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”

Animals as props or characters in your novel

In the past, I have written about using cats as characters since there are cat-like creatures in my fantasy trilogy, The Elemental. Today, I want to focus on using any type of animal in your novel, whether they are there just as an animal or as a character within the story.

Okay before I begin, I guess I have to differentiate between just having an animal and having a character that just so happens to be an animal. If your character is feeding the chickens or walking her mom’s dog than most likely these are only animals in the story. These animals are more like props to help set a realistic scene rather than integral to the story telling.

horse faceHowever, if the horse your hero rides has a habit of biting people, being stubborn or making his own decisions and these traits play a part in the story, then, in my opinion, your animal has gone from just being a prop to being a minor character. In my case, my animals play a much bigger role as they even communicate telepathically with the humans and in some cases major characters.

When including animals in your novel – whether as story props or as a character – you need to know how these animals would behave. It helps if you have spent time with the animal and know how it moves and reacts. I choose cats as I am a cat lover and have been around cats my entire life. I like to think that my knowledge of cats comes through in my writing and that my cat characters behave in ways you expect cats to behave.

If you don’t have personal experience with the animal you are writing about there are lots of options for you to read up on their behavior or better yet watch videos of the animal to help make your descriptions accurate and realistic. Again, research is key.

Now having animals as characters is not limited to fantasy writing. Many other authors use animals as characters such as Rita Mae Brown in her Mrs. Murphy mysteries or Lillian Jackson Braun in her Cat Who series.

One thing you will need to decide when including animals as characters is how they will communicate with humans or other animals. Will the animals speak to each other as they do in Charlotte’s Web or will they be restricted to animal-like behavior such as the cats Koko and Yum Yum from Braun’s mystery series? Animals can convey a lot non-verbally.

Tosh

Tosh – the telepathic “cat” from my THE ELEMENTAL trilogy

Or perhaps they can communicate with humans. It is your world, so they could talk or be telepathic as my “cats” and dragons are in my trilogy. You could even change the animals behavior to include things we mere Earthlings would be shocked to see but could be the norm for the people of the world you create. So animals could be able to pick up items, walk on two legs, smoke a cigar or open doors while here we just expect them to meow or purr.

Just remember that if you are using animals as a character, you will need to develop them as you would any other character. This goes beyond their physical description. They need a history, their own quirks and problems. In other words, you need to do the work to make the real to your readers.

F is for Flaky 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.

FToday the letter is F for Flaky Characters.

We all know someone who is unreliable. They may be scatterbrained or perhaps they are just lazy. But for whatever reason, we all know someone who is flaky.

This can be an interesting character to inject into your novel. A flaky character can add interest as they often get away with things that regular people can’t. They can also add conflict with a more responsible, rule-following type character.

phoebe FriendsNow there are many reasons your character could be flaky. They could be a highly imaginative artist or a high intelligent professor who can’t seem to work in the present as their mind is bombarded with a thousand different ideas. Flakiness could be due to a metal deficiency, or perhaps it is just that they were raised in an environment of free-spiritedness or that they have a disdain for conventionality.

No matter the reason, a flaky, unreliable character can add uncertainty and tension into your plot. Even simple conversation can be hard and relationships may struggle when the flaky character supports a friend one day but then disagrees with them the next. His or her lack of filter and careless words may cause offense. So if you are looking to add some realism or tension to your novel, consider adding a flaky character.

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)

Fiction Writing: Major vs. Minor Characters

As you are developing your cast of characters for your novel, you will undoubtedly finding most of your characters falling into one of two categories – major character or minor character.

Major Character

romanceMajor characters include your protagonist, your protagonist’s sidekick and your antagonist (and perhaps his sidekick/major underling).

These are the people that clearly make the major character list and are the characters you will need to develop fully. You will need to know beyond their physical characteristics and personality traits and flaws. You will need to know their history and what happened to make them the way they are at the beginning of your story.

But other people may help out your protagonist or antagonist. They even may have their own subplots.  These also are considered major characters. They are going to affect the story. But this list usually is a short one.

So for the Harry Potter series – Harry (protagonist), Ron and Hermione (sidekicks) and Voldermort (antagonist) are definitely major characters. Others include Headmaster/Professor Dumbledore, Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy to name a few. And with this example, there are some characters who might have been minor in the first books who play bigger roles later.

Minor Character

dialogueMinor characters are the opposite of major characters. Very little is usually written about them. They may appear in a scene or two but aren’t likely to influence the outcome of the story.

Many of these characters are flat, two-dimensional types that could easily be replaced. As an author, you are not going to spend the time to flesh these people out before writing.

Heck, some of these minor characters may not even have names. The bartender or cab driver may be such a character. They may speak and interact in the scene, but their contribution is negligible.

In the Harry Potter series, minor characters include the Dursleys, Filch, and many of the other professors and students.

And in your own novel, there will be many characters who may fall in between but don’t waste your time trying to categorize each one. Simply decide how important they are to the story, and that will let you know how much time to spend on them. To read more about how much to develop minor characters – check out my post on that subject.

 

 

Starting over…beginning a new novel

HeirAlexandria_ebookcoverIn January, I released my latest fantasy novel, The Heir to Alexandria. The months of February through April were packed with some non-writing projects so it is only now in May that I am finding time to work on my next new novel.

Sigh. It isn’t that I don’t want to start a new novel, but starting a fantasy novel is a lot of work. It goes beyond just deciding on a plot and building characters. I have a whole world to create. And that takes time.

