So, rather than do my usual book review or giveaway article, I wanted to take some time today to give some writing tips instead. I know a lot of you out there are aspiring-writers (I’m one myself!) and sometimes we get so caught up in this “must publish!” attitude that we get lost in our stories along the way. Sometimes there comes a point when we stare at our half-finished novel and say “I’m stuck. “ Usually these moments happen when we don’t know where we’re going next with our story, and usually that’s because somewhere along the line we’ve strayed off the path and we aren’t quite sure how to get back.
One of the things that you may find helpful if you’ve never done it before is to take a really in-depth look at your characters and the world they live in. Characters are really the backbone of our stories. You can carry an entire story on the shoulders of a character without much plot (memoirs anyone?), but you can’t carry a plot without some great characters. So, to help you guys out, I wanted to write an article on things you should think about when creating a character for a novel, and give you some tips on how to create believable and unforgettable characters that aren’t overly dramatic or Mary Sue’s, while also giving you some ideas on how to go about fleshing out your story and maybe discovering plots that work well within the world you’ve created.
I’ll go through the points of this “list” sort of one by one, explaining and discussing each point. You don’t have to treat this as a questionnaire for your characters (though you can)… my goal is to get you thinking a little more in depth about your characters as real people, and not just as roles to fill in your novel.
For the purpose of this article I’m going to sort of work along-side you and make up a world as we go along so you can see where I’m leading with these questions. I want you to consider these points within your own story, not copy mine.
Culture & Environment
The first thing you should consider when writing a novel is what I call Culture & Environment. This is the world around your character. When creating a plot for a novel, or a character, I don’t want you to jump right into it saying “I’m going to write a steam-punk romance novel.” Jumping off from the genre isn’t a bad thing to do, but if you want to create a character full of depth, you need to also make sure your world contains depth. Here are some questions I want you to consider:
- What technological age does your story take place in?
The culture and society of your “world” are going to vary greatly depending on the technological age of your story. Society worked different in the Stone Age than it does now, and will work differently in the future some thousands of years from now. These things are going to make a dramatic impact on the type of person your character is and how they handle situations.
For the purpose of this article I’m going to be making up a completely new world , set of characters, and plot as sort of a guideline for how these questions feed into your story. Starting with my technological age, I’ve decided my characters are going to inhabit a very steam-punk-esque era on their world. The technology is advanced in function but very Victorian-Era in execution. We’re talking steam, intricate clockwork mechanics, and a world that is industrialized but still very caught up in how things look, and the intelligence behind creating those things.
- What sort of society does your character live in?
Taking the technology discussion a bit further, consider how this age and environment shapes the society that your character lives in.
For example, since my story takes place in a steam-punk-esque environment, I’m going to say that the society is shaped by the mental aspects of the age. Intelligence, manners, charms – these are the sorts of things this society cares about. People who are creative, hardworking, and inventive are applauded. The sciences and arts are the forefront of education on this world, and other things like athleticism and greed, while still in existence, are not the norm.
- How are the different genders or classes treated in your world?
The next thing you may want to think about is how the different genders and classes are treated in your world, and the type niche’s there are in your society. Depending on your country, all throughout our own world’s history, men and women have been treated very differently and a lot of times, class plays into this. Now, you don’t necessarily have to have a world where the classes are segregated, but you should take time to consider how your character’s social class or standing may impact their story.
For instance, in my world because intelligent, creative, and industrious people are applauded, I’m going assume that the upper class of my society are those of high intelligence and creativity. These are your scientists, inventors, artists, and writers. A step below that would be the elegant elite… Those that maybe haven’t had made any large discoveries or artistic works, but maybe inherited fame from a predecessor, or married into a well-known family. These are the lords and ladies of my world. They may not “do” anything of particular significance within my world, but they’re still part of that upper crust of people that my society looks up to. Below that would be the “every day worker” these are the people who work in watch shops and take tickets at the train stations. They aren’t famous for their intelligence and they may not have invented or created anything significant, but they’re still very much part of the society in applauding that upper crust and striving in their own little ways to maintain this world as a whole. They work within the laws and boundaries of the society they live in. Below that would be the criminal and downtrodden. These are the people that circumstance, money, heritage, or intelligence have pushed into the fringe of society. They are the poor, the stupid, the shamed, the maimed, and the criminal. They work outside the laws and boundaries of what we consider “polite society” because they have to. Survival is their main concern in this world, and that will sometimes push them into doing things the rest of society doesn’t necessarily condone.
