. But I’d risk losing my classes and there aren’t many jobs round here for slightly overweight fifty-something ladies.

Besides my classes are popular. The girls find me inspiring. Honiton was already sewn up by Beverley Brewer, diet coach when I lost five stone, so I make do with the out-of-town spots, villages with names like Ottery St Mary or Newtown Poppleford, quiet little places full of fuller figure ladies needing to shed a few pounds. Fridays, I travel down to Sidmouth on the coast, where there are plenty of folks who need to ease up on the fish and chips.

It’s been seven years now since my ‘vanishing’, the great disappearance of Elaine, prompted by the not-so-great disappearance of Gerald. But it’s getting harder to maintain. The weight creeps back on. Must be careful, else before long it will be bulging and pooling in my crevices, forming new creases.

I smooth down my floral dress. I aim for achievable glamour, but this dress, without tights, is pushing it for September. The Village Hall feels a little chilly. I check my displays, leaflets and Slender Seekers branded snacks. ‘Almond Fakewell’ is Ian’s favourite. Some of the Best Before dates are getting dangerously close, must make a concerted effort to flog those today.

Two regulars, Anita and Sharon shuffle in. Anita’s first in the weighing booth. Three pounds lost, she squeals. Smug cow. I give her congratulations and my brightest false smile.

Sharon’s full of disclaimers, her son’s wedding, her auntie’s birthday dinner at River Cottage. She hides her face behind her hands.

“Oh dear, a little set back Sharon, love” I say gently, my smile genuine.

“How bad is it Elaine?” She still can’t look. Her earrings dangle like bunches of grapes.

“Twelve stone five, love”

Sharon winces. “I knew it would be bad.”

It’s almost constant then, the stream of ladies, the losses and the gains. Giving encouraging squeezes to doughy upper arms. Legs shaped like twiglets, celery sticks, french sticks and drumsticks stepping on and off the scales until all verdicts have been delivered.

Time for my presentation. But still no sign of Ian. I glance at the two rows of chairs. Not a great turnout, usually we need three rows. I see the expectant faces of keen newbies and the less eager stalwarts chatting amongst themselves.

I cough loudly. “If I can have your attention, ladies?”

The room falls silent. ‘Snacks: The Alternatives’ is an easy speech, repeated often. I know it like the back of my hand. Three regulars slip out quietly. To be honest, Joyce probably should have stayed but I won’t judge.

Where is he? I think as I’m reeling off the healthy snacks ABC. His presence had become a stimulant, making my consultant speeches fizzle. Without him in my audience things feel flat. I list the benefits of the fruit and seed bars, hoping I might get shot of the last few. After a soul destroying Q&A – these women do not listen to a single thing I say – it’s over. In a flurry of hugs and waves the ladies vanish. I wait fifteen minutes extra, packing away slowly, giving him one last chance to show up. Nothing. The Pilates class start to arrive, I usually avoid seeing the teacher’s lithe body in her little pink leg warmers, it’s all rather dispiriting.

I clunk storage boxes into my purple Fiat and drive. Pausing at the village traffic lights, I wonder if Slender Seekers is ticking my boxes these days. I don’t need the money. The point was to maintain target and meet people after Gerald died. But I’m doing neither. These women aren’t my friends. They lose weight and leave, of course lots of them come back again. But we aren’t friends. And this crush – this Ian thing – is madness. I’m just starved of male company. Apparently his wife lost three stone and ran off with her personal trainer. Poor bloke. He’s not even my type, with his bad dress sense and those awful shoes, shaped like big Cornish pasties. But still, the heart feels what it feels.

The lights change and I pass the Jubilee clock in the village, 2.30pm, early for going home but I’ve forgotten my library books and already taken a ready-meal out to defrost so no reason to visit the supermarket.

The sign swings in the breeze as I descend the hill. I’ve passed this farm, on the outskirts of another quaint village, plenty of times before but the red and white cream teas sign has never been so tempting. Usually I keep my eyes on the road and ignore it. But today my willpower is already round my ankles, like a big pair of tummy toning knickers waiting to be kicked off towards the laundry basket. I pull into the car park but don’t climb out, resolving to have a sensible word with myself.

In the distance sheep dot the green hillside like sprinkles on a cupcake. The sun is high and glinting through the bramble hedgerow just beyond my window. It’s heavy with September fruit, within my grasp if I were to reach out. Plump juicy blackberries, colour of midnight, ripe for the picking. I think about sprinkling a few berries atop a low-fat yogurt and my recipe for a cheese-less cheesecake.

Then I remember brambling with Grandma, filling the circular indents inside an old egg box, how she made apple and blackberry crumble piled high with caramelised topping which would never have met Slender Seeker’s criteria for a healthy dessert. I think about blackberry jam, then raspberry jam. Inevitably strawberry jam and scones aren’t far behind. Every path, leading right here.

