Creating complex characters: Bo in Exquisite

Creating complex characters: Bo in Exquisite

This A-Z of characters blog series is looking at memorable narrators in novels and what has made them stick in my mind. It’s all based on the three Cs of character that I teach in our online courses and at various events and writing festivals. The novel characters that people never forget are complex, contradictory and consistent, just like real people.

In the first of these blogs I looked at Adam in The Imposter from Damon Galgut. Today’s complex character is Bo in Exquisite by Sarah Stovell, who visited the blog to chat to Sophie a while ago about this novel and her writing. Read the interview here.

So who is Bo?

Bo is a novelist, living the dream writer’s life in her beautiful Lake District home with multiple bestsellers in her backlist. She’s got a lovely family and a happy marriage. Bo shares the narration of this beautifully written and compelling novel with Alice, an aspiring writer that she meets when teaching at a writing retreat. The two women instantly feel a connection and an intense relationship quickly develops, with Bo playing the part of the older, wiser mentor who sees traces of her younger self in Alice.

What makes Bo such a complex character?

It’s the different sides of her personality that contradict each other; and that she’s so difficult to suss out. Is she nice or is she nasty? I’m not going to reveal the answer to that but instead look at her character traits.

On the one hand she is caring, nurturing, supportive and on the other she is manipulative, dishonest and ruthless. She’s a great mother to her children and a popular member of her local community. She’s playing games with people’s emotions and twisting the truth to suit her own ends. She’s altruistic and donates to charity. Like the image above, different elements of of her personality were reflected on the surface but at the same time all the other sides of her were still there behind that reflection.

It was really hard to tell who the real Bo is. And this is true of humans in general. We never know what’s going on in other people’s minds and they often do and say things that are in direct contradiction to beliefs they have previously professed to hold. But at the same time they are usually consistent in how they go about things.

As writers it’s our job to decide what goes on in people’s minds, to share that with readers and show how that makes them act the way they do. One of the things I’ve learned through reading and writing a lot of fiction is that it’s the contradictions and the moments of inconsistency that make novel narrators stand out, make them memorable.

Which literary characters have you never forgotten and why? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll pick someone at random to win a free place on our online course, the Creating Complex Characters masterclass, in which I look at the using the three Cs in detail to write your own memorable characters. The winner will be picked on 27th June 2018.

Writing exercise:

Write a list of 3 positive character traits and 3 negative ones. Then create a new character for a short story that embodies them. Think about why they have these traits and how they manifest in their behaviour.


Up next in the A-Z of complex characters is Cassie in As Far As You Can Go by Lesley Glaister…

Results: 2017 First Chapter Competition

Thanks to our judge, Laura Williams, literary agent with PFD, for choosing a winner and two runners-up for the 2017 First Chapter Competition. Laura has asked to read the full MS from all three of the writers in her top spots; and has provided short feedback on each shortlisted chapter below too. Many congratulations to the winner and runners-up, and to all of the writers that made the shortlist. Hopefully Laura’s comments will help with your editing.

Winner: The Moonscape by Eirill Falck

I love the first paragraph. It sets the scene, introduces the key characters, teases the plot – it does absolutely everything you could ever hope a first paragraph would do. The set up works so well in this first chapter, and I’d be very interested in reading more.


Runner-Up: Bouzouki Nights by Emily Kerr

I was instantly on side with the protagonist from the very beginning here, she’s hugely likeable. The writing is very lively and reads so naturally in the way that the best commercial fiction does. It definitely made me want to find out what happens next.


Runner-Up: Fallible Justice by Laura Laakso

There’s a really good flow to the writing here and some absolutely devastatingly beautiful images. I did find the drama of the opening chapter to feel a little too quiet, almost underplayed, so I think there needs to be a focus on packing a punch in the narrative as well as in those really arresting descriptions. I’d very much like to see where the storyline goes.



Click. Bang. by Dave Wakely

A very intriguing premise, I love the dreamlike feel. Be careful to give the reader something solid to latch on to before too long though, otherwise the abstract style can become a little bit confusing.

The Virgins of Salem by Fiona Mackintosh

The opening certainly grabs the reader’s attention. The scene setting and vivid description of early 20th century India is very well done. I have absolutely no idea where the story will go from here, but it certainly is a memorable opening chapter!

Naked Gardening for the Over Fifties by Catherine Edmund

I admire the very lively writing style in this, but I did find the stream-of-consciousness style here a little bit too frenetic when the reader is settling into the story. Obviously you want to grab the reader with action, but in this case the pace of the main character’s racing thoughts can afford to be slowed down a little. Watch out for tenses too, as sometimes these were inconsistent.

The Uprising by Ahize Mbaeliachi

The premise is interesting and unusual, and I would have liked a little more description in these early pages considering the location and historical setting – I wanted the landscape to play a larger role so that the story could really draw me in.

A Minute’s Grace by Laura Tisdall

The little crumbs of exposition that are revealed as the chapter goes on are tantalising, and certainly makes the reader want to keep turning the page, although I still felt really in the dark at the end of the chapter about what was going on. The bombshell of the last line doesn’t really land with confidence in the mechanics of the world that’s been created by that point.

The Weight of Stones by Ruby Speechley

There’s a good gradual build up of tension here, but some of the dialogue for me towards the end is a little unnatural, and I’d be careful about introducing too many secondary characters too soon, at the cost of keeping the reader’s focus on the protagonist in these opening pages.

