Developing Characters for your Novel

This post is the fourth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Characters are one of the most important elements to your story. They are what drive the plot. Believable characters help bring readers into your fictitious world. You can tell I am a firm believer in taking the time to build your characters and their history. I have written about characters twenty eight times in the past five years. Now I am going to try and boil most of what I have said about them into just two posts.

At the very minimum, you should know the basics for every character – what they look like, what occupation they have and a general sense of what they want.

For your main characters (and some minor characters) you should know even more of their history. It is from this history that your character’s motivation will develop. Your plot is derived from these characters and their motivations. Motivation leads to action, which leads to more action. And it leads to problems and conflict. Without this, there is no plot.

So how do you fill out all this history and character traits on your characters? There are several methods. You can fill out a character worksheet, create a timeline or write a short narrative.

Character Profile Worksheet

This is a list of the physical description (age, height, manner of dress, etc.), personal characteristics (goals, hobbies, likes, dislikes, etc.), living situation (occupation, home, pets) and background (birthplace, education, family) of your character. The easiest way to know all these things is to fill out a character profile questionnaire. You can easily do a web search for one or check out the one here or here.


Another option is to create a timeline or outline of your character’s history. Starting with their birth, add in other major events that happened to your character up until the time the story begins. These would need to be extensive for major characters and could be sparser for minor characters.


And sometimes it is just easiest to write a few paragraphs about your character. Be sure to cover such basics – family life, education, likes, and major events and so on.

Knowing your character’s history isn’t always enough to know what motivates and drives them. You need their recollection of the events that made them into who they are today. A fun way to get to know your characters is to do a character interview.

Character Interview

In a character interview, you ask your character questions and answer back as if you are that character. This gives you a chance to explore some of their background from their point of view. You can pretend to be the police interviewing your bad guy, a therapist interviewing a patient, or perhaps you are interviewing them for a magazine as if they are a celebrity. It is a technique with lots of room to play and adapt to your specific needs. To find out more click here to read my post “The Character Interview: Getting to know your characters.”

Now, it is a lot of work to fully develop your characters. But the work will pay off. Your characters will seem more real. And you don’t need to do all this work for every character in your novel. You will want to spend more time developing major characters while minor ones will need less or almost no work. (More on minor characters next week.)


There is one more area to talk about before we finish today’s post on characters. You need to name them – all of them. It can be a daunting task. If you thought naming your child was hard, naming your characters is just as hard. Of course, the most thought needs to go into your main character’s name. You want a name that is unique to your character, that your reader will remember, and that fits into your story, whether it be a fantasy, futuristic, historical or a modern piece.

I find a baby-naming books or websites to be a great resource for names. You can also check out yearbooks, genealogy records, or film credits.

Here are some tips to naming your character:

  • Steer clear of complicated, hard-to-pronounce names. If you do choose one, consider using a nickname to make it easier to the reader and other characters.
  • Don’t overuse unusual names or spellings. If your main character is Barnabus, name his sidekick Sam or Eric, not Hawthorne.
  • You should avoid having characters with similar names – Jon and Jan. You may also want to stay away from names that start with the same letter or same sound – like Phil and Fred.
  • Avoid nicknames or unusual names that will annoy the reader. For example, calling a man by what is traditionally a woman’s name or vice versa can create unnecessary confusion. Only do this if there is a real need for it in your story.
  • HISTORICAL NOVELS – you will want to look for a name popular or at least in use during the time period you have chosen. Do not pick a modern name (such as Jennifer) for a story set in the 17th century.
  • If your character was born in the U.S., browse through the Social Security Name Popularity List for that year.
  • You also should make sure your character is not a real person. Try Googling the names you choose.

Next week, I will address the different types of characters – major, minor, sidekicks, and antagonists.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

L is for Lazy characters #AtoZChallenge

For the A to Z Challenge, I have chosen the theme of characters. On my normal blogging days, Monday – parenting, Wednesday – quotes, and Thursday – writing/publishing, I will focus on characteristics. On the other days (Tuesday, Friday and Saturday), I will write about characters from movies, TVs or books.

