Creating characters is arguably the single-most important part of novel writing. At the very least, knowing how to create a character is as important as plotting a novel.
Without a page-turning plot, your readers will soon be – well, not turning the pages. But even with a compelling story, the audience will only be interested in “what happens next” if it cares about the fictional characters at the heart of the action.
That is what creating characters boils down to, ultimately: making the audience care.
Put a character that the reader has no strong feelings about – or, worse, doesn’t know at all – on a high window ledge, and they won’t be that bothered if they jump or not.
Make the character one that they care about, just like they care about people in the real world, and they won’t be able to put the novel down.
Before we dig into the nitty-gritty, let’s get this question out of the way…
Is Character More Important Than Plot?
If you have read any other novel writing guides, you’ve probably stumbled upon this “Plot vs. Character” debate. The whole debate is actually a giant red herring, but I wanted to mention it here to get it out the way.
Some people claim that a gripping plot is THE most important ingredient of a novel. For others, it is well-rounded characters that come first.
Most level-headed people, however (myself included), argue that character and plot are equally important.
Take a look at this quote by Henry James…
What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?
So what James is saying is that without characters you have no action, and without action you have no characters. In other words, it’s impossible to separate the two.
And he’s right.
So what the “character vs. plot” debate is really about is the relative importance of each one in literary and genre fiction. I’ve already covered that in the section on Types of Novels, but I’ll rattle through it again…
- The argument goes that literary fiction is more concerned with deep characterization than an entertaining plot.
- It also says that genre fiction puts plot above fully-rounded, believable characters.
Both of these are true to an extent…
Fans of genre fiction are after a “good read” first and foremost. Literary fans are more forgiving of any “slow bits” in between the action, during which the author might explore the characters in more depth.
But all good novels, whether literary or genre (or mainstream, for that matter), have compelling plots and well-rounded characters.
Sure, a literary novel will place a tad more emphasis on the characters and a little less on the plot (and vice versa for a genre novel). But a strong plot and strong characters still need to be present in both types of novels.
Okay, down to business…
What Makes a Good Fictional Character?
Creating characters, like I said above, boils down to making the audience care. But how, precisely, do you get your readers to become emotionally involved with your story people?
Here are five ways to get you started…
1) Make the characters likeable.
Obvious, right? Whatever it is that draws you to people in real life, give your fictional characters those same traits.
Just beware of creating saints. A little bit of sinner in a person – a refusal to play life by the rules, say – can be just as endearing as whatever it is that’s “good” about them.
2) Make them good at what they do.
How would you feel about James Bond if he failed every mission and the baddies always won? How would you feel about the character from any book you’ve read or movie you’ve seen if they were vaguely inept at everything they did and never reached their goals?
When we read fiction to escape from our ordinary worlds, we want to read about winners. They don’t have to be archetypal heroes. But there needs to be something about them that allows them to win through in the end.
The one exception to that? Broad comedies in which the hero is laughably bad at what they do. Even there, though, the character should excel in their ineptitude!
3) Make the characters charismatic.
I’m not talking about good looks, here (although that won’t hurt). I mean that there needs to be something about their personality that lights up a room.
If the other characters in a story are drawn towards the hero, so will the readers be.
4) Make them dynamic.
In other words, they must be do-ers, not passive by-standers in their own story. And if the odds are stacked against them but they keep on trying regardless? So much the better!
As with all of these points, this doesn’t just apply to creating action heroes. Whatever type of character you create, and however humdrum their life might be, making them act (rather than react) is a great way to get the audience rooting for them.
5) Make the characters suffer.
The events of the novel (the plot) will throw plenty of obstacles in the leading character’s path, so there will already be plenty of opportunities for the character to elicit sympathy from the audience.
Beyond that, though, look for ways to really rub salt into their wounds! If a character is prone to loneliness, say, after the loss of a loved one, make them suffer terribly from it.
Types of Characters
Not all characters in fiction are created equal. At one end of the scale is the protagonist, the hero, the leading man or woman – call them what you will. At the other is the lowly “extra” who won’t even get any lines to speak. In the middle is every shade of gray imaginable.
There’s no need to pay any attention to the extras when planning your novel. They are almost a part of the scenery and you’ll add them to the story as you write, just like you add the weather.