Soliciting in the City by Isabel Powles

The first day of a new job is a quite common inciting incident in the opening of a story, and it wasn’t clear enough to me from the off what was going to make this storyline stand out above other openings that could be similar, despite good writing and a really relatable protagonist. I sense there’s more here than is currently being let on!


Well done to everyone that made the long and shortlist for this year’s competition.

If you’d like to be in with a chance of getting feedback on your work from a top literary agent, then the 2018 First Chapter Competition is now open for entries.

The judge for 2018 is Diana Beaumont with Marjacq. You can find out about Diana and her list here. Deadline for the 2018 competition is 28th January and you can get all the info here.

2017 First Chapter Competition Shortlist

Drum roll! After multiple re-reads by myself and Louise Walters we now have a shortlist of 10 stories that are with judge, Laura Williams, literary agent with Peters, Fraser and Dunlop.

Thanks again to everyone that entered and well done to all the longlisted writers – and congratulations to everyone on our shortlist!

The 2017 First Chapter Competition Shortlist


  • A Minute’s Grace by Laura Tisdall
  • Bouzouki Nights by Emily Kerr
  • Click. Bang. by Dave Wakely
  • Fallible Justice by Laura Laakso
  • Naked Gardening for the Over-Fifties by Catherine Edmunds
  • Soliciting in the City by Isabel Powles
  • The Moonscape by Eirill Falck
  • The Uprising by Ahize Mbaeliachi
  • The Virgins of Salem by Fiona Mackintosh
  • The Weight of Stones by Ruby Speechley


Final results will be posted soon…good luck everyone!


Character & Conflict: Driving the story forward

Richard Skinner (novelist, poet, creative writing teacher and head of the Faber Academy fiction programme) hosted a workshop at a character and conflict retreat in 2015. He focused on conflict being the heart of your novel and what drives the plot, character development and the entire story.

Richard, why is conflict so important in creating characters that readers can relate to remember?
If plot is the engine of a narrative, its heart, then the idea of ‘conflict’ is the heartbeat. Put simply, without ‘conflict’, there is no story. If the fact that a character will find success is never in doubt, there is no interest or involvement for the reader. The gap between desire and its fulfillment is what drives the story and keeps us glued to the page.

Does conflict in novels have to be on an epic scale?
The conflict doesn’t have to be on a grand scale—war, for instance—and every decision doesn’t have to be life-or-death. Conflict can be internal and much quieter, existing on a quotidian level, small scale, as it does in Anita Brookner’s Hôtel du Lac, but it must be there.

Which novels do you think use conflict really well to develop character and drive the novel forward in synch with each other?
Conflict within a novel can work on many levels. First of all, there is ‘personal’ conflict, the fight a person has with themselves. This may be the struggle for spiritual enlightenment, as in the case of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, or it might be the result of a dissatisfaction (as it is for Emma Bovary), or a ‘disaffection’—Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, for example.

Secondly, there is ‘interpersonal’ conflict, the conflict between two people who, for whatever reason, do not see eye to eye. This kind of conflict is at its most heightened when it is based on a protagonist and antagonist who have mutually exclusive goals, so that, if the protagonist achieves what they set out to do, it is at the expense of the antagonist, and vice versa. One very common example of this kind of conflict is the story of the ‘hunter and the hunted’, which is the template for countless Boys’ Own adventure stories. Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, for instance, or Hugo’s Les Misérables, in which Javert mercilessly and relentlessly pursues the reformed convict Valjean.

A more recent novel that is a good example of conflict is Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (1994). During the novel, Billy Parham crosses the US-Mexico border three times: the first time to release a wolf back into the wild; the second to recover his father’s horses; the third to search for his brother. Each time he crosses the border, he loses something—the wolf, the horses, his brother—and he returns home empty-handed. In turn, each loss necessitates that he cross the border again. It is a magnificent novel and one of the best embodiments of pure conflict that I know.

Finally, there is ‘social’ conflict, which arises between one person and a whole community. In general, this type of story is the result of differently held views, whether it be an individual’s non-conformist approach to life (Crime and Punishment, for example), or the result a person maintaining their integrity in the face of great hostility, as in Twelve Angry Men. The permutations are endless, but all stories with this level of conflict have in common the idea of ‘one person against the world’.

There is another level of conflict, namely that between man and his environment, but as the subject of these stories is usually some form of natural phenomenon, they typically don’t pay much attention to character. This kind of conflict is to be found in movies such as Twister, Volcano, Armageddon, etc.

What does your teaching focus on to help writers get deeper inside their characters and develop different levels and layers of conflict?
I look at ways of putting obstacles in the character’s path to make life difficult for them. When placing obstacles for the characters to overcome, one important point to bear in mind is to ensure that those events don’t just happen to your characters, but that they happen because of them. It is easy, and tempting, just to hurl random impediments at characters, but they should in some way be the result of a character’s actions and decisions.

If something ‘just happens’ to a character, and they are not seen to act on or react to it, your character will be cast merely as a passive victim of circumstance rather than being an active generator of incident. In this instance, you need to ensure that character determines plot, not the other way round.

What are the three key things writers should know to develop conflict?
1) If you want a character to become rich, the first thing you do is rob them. 2) A character should achieve their success, not just acquire it. 3) Characters must pay some kind of price for what they desire and that cost is our investment in their story.