LToday the letter is L for Lazy Characters.

No, I am not talking about characters who would rather laze around in front of the TV than work. I am talking about authors who are lazy about developing their characters.

You sit down to write a story about a man desolated from a failed marriage who just was fired from the job he held for the past 25 years. If you don’t take the time to learn his history and how he came to be at this place at this point in time, you are either going to have a flat one-dimensional character or will have a lot of re-writing to do as your story develops.

I know that sometimes authors would rather jump right in and start writing the story bumping around in their brain. But if you take the time to develop the character, to get to know the why behind his or her behavior, the character becomes real to the reader. And if you know this character inside and out, your writing job just became easier. You will have less re-writing or editing because you know their actions and behaviors are true to them.

So don’t be lazy. Know the history, the likes and dislikes, the major events in your character’s life and more so that you can write vivid, real people rather than one-dimensional ones that only do as they are told.

If you missed the other days in the A to Z Challenge:

A is for Alice

B is for Belgarath 

C is for Cautious Child

D is for Dana Scully

E is for Enthusiasm (Quote) and Southwestern Eggrolls (Recipe)

F is for Flaky Character 

G is for Gandalf 

H is for Huckleberry Finn

I is for Independence 

J is for Jason Bourne

K is for Kind (Quote)

Positive traits for your characters

Last week, I wrote about the importance of having a well-rounded character and for you, the author, to have a complete understanding of the history and makeup of our characters.

positive 1To be well-rounded, a character needs both positive and negative traits and behaviors. No one wants to read about a character who never does anything wrong or fails. Without a few mistakes or failures, there will be no conflict in your story and conflict is what drives a story along.

Today, I want to look at positive traits and how they might have developed.

Genetics – Some things are out of our control. We are born with a certain body type or an aptitude for music. Some of us are extroverts while others are more calm-natured. Sometimes whether someone is always cheery or a down-and-out sour puss can just be the way they were born.

Upbringing – Some of our characteristics are brought about by the way we were raised. A child absorbs the traits and values of the one raising them. If order and structure are what they grew up with, they may follow in those same steps. Or they could rebel against those beliefs and go in the totally opposite direction.

Physical Environment – Where you grew up (as well as your current living conditions) play a big part in making you who you are. There is a difference in a character who grew up in the suburbs as opposed to someone who grew up in a poorer or perhaps tougher neighborhood. Growing up on a farm or in poverty or in one of the richest families will all have different effects on a person and the characteristics they develop.

Peers – Your friends and colleagues often greatly influence your life. Some characteristics may develop that are shared among peers as a way of fitting in and gaining acceptance.

Negative Experiences – While these often result in flaws, they can also make positive traits develop. Someone who grew up in an abusive family may strive to be a nurturing parent to their child.

All of these things help make your character who he or she is. This is why you need to know them inside and out. You need to know your character’s fears, needs, desires, like and dislikes. Basically, before you begin writing you need to develop the back story of your protagonist and your antagonist.

Yes – you do need to know just as much about your antagonist as you do your protagonist. You need to know what he wants and why he is so desperate to achieve it. Figuring out his internal motivations will help make him real. Your reader will be able to understand what drives him and why he will do anything necessary to succeed. And your villain won’t just be chock-full of negative attributes. They need some positive ones too.

positive 2If you need help on what positive attributes to give your character – adaptable, loyal, organized, trusting or whimsical – or perhaps you don’t know what types of behaviors would be associated with these traits, then I would recommend checking out The Positive Trait Thesaurus.

This guide discusses everything I mentioned above with more details and then lists 99 positive attributes along with associated behaviors/thoughts as well as what type of positive and negative aspects this attribute can have on a character. It also lists examples and challenging scenario ideas for characters with these traits.

Next week, I will post about the negative attributes your character might have.