Now aside from the classes, I’m going to assume that in my particular world, men and women are fairly equal. There’s more importance placed on the intelligence of an individual than the gender. In my world you’re going to see ladies smoking cigars and making business deals just as you would men, and likewise, men are going to be just as devoted to family and fashion as women. The gender roles in my society aren’t going to be as clear-cut as what you might see in another time period or setting.
A Quick Word on Plots & the People in Them
Now, if you’ve been following along, mulling over these questions in your own story, you should have a pretty good idea of the culture and environment that your characters live in. It probably feels more like a real place to you now than it did a few minute ago when you were just considering “steam punk” – or whatever other genre you’d picked.
I want to take a moment to talk about plot. You may already have one picked out, and that’s fine. Good for you. However, if you haven’t quite figured out the specifics of your plot and only have a vague genre idea of what you want to write about, follow along; I have a point to make that may help you flesh out your story.
Consider this: instead of making up some random plot idea, take a moment to think about the world you just described above. Now, tell me, who in this world has a story to tell? Using my own story as an example: What about the “elegant elite”? What if one of the society darlings suddenly found themselves in a position where they were now considered one of the “downtrodden”? What if one of the “downtrodden” was actually an amazing inventor trying to work their way up through society? What if one of the “working class” fell in love with an inventor of the upper crust? What if an invention was created that posed a threat to this world. What if it was stolen? And last but not least, what if some natural event or sudden upheaval took everything we just created, and tore it apart?
There are millions of possibilities just within this small glimpse of a world we’ve created that could spawn its own story. Think of the possibilities, grab one that sounds interesting to you, and then build it into something amazing that you can share with other people.
Through all that, I have something else for you to consider: Theme. Plots and characters and worlds aside, what sort of story are you looking to tell? Is it one of redemption? Love? War? Greed? Coming of age? Think about it and consider how these themes may fit into your world and what impact they may have on your story.
The heading may be a bit deceiving, but bear with me. There’s a few things about your characters that while seemingly important, don’t hold as much of an impact on your story as what you may think. These are often the first things we think about when we create new characters, but among the many other things there are to consider, they’re relatively less important. These are:
First off, don’t just pick some random name that sounds awesome. It may sound cool, but it may not fit into your story. Keep in mind the Culture, Environment, Society expectations, Gender, and Class of your character. For instance, in my story old-fashioned names like John, Mary, Constance, Alice, David, Sebastian and Benjamin fit into my world readily whereas names like Raven, Skylar, Monique, Gavin, and Zebulan don’t really fit. The trick is to pick names that fit within the time period and location, and avoid names that are simply striking or unique.
You also want to avoid names that are difficult to pronounce, are really long, or have unusual spellings. No one thinks you’re being clever by naming your character “Kriystahl”. When your readers come upon these strange little snowflakes of individuality what they’re really thinking is: Amateur Writer. They will be more impressed with you taking a common name and making the character spectacular and memorable in such a way where that common name begins to mean something more than just average.
For this exercise, I’m going to name my main female lead: Abigail Conway. It is a common, unassuming name that fits into the time period and society without sounding comical or overly unique. I’ll let her close friends call her “Abby” for short, and everyone else (due to society manners) shall refer to her as simply “Abigail” or “Miss Conway”.
Now this one’s a little trickier. Again, you want your character to fit into the world. What you don’t want is a character that is so unique in how they look that people roll their eyes at the description. Characters that are stunningly gorgeous with huge breasts and hour-glass shaped figures are a dime a dozen. Take some unremarkable features, and make them remarkable by pairing them with one specific attractive feature. Also, keep your descriptions down to a minimum.
For instance, Abigail is thin, short, and has a fair-complexion. These are pretty standard descriptors. She has brown hair/eyes, and the one striking feature she holds is a dimple in her right cheek when she smiles. All other descriptions of Abigail will come from how those around her see her. Someone who dislikes Abigail may describe her as unkempt or plain. Someone who loves her might say she is delicate and has eyes the color of honeyed tea. We can let the characters make up those features – we don’t need to do it ourselves – and if you try, what happens is you end up coloring the views of your characters and your reader. It’s easier to relate to a character if you let your readers fill in the gaps themselves.
It’s not really important what the exact age of your character is, and chances are that you’ll never say it in the story (unless it plays some important role in your plot). However, you should pick an age regardless, and then stick to it. Your age, while not important to the story itself, will play a big factor in the voice of your character. Four-year-olds don’t speak and think the same way a twenty-year-old would. Nor would a twenty-year-old put importance on the same issues as an 80-year-old.