Spend most of your time getting to know the major characters – and the hero in particular.
But don’t underestimate the importance of the minors. These characters might not play a large part in the story or get many lines to speak, but they are important.
Why? Because well-drawn minor characters (particularly comic ones) can often steal the show. You don’t need to worry about “rounding them out” like you do the major characters, and so you’re free to create scene-stealing, larger-than-life characters without all the bother of turning them into believable human beings.
Indeed, starting every character you create as a vivid stereotype is not a bad strategy…
- You can make the major characters believable by adding traits which work against that initial type.
- And you can leave the minor characters exactly as they are – attention-grabbing.
Start with a streak of red and your characters – both the majors and the bit-players – will be memorable. Start with a subtle shade of gray and you’ll struggle to bring them to life.
Assembling the Cast
So far, we’ve looked at the importance of creating characters that readers care about and discussed the different types of character found in a novel. Before moving on to the heart of characterization – how to get to know them – you first need to draw up a cast list.
The best bet? Ask yourself what characters you need. For example, if you’re writing a murder-mystery novel, you need to include…
- a detective
- their sidekick
- at least one victim
- a killer
- several suspects.
And if you are writing a love story, the characters you need are…
- the leading character
- the love interest (not necessarily the opposite sex)
- the rival
- the best friend
- and so on.
(You’ll be familiar with the typical range of characters found in your chosen genre by having read a ton of novels in that category.)
Don’t worry about getting every conceivable character down on paper at this point. Concentrate on the essential ones – the major characters who need to be there.
As you develop your plot and realize that extra characters are required, add them to your cast list then. But don’t begin by creating a whole bunch of people who really have no place in the plot.
One last point…
Always try to create a well-balanced cast of characters. What does that mean? Don’t make your characters too alike…
- If one character is cultured, make another a huge fan of fast food and trashy TV.
- Is one loud and flamboyant? Make another character cool and laconic.
- If one character is a joker, make another serious.
Bottom line? Think of your novel’s cast like guests at a party. To ensure the most interesting mix of people possible, you want the whole range of human behavior to be represented. And if some of these people occasionally rub each other up the wrong way – as they surely will – so much the better!
Okay, time for the main course…
How to Get to Know Your Characters
Getting to know your characters before you write a single word of your novel is critical. If you don’t know them like you know yourself, you honestly have no chance of stepping into their shoes and bringing them to life on the printed page.
The best way to get to know them? Spend some time living with them, at least in your imagination (you’ll get some very odd looks if you have actual conversations with them in public or save them a seat on the bus!)
But the best way to kickstart the whole getting-to-know-them process is good old-fashioned brainstorming. Sit down with a pencil and plenty of paper (or an electronic device if you prefer) and sketch them out, trait by trait.
Caveat: Don’t obsess over the details. You’re not looking for huge lists of every conceivable trait, physical characteristic, and so on. What you’re looking for are those two or three things that tell you everything you need to know about this character.
And that’s it – your complete guide to creating characters.
Don’t worry if it seems like a lot of information, because it’s actually a very intuitive process. Oh, and it’s a lot of fun.
After all, what would be the point of writing fiction at all if we couldn’t create a bunch of story people that we care about and, yes, sometimes even love.
Actually, I lied – there’s one more topic to cover…
This one’s optional, though. So feel free to stop reading now if you’ve had enough for one day.
Saying Goodbye to Your Characters
Writers can get very attached to their characters. They might be born in our imaginations, but they nevertheless seem real. They become our companions, our friends.
Sometimes we even fall in love with them.
Why do get so attached? For the simple reason that we spend so much time with them – every waking moment, in fact. There’s no switching off from novel writing…
Just because you’ve turned off the computer for the day, it doesn’t stop your fictional characters popping into your head over dinner or keeping you awake on the wrong side of midnight.
They’re kind of inconsiderate like that.
But we love them, of course – even the baddies. They’re like our children, in the sense that they were conceived in our minds. And they are like our closest friends, too – perhaps even closer, because we know everything about them and they hide nothing from us.
And who can say that about a real person?