And while I do enjoy developing a believable setting for my story, sometimes I would love to be able to skip the planning part and just begin writing. But I know that without some planning that I would be doing a lot of rewriting.

So first comes plot…I need a compelling story with a well-defined conflict before I can even worry about the world building. And I think I have the compelling story, but I still need to fine tune the exact nature of the conflict.

Once that is done, it will be time to develop the characters (and at least one from this new book will be a dragon).dragon This can be fun. You get to explore their backgrounds and discover their flaws as well as their strengths. Over the next few weeks, I will develop histories, descriptions, and motivations for all my characters. Knowing these details makes the characters more vivid and real.

But because once again I have been busy with travel and doctor’s appointments (see Monday’s post for details regarding the medical issue), I haven’t had as much time to anything. But with character building in mind, I have used my spare time to collect a list of names for some minor characters.

wizardAnd there is still a lot of world building to do. I need to decide on the political and religious beliefs as well as define how magic will be used and what limits there are to it. And yes, you do need to add limits or consequences to your use of magic so that it is believable and can add to the conflict of the story rather than be the supreme answer to all problems.

As part of my world building, I also usually create a map of my world so that I can refer to it as I am writing. This step is quite useful in knowing where your characters are, and how long it will take them to get to other locations. Readers might catch that it took two weeks to reach the seaside village but only two days to return home. Knowing where your characters are and what type of environment they are in will help create that believable world.

So here I am again…starting over. So much planning to do before I even begin writing. It sometimes feels overwhelming, but I know it is will be worth it.

Starting a novel…

So you have decided to write a novel. Before you sits a blank screen. For some that brings excitement at the unlimited possibilities but for others it can be intimidating. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task at hand.

I decided to post on this topic as I just published my latest work – The Heir to Alexandria – last month, and now I too am at this point. I am ready to begin my next novel.

Cartoon Characters uid 950048Now before you start typing your novel, you will need to do some planning. I am not saying you need to figure everything out but without a plan, your characters will just meander around.

You need a direction. Your characters need a direction.

Without a goal in mind, a plot becomes just a haphazard series of events with no meaning or purpose – one that will leave the reader wondering, “What was the point of that story?” (Or perhaps you will spend additional hours editing and cutting out all those scenes that didn’t actually add to your story.)

Before you begin to write even one word, I suggest you consider working on these three topics at a minimum.

Conflict/Plot – Basically, you will need to decide what your story is about. Conflict is what drives your story. You should be able to write down the conflict in just one sentence. (For more on conflict, check out my post on the seven types of conflict.) You also need to consider whether your plot idea has what it takes to last through the length of a whole novel. Not every idea will be worthy of a full-length novel or even a short story.

Setting/World – You need to know where this story is going to take place. If it takes place in the past, you will need to research not only the location but customs and styles of that time. If it takes place in a fictional world, you will need to spend some time developing this world. Even if you are writing a story that takes place in your hometown, you need to make sure you have planned out where everything will take place and know all the details of those locations. It is knowledge of these details, whether they make it into your story or not, that will allow you to bring the reader into your character’s world.

Characters – Don’t just give your characters a name and start writing. You need to get to know them. You need to know their history, their personality quirks, you need to know what motivates them. This is a must for your main characters, but you should develop at least some basic knowledge for the supporting cast too. Again, this development of characters will show in your writing.

As I said, I am currently starting my next novel. I am working on the overall plot/conflict right now. I want a strong storyline before I develop my world or continue developing the characters I already have begun. (Right now I just have the basics of two main characters.)

All of this may seem like a lot of work. And it can be a daunting task to start a new novel. But with planning – the laying down of a foundation – you will have a better chance of following through with writing a publishable novel.

What’s in a Name? Picking the right name for your characters

If you are a parent, you know how much you labored over the perfect name for your child. Now imagine you need to do the same thing for over a dozen or more characters. Yikes!

It can certainly be a daunting task. Of course, the most thought goes 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 modern piece.

Here are some tips when choosing your characters names.

  • Pick a name that is age-appropriate. Don’t pick names that are popular now for an adult character – a name that would have rarely been used around the time of that character’s birth. Decide the age of your character and then calculate the year your character was born. If your character was born in the U.S., browse through the Social Security Name Popularity List for that year.
  • 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.
  • Remember to take into account your character’s ethnic background and the ethnic background of his or her parents. But be careful about stereotyping ethnic characters with clichéd names. You can be more original than “Bubba” or “Running Bear.”
  • 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. 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. So do this only if there is a real need for it in your story.
    • When you pick a name, say it out loud and use it in dialogue to make sure it sounds good.
    • FANTASY/SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS – Avoid the temptation to use a random collection of letters and symbols for a character name. Even though your reader probably won’t be reading your story aloud, they will mentally trip over unpronounceable names. You can of course get around this by using a nickname for the character to make it easier for the reader and the other characters.
    • FUTURISTIC/SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS – It’s hard to predict what names will be popular in the year 3000. But again, you don’t want them to stumble over an odd collection of letters. You might consider combining two common names to make a less common, but pronounceable name. Example: Donica (Donna and Veronica).

I find a baby-naming book to be a great resource for names. I use 20,001 Names for Baby (1992). But to find a name you can try a baby naming website or even your phone book. Of course don’t just pirate someone’s full name. Mix and match first and last names.

The name you choose should reveal something about the character: who they are, where they come from or where they are going. A good character name is distinctive and memorable. A great character name, in addition to being distinctive and memorable, also works to help tell your story.

The name you give your characters is just as important as naming your own child. Take the task seriously and give it some thought (or research) before settling on their moniker.