For my story, Abigail is going to be 20. She’s young and ambitious, and still looking for a love interest, but isn’t obsessed with romance or social standing in the same way a 16-year-old would be. She’s at that age where she’s looking to make her mark on the world and is still figuring out her place within it.
This one is a given, but you need to pick the gender of your character. It’s important in a way that changes small details of the story like how people address your character or the clothes they wear, etc, but what I’ve said about my character, Abigail, could just as easily be translated to male as it is to female. At some point, you’re going to have to pick a side (unless they’re a eunuch or a hermaphrodite). Pick it early on, and use it to help define your character and how they interact with the world around them.
Background: Family, History, and Skeletons in the Closet
First of all, AVOID DRAMATIC PASTS that exist solely for the purpose of being dramatic or making your character into a special snowflake. Nothing is more annoying to a reader than having a lead character raped or orphaned if it’s being done only to make the character seem unique. It’s not unique.
Events in your character’s past should define and explain why your character is who she/he is without upstaging the story itself. Most of us don’t think about how our character’s family changes who they are, but it actually plays a very big role on personality. A character that is raised as an only child by a single parent isn’t going to have the same personality as a character that’s the youngest of 9 children and has both parents. Not only that, but at some point your character’s family is probably going to make an appearance in your story.
Also consider how the past of your character impacts their social standing, job, and personal life.
In Abigail’s case, she was raised by her Grandfather, the watch-maker. Her mother, a seamstress, died early in her daughter’s life due to illness, and her father hoisted her off on her Grandfather to raise as he toiled day and night in a mid-level job servicing the rail line. Abigail loved her father, and he doted on her when he was home, but for all intents and purposes, she spent most of her childhood in the backroom of her Grandfather’s watch shop. When Abigail was 9, her father was killed in an accident on the rail-line. How has this affected Abigail?
Because of her somewhat tragic but loving background, Abigail has grown up strong-willed and good-natured. She places great pride in hard work no matter what level of the job, and adores her Grandfather even if he is a stubborn old codger. She spends her days working in the fore-front of her Grandfather’s shop, makes deliveries for him, and has a small assortment of family friends that stem from her family’s position in the middle class. She may have friends that work on the rail-line like her father, or she may know elderly customers of her Grandfather’s shop. She probably knows a lot of gentlemen and young wives – because those are the type of people who visit a watch shop.
Now, before I get too far into how this background affects Abigail’s story and her personality, let’s look at those skeletons: A skeleton in the closet doesn’t necessarily mean a crime or something awful in a person’s past. What it means is: something your character doesn’t want anyone else to know, or doesn’t readily share. Why do we need a skeleton? Because at some point you’re going to dust it off and show it to the world. Skeletons breed conflict.
In Abigail’s case, her skeleton is that she worries about her grandfather’s health and ability to run his watch shop. She puts on a brave face, but she knows he’s getting older, and sooner or later, the watch shop is going to pass on to her. Her grandfather wants to see her married to a nice man that may help her run the business. The problem with this of course, is that Abigail doesn’t want to make watches, and she’s not really concerned with getting married at this point in time. She dreams of adventure (something that is not necessarily appreciated in her society).
Being alone a lot as a child, sitting quietly in her grandfather’s shop, she spent her time reading and imaging faraway places. Her father would come home from work in the evenings and tell her stories of the people he met working on the rail-lines and the faraway places they came from. She’s desperate to see those places and people for herself someday, but will never admit it to her grandfather or anyone else, because she loves her grandfather and knows he wouldn’t approve. This unfulfilled need is slowly eating away at her insides day by day; a quiet death in mid-society.
Now as you’re reading this, you may think “oh she’s thought all this up ahead of time. There’s a lot of detail.” but I’m not. I have no idea what the plot for this story is going to be at this point in time. As you’re reading this, I’m making all of these details up off the top of my head. Abigail and her small life did not exist before this article. Abigail’s grandfather didn’t exist before the heading to this section. As you start to think about these things in your own story, it’ll start to flesh itself out. Ideas, people, and places will pop into your head that “click” with the rest of your story. Let them.
