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.

Timeline/Outline

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.

Narrative

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.)

Names

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”

Advertisements

Q is for Questions #AtoZChallenge

For the A to Z Challenge, I have chosen the theme of antagonists.

On my normal blogging days, Monday – parenting and Thursday – writing/publishing, I will tie that day’s topic to antagonists but on the other days (Tuesday, Friday and Saturday), I will write about antagonists from movies, TVs or books. On Wednesdays, my Quote of the Week will be from an antagonist that matches the letter of the day. Enjoy.

Today is the letter Q, which is for Questions. A good way to get to know your antagonist is to conduct a character interview. This fun exercise can give you a lot of insight into your antagonist, and the better you know him/her, the easier it will be to bring them to life.

You can either get someone to ask you a list of questions or play both the interviewer and interviewee. But all responses should be done as if you are the antagonist. This means that their word choice, manner and attitude should be reflected in their answers.

The key is to ask open-ended questions so your character has to elaborate beyond a simple “yes” or “no.”  So instead of asking, “Were you scared when you were kidnapped?” ask “What was going through your head at the moment you were grabbed?”

Try to stick with questions that will benefit your story. You want to uncover the goals and motivation of your antagonist. And you might just uncover some of their soft spots too.

Need help coming up with questions? Here is a website that lists 50 Questions you can ask your antagonist.

And in case you want to check out my other antagonists from the challenge…

A is for Apocalypse

B is for Bad Boys (parenting)

C is for Cruella de Vil

D is for Darth Vader (Quote)

D is for To Die for Cake (Recipe)

E is for Evil (Writing)

F is for Freddy Kruger

G is for Gollum

H is for High School (parenting)

I is for Iron Monger

J is for Jafar (Quote)

K is for Killers (Writing)

L is for Loki

M is for Maleficent

N is for No (parenting)

O is for Oggie Boogie

P is for Professor Moriarty (Quote)

The Character Interview: Getting to know your characters

It is important to get to know your characters BEFORE you begin writing your novel. The more familiar you are with them, the better you will be able to bring them to life.

One method of developing your character is to do 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.

It is really a fun exercise. You can pretend to be the police interviewing your bad guy, a therapist interviewing a patient, interview them for a magazine – as if they are a celebrity or maybe about one of their hobbies.  It is a technique with lots of room to play and adapt to your specific needs.

Using this type of free flowing encounter can help you generate a lot of information about the character in a short period of time.

I have always done this exercise being both the interviewer and interviewee. But you can always have someone else ask you questions, and you respond as if you are that character. This means your word choice, manner, and attitude must be as if you really were that character. You should think like they do, speak like they do, be that character.

One of the benefits of having someone else involved is you are not stymied by playing both roles. Plus different minds think differently, and you are likely to get totally different material that you wouldn’t come up with on your own.

That said, I still have done this exercise most often by myself. Since I wrote a trilogy, I actually only did it for the first book, Summoned. The key is to ask open-ended questions so your character has to elaborate beyond a simple “yes” or “no.”  So instead of asking, “Were you scared when you were kidnapped?” ask “What was going through your head at the moment you were grabbed?”

And I would certainly stay away from the mundane questions about how tall someone is or what their favorite food is. The first one you should already know and the second most likely will not help you in developing your plot or improving the scenes in your novel.

Try to concentrate on questions that will benefit you and help you write the story. There are countless websites that give you list of questions to ask, but I say aim for 10 to 12 quality questions. Stick with questions that ask the what, why, how and who f your character. You are looking for your character’s goals and motivations. (For some good questions to get you started, check out this website.)

Sample questions might include: What is your goal? Why is that your goal? Why can’t you reach your goal? What’s stopping you? What is it that you have never told anyone else?

The character interview can help you get to know your characters on a new level. With it, you can create original, fresh, new characters. And by knowing them better, you can more completely write about them. But the important thing is to have fun with it.