I choose the largest scone on the platter, but decline the clotted cream. It wasn’t necessary anyway, not with a 5mm thick wedge of real butter. A scone half is heading mouthward when I hear his voice behind me.

“That looks good”

I swing round. “Ian?!” What is he doing here?

“Hello Elaine! Mmmm, I’ll have one of those” he wanders over to the counter, the waitress looks up from scrolling her phone.

I quickly compose myself, wiping crumbs from my lap. He returns with two scones, jam and clotted cream. Naughty. “Been busy today?” I ask “Missed you at weigh-in.”

“Ahh, yes” Ian mutters “well, thing is… ” he pulls out the chair opposite me. “Okay to join you?”

I nod, watching him manoeuvre into the seat, he’s wearing a neatly ironed polo with shorts. Optimistic. Brown leather sandals with thick straps, in a lattice pattern, like the top of a pie.

“I planned to come …” Ian continued “but got cold feet” “Literally?” I laugh, tilting my head sideways to look under the table and pointing at his sandals. He chuckles. “I weighed myself at home this morning.”

I groan. “Ian! What do I always say?! What do I tell you all every week?” I knew it. No one takes any notice. “Only my scales can be relied on for accuracy! It’s best not to …”

“I know! I know!” he concedes “but anyway, I’d gained and just couldn’t face the tea and sympathy.”

I knew exactly what he meant. “So feeding your sorrows a Devonshire afternoon tea?” I tease.

“Exactly! And what’s your excuse?”

Our eyes meet. He looks away first. I raise my hands. “You got me” I smile. Then I tell him I’ve gained too. The words come tumbling out, unplanned. But now they are out on the table – like appetisers waiting to be picked over – I feel relieved. People like to be let into a secret, don’t they.

“So you gained a little Elaine” he shrugged.

“I’m the leader! I can’t be gaining, I’m supposed to be a role model.”

“Awww Elaine, come on, you’re human! Besides you still look lovely to me.”

There’s a brief silence.

“Perhaps it’s time I did something new?” I wonder aloud.

“What are you doing for the rest of the day?”

I shrug, it’s not worth mentioning the library or the ready-meal for one.

“We could walk off the scone, perhaps see a film?” he says.

“I’d love to!”

I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I imagine his arm resting on the cinema seat behind me. The two of us sharing a large popcorn together. Maybe it’s not slenderness that I’m seeking. I notice he still wears his wedding ring and see how he twists it round nervously, fingers fat like sausages. I’ll get that ring off his finger, eventually.

I think I just found my new target.


About the author: Alexis Wolfe is a former TV Production Manager and Mum to three boys. She lives in Berkshire, England and is working on her first novel. When she’s not writing, she enjoys travelling and reading. Alexis was recently shortlisted in a Winchester Writers Festival contest and a runner-up in the Writers & Artists / Retreat West short story competition.


Congratulations again, Alexis. I look forward to meeting you at the retreat.

If you’d like to join us at the retreat to focus on creating characters that readers never forget then the early-bird booking rate is in place until 14th November 2017. Get all the info on the retreat here. 

Win a place at the Creating Complex Characters Retreat

The Creating Complex Characters Retreat

12-16 March 2018, Sheepwash, Devon

You could win a free place at this writing retreat, which has 3 character-focused masterclasses and a 1-1 with author and Retreat West founder, Amanda Saint. Get all the retreat info here.

All you have to do to enter is write a short story up to 1500 words set in the Devon countryside in which you make us see, hear, smell and feel your characters. Make them come alive for us.

Prize: The winner gets 4 nights in their own room with all food, drink, classes and 1-1 included.

Entry fee: £15

Deadline: 5th November 2017

Competition Rules

  • Submit stories written in English through Submittable using the button below by 23.45 GMT on the deadline date (sorry late entries will not be included)
  • The maximum word count is 1500 but there is no minimum
  • Do not include your name on the story document or submission title but provide a short bio in the body of the email. All entries are read anonymously so any submissions showing the author’s name will be disqualified.
  • Stories must be your own original work and not have been published online or in print, or have won any other competitions (longlisted and shortlisted places in other competitions is fine)
  • By entering the competition you agree to attend the retreat and your story being published on the Retreat West website
  • Simultaneous submissions are allowed but if your story wins a prize or is published prior to the winner’s announcement your entry will become ineligible and entry fees will not be refunded
  • Stories can be in any genre apart from children’s fiction
  • You can enter as many times as you like but must pay the entry fee and make a separate submission each time
  • The judge’s decision is final
  • There is no cash alternative for the prize and the winner cannot transfer to a different retreat