Keep in mind, that these people you’re making up as you go along should be just as complex as your main character. Eventually I’m going to have to consider Abigail’s grandfather’s name, his history, family, and his motivations. Secondary characters are just main characters out of focus – they should be just as complex and interesting as the stars of the story. Some day you may want to give them their own novel. Taking the time to think up all this background, even if you don’t use it, gives your characters a sense of depth they wouldn’t have had if you’d just gone : “Abigail’s got a grandfather. He’s grumpy. His name is Hugh.” No, his name is Hugh Conway, he’s a watch-maker and was once married to a strong-willed gal named Lilly Jones. They had a son named Peter, who married a seamstress named Grace Kemp, and they left behind a joy-filled daughter named Abigail who dreamed of setting out on her own and finding adventure.
Social Status & Moral Compass
A character’s social status will also have a big impact on how they interact with the world, and how far their moral compass swings. A character from the “elegant elite” will react to characters around them and moral issues very differently than a character in the dregs of society. Necessity, greed, personality, and even family will affect what your character is willing to do and how far they’ll cross the moral compass line. You should know what would push your character to murder, and what would push them to self-sacrifice. How do they treat their friends? Would they ever abandon their family to serve themselves?
In Abigail’s case, she has very strong morals. Because of her family’s love and kindness, she was raised to be kind to all manner of people, no matter their social standing. She is comfortable in the middle-class of her society, and doesn’t feel the need to treat others poorly. She holds no resentment against the upper classes, and doesn’t disdain the downtrodden (though she may be wary of them as they are often thieves and may push her good nature a little too far in order to gain things for themselves.) Abigail wouldn’t self-sacrifice herself because she knows her grandfather would rather she be safe no matter what, but she is willing to take some risks to her own safety in order to help others or even herself. Murder would not sit well with Abigail and I believe she would only kill someone in the most extreme of circumstances.
Relationships are something you’re going to want to keep in mind throughout this whole process. You should consider each character’s relationship with each other, from the smallest secondary character on up to the main character. Just because you know all of your characters and their personalities doesn’t mean all of your characters know each other or even react to each other in the same way.
For instance, Hugh Conway, Abigail’s grumpy old grandfather is a shrewd business man with a soft spot for his granddaughter. He unnecessarily dotes on her, but to other people is probably quite abrupt and stingy. He probably haggles over groceries like a penny-pincher, but delights in wasting his hard-earned money on small gifts he knows his granddaughter will love and appreciate. Abigail teases her grumpy old grandfather in good humor, but is quite kind and friendly to most everyone else she meets. She may have a soft spot for orphans, but scolds them when they steal. She’s probably very open and even outlandish with her best friend, and awkward and shy with a handsome young rail-line worker who takes his lunch at the corner café down the street from her grandfather’s shop.
Middle-aged women in the area probably consider Abigail a joyous and fetching young girl (if a bit improper in her zeal) and secretly hope their sons will take interest in her. Older men and women probably shake their heads at the watch-maker’s granddaughter who is a bit dreamy in their opinion and not notably intelligent. Younger men her own age probably consider Abigail good-natured but a bit too boisterous for anything more than a passing flirt, and women her own age may consider her utterly ridiculous and ill-mannered (seeing as she doesn’t seem to care about proper fashion or being coy like they do).
My point is, every person in the story is going to view Abigail differently based on their own backgrounds, social standing, and personality, and she’ll probably interact with each of them differently. Just because I like Abigail as a character and I think she’s fun and pleasant doesn’t mean the rest of the characters will agree with me. Keep this in mind as you continue to fill out your characters.
Flaws, Desirable Traits, & Personality
At this point if you’ve been following along (gee I hope so), you should have a pretty decent if vague understanding of who your character is. We’re going to take that a bit further and talk about their flaws, desirable traits, and personality. No one is perfect, and no one is so unforgivable a character that they don’t have at least one desirable trait. Take a minute to think over your character so far, and try to list three positive and three negative traits. They may have more, or even less, but there should be a fair balance in their personality. Never forget: Good guys can do bad things sometimes, and bad guys can do good things.
For an example: My dear Miss Abigail Conway is…
- Generally good-humored and happy.
- Almost never says a negative word about anyone.
- Loves her friends and family deeply and without reservation.
However, she also:
- Is often inappropriate in her comments and actions because she doesn’t fully comprehend society’s expectation of her manners or behavior.
- Is socially awkward and often ends up putting her foot in her mouth because she easily gets flustered around mean or immoral people and doesn’t know how to react to them.
- Is adventurous and often takes risks that put herself and other people in danger.
In short, Abigail is outgoing and happy, but also impulsive and prone to mistakes. To balance her vivid personality, she is rather plain-looking and unremarkable with the exception of her smile. Overall, nothing about her particularly stands out from the whole if you see her on the street. Some people will like her; others will think her foolish and inappropriate. She isn’t perfect, but she’s likeable.
