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”

4 tips to naming your characters

Selecting just the right name for your characters is a challenge for many. It is like naming a child times ten or twenty or even more. Because it isn’t just your protagonist, their sidekicks and the antagonist that needs monikers. It is all the people that populate your make-believe world.

namesOkay so you probably aren’t going to agonize for hours over the pizza deliver guy’s name. Heck, you probably won’t even give him a name (or a back story). But you do need the names of parents, siblings and friends of your main character. Most often it ends up being a long list of characters – major and minor – that need to have a name.

Here are some tips when naming character. (For more information, you can also read my original post on picking the right name for your character.)

1.) Know your character – Especially for your main characters, you need to know them before you can pick out their name. You need to know their age, history and whether they are good or evil (sorry, remember I am a fantasy writer).

Make sure the name fits the culture and time period of your novel (especially true for historical novels). And make sure the name is appropriate for the character’s ethnic background.

2.) Avoid weird or hard to pronounce names or spellings – Shy away from using the cute or unusual spellings for someone’s name unless it plays a role in your novel. Anyone with a hard to pronounce name probably will need a nickname.

And for those fantasy writers, please 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.

3.) Avoid names with same sound or are too similar – Stay away from rhyming names (Darla and Karla) as well as a lot of names starting with the same letter (Jen, Jon and Jan). You may also want to avoid names that start with the same letter or same sound – like Phil and Fred. Your best bet is to vary the starting letters and length of names. So Michelle may have a friend named Sara instead of Monique.

4.) Don’t use the name of someone famous – And I am not talking just about popular names that many people may have heard of such as Brad Pitt but also names of people who may be famous in their own field. Just because you have not heard of Dr. Steven Killjoy doesn’t mean that others have and might assume you are writing about their friend or colleague. Your best bet is to Google the names of characters to make sure they aren’t real people.

Places to find names –

  • Baby Naming books or websites (Behind the Name is a good website to check out)
  • Yearbooks
  • Phone books
  • Genealogy records
  • Social Security website (for popular names during other time periods)
  • Film credits (look at the names of crew members for some interesting choices)
  • Try combining two common names to create a new name (Example: Donica can be created from Donna and Veronica)

Wherever you find your character names, just make sure that they fit your character and story.