They know everything about us, too. They live inside us and are aware of our every passing thought (even the thoughts we’d never share with another living soul).
We don’t live in their physical world, of course, or appear as characters in their story. But only because we have a more important role…
We are the director of their movie – they look to us for where to stand and what to do, and what we say goes.
Sometimes we are even like God – we brought them to life and we can end their life on a whim. And if we change our minds, a few clicks of the mouse will resurrect them!
Many writers speak of fictional characters taking on a life of their own during the writing of a novel – of the characters doing things and saying things that the writer hadn’t anticipated.
Me, I’m not so sure…
When a character does something that wasn’t in the script, it isn’t the character acting of their own free will, but the writer figuring out a better way to tell the story.
Nevertheless, it still feels like fictional characters can take on a life of their own…
You create them in your imagination during the planning stage, and then you start writing and they begin to live and breathe on the printed page.
They are no longer just in our heads… they have taken their first steps into the big wide world, where a ton of problems await them.
Most characters will make it through to the end of the book. They will probably reach a happy ending, or at least a hopeful one. The end of the novel leaves them standing on the very cusp of their hard-earned futures.
And then it is time to forget about them and start another novel… and the characters in this novel fade and die.
The less sentimental, of course, will say good riddance!
The softer-hearted will experience something a little like mourning. In short, they won’t want to let their fictional characters go – and this is where a couple of possible problems might arise…
1. Not Ending at the End
Hands up if you’ve had this experience: you are reading a good novel, perhaps a dozen pages from the end, when you read what you believe would make a great final paragraph.
The plot has been resolved, and even if every last loose end hasn’t quite been tied up, you’ve been given enough information to be able to imagine the rest.
But the writer of this novel chose to continue for several more anticlimactic pages, and the book as a whole was somehow ruined.
There are three reasons why writers do this…
- The novel was a little on the slim side. Instead of adding another subplot, perhaps, or introducing another character, or even accepting that the novel is destined to be a slim one, the writer padded it out at the end just to add to the word count. Bad move.
- The writer decided to leave nothing to the readers’ imaginations, tying up every possible loose end and clearing up every possible area of ambiguity. Another bad move.
- The writer couldn’t let go of the characters. So they continued to write about them after the plot was resolved.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. Write a dozen more scenes for your favorite characters if it gives you pleasure. Just don’t include them in the published version of the novel!
Write the extra scenes for your private enjoyment only. And leave instructions in your will for them to be shredded!
2. Writing Bad Sequels
But there’s a bigger potential pitfall for a writer than merely failing to end at the end: writing an entirely new novel based around the central character, or perhaps even a whole series of them.
I’m only talking about bad sequels. There’s nothing wrong with sequels, trilogies… or a whole lifetime’s worth of novels featuring the same character(s). But you have to do it for the right reasons.
Writing a sequel simply to cash in on the success of its predecessor is not a good reason – or at least not a good artistic reason. (Hollywood is guilty of this particular sin.)
Writing a sequel simply because you cannot bear to let your beloved fictional characters go is not a good reason, either. If this is your only motive, write sequels for your personal amusement only.
If you do write a sequel, or a whole series of novels, make sure that you have something new and worthwhile to say, just like you did in the original book.
Yes, the sequel will have a lot in common with the first novel…
- The same character or characters.
- Probably the same setting.
- A similar style of plot.
But there must be plenty that is new…
- A new plot, one which “tests” the leading character in new ways.
- A different theme to explore.
- Some entirely new characters, even if they are only relatively minor ones.
- New insights into the characters, not least the protagonist. If the new book doesn’t explore aspects of the leading character’s personality that were not explored previously, the new book will be a case of “seen all this before.”
Sequels need to stand on their own and make sense to people who haven’t read the first book. And to people who have read the first book, the sequel should be fresh and original, taking the reader to places they haven’t visited before.
My best advice is to take some time off between novels. Never rush into a new project, particularly if you are one of the softer-hearted writers who grieve for their characters and hate having to let them go.
If, after a break, you then want to write a sequel or a prequel or a whole series of novels, then fine. More than likely, though, your imagination will already be creating new stories, and new characters to star in them. And that is exciting.
You can always revisit your old fictional character friends from time to time by reading your old novel!
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