Creating characters

I’ve given myself six months to plan and research my novel, and I’ve reached the stage where I am trying to create and develop my characters. It’s not easy.

I’ve been researching how to go about it, and it seems to boil down to a few, seemingly straightforward, steps:

  • Sketch out the bare bones of each character – name, sex, education, appearance etc – and then add flesh to it. Your character will never be born fully formed, so don’t worry if he appears to be a bit of a cliché. There will always be more to discover about him, and the more you find out, the more rounded the character you will be able to portray on the page.
  • You will know the role you want your character to play – hero or villain, for example – but think more deeply about this. Think about how you wish your readers to respond to your character, and figure out how to evoke this. In other words, spend a bit of time working backwards.
  • You don’t need to show all aspects of your character’s personality in your novel, but if you know what they are then this knowledge will subconsciously help you express your character’s response in any given situation. Figure out his likes and dislikes; his talents and ineptitudes; and any quirks and habits that he may have as a result.
  • You will gain inspiration from the people around you, but it is always better to combine the quirks, personalities and appearances of a number of people into one believable character, rather than obviously basing it on one or two of them.
  • The setting of your novel will have a big influence on the characters within it. Think about the society in which your characters live and the level of that society that they are associated with. Get this right and your characters will live and breathe in their imaginary world.
  • Think also about your character’s family background. Family stability and relationships have a profound influence in the real world – and in fictional worlds as well. A rootless refugee will have a different perspective on life to that of a middle-class child brought up in a stable suburban home.
  • One of the most important considerations is that of your character’s goals and motivations. These will drive your character – and your novel – forward, and introduce interest into the story as your character overcomes obstacles on the way to achieving these goals. Some of these obstacles will inevitably be of his own making, caused by the quirks in the personality you have created for him..
  • And finally, you need to write a character that your audience will care about: one they can relate to, but also admire. Make your character ordinary, but in an extraordinary situation; perfect, but with an all too human flaw; or seemingly content, but unhappy underneath.

It’s a long, slow process. It has taken me a week so far, and I know that I still have a long way to go.

However, I have found that simply thinking through the characters one by one has helped me to develop my plot, as it has allowed me to consider the story through the eyes of each individual and add twists and turns that I had not originally thought of.

I can see that if I go through this process a few more times, both my characters and my storyline will have improved tremendously – even before I start the writing itself.

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