Your main characters should always be likeable in some way. If your main character is “evil” then they should have some personality trait that makes them engaging or interesting for the reader, and at the very least: we should be able to sympathize with them. There’s nothing worse than having a character that we find boring an unlikeable – And forget about the whole “good / evil” thing. Characters do bad things, and they do good things. Don’t label them“evil” or “good” for the sake of being evil/good. Characters should be complex, unique individuals, just like people in the real world. Everyone’s a little bit of both.
Now, we also need to examine how Abigail (or your character)’s inner personality is different than what they outwardly present. Outwardly, Abigail is everything above. However, inwardly she is also somewhat melancholy and worrisome. She loves her family, but she is stifled by the life she leads. She longs for that adventure, and when that sometimes overtakes her actions, she ends up getting put back in her place by society. The light that makes up so much of her outward personality is slowly becoming more and more forced as on the inside, the light is slowly fading out. She’s not terribly unhappy with her life, but she longs for more. She is also worried about her grandfather’s health, his watch shop, and shudders at the thought that someday years from now; she’ll still be working in the shop alongside a husband and children of her own. She’s not ready for that life even if she assumes that is what she’s headed for. Abigail wants out – but is afraid to disappoint her grandfather who has lost so much already.
What are your characters fears? What do they worry about? How do they feel about their current situation? All of these things tie into your character’s personality.
What Makes Your Character Distinct or Unforgettable?
Every character should have something about them that makes them distinct or unforgettable. There’s nothing worse than having a character that is so lack-luster that the reader forgets their name halfway through the next chapter. Character should be memorable, if not in personality or appearance, then in deed. Take a little bit to review over what you know of your character so far. What stands out the most about your character? What do you think draws people to them as a character (either in the story or from the reader’s point of view?
For Abigail, I think a lot of her appeal is in her joy for life and thirst for adventure. With her personality you just know that she’s going to do extraordinary things, and you can’t help but be influenced by the light of her personality. For Hugh, I’d say it’s his dedication to his family. He’s a grump of an old man, but he doesn’t withhold love for his family. He would have saved himself hassle and money if he’d set Abigail on the streets as a child, but he didn’t- and when and if Abigail decides to leave for greater things, I don’t think he’d stop her.
Whatever “distinctness” you give your character, it doesn’t have to be something huge. It can be as little as the way they greet other characters or the way they always support their friends, even in the most foolish of endeavors. It can even be a negative thing: Maybe a particularly unkind character beats a street urchin with a cane, or claims an apple is rotten in order to get it free from a vendor. The point is that it has to be something memorable. Don’t let your characters (even your side characters) fade into the background by simply showing up in a scene, playing off another character’s dialogue, and then pop out of existence like they never existed.
The voice of a character is the way they think and speak, not only in dialogue but narration. There are quite a lot of authors that fail at making their characters voices unique, and it has a noticeable effect: all their characters sound alike, and the reader gets confused about who’s speaking – or sometimes the character’s voice comes across as too mature or too juvenile for the character. So here are some things you need to think about when considering your character’s voice:
- Age: a 5 year old doesn’t speak the same way a 20 year old does.
- Culture/Environment/Class: A character in the victorian-era England won’t speak the same way as a character in the year 3029 in NEW New Orleans. Nor will a character raised in the streets speak the same as a character born and bred in nobility.
- Personality: A happy character with a pleasant personality isn’t going to talk to people the same way a grumpy, sour-puss will.
- Gender: Men and women will not speak the same. Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions, but generally they have different motives behind their conversations, so the way they approach it will also be different.
For the purpose of this exercise I’ve decided that Hugh speaks with a gravelly, pinched voice and clipped, direct sentences. He doesn’t waste time on words and pleasantries. He is direct, and narrates his world in undertones of complaints about time management and wasted money – and never speaks people’s names directly. Abigail, on the other hand, speaks with a casual, teasing but friendly tone with a lady-like proper alto voice. She uses manners when addressing others, often calling them Sir, Madam, and Young Sir/Miss. She refers to her friends by their surnames only. She saves her greatest endearments for her family, and calls her Grandfather Hugh Conway: Gran’papa. Hugh has been known to curse at almost everyone in long, rude tirades (he calls the grocery woman down the street “that slack-jawed cutpurse-spinster”), while Abigail would never say a mean word about anyone – not even those she greatly dislikes. The closest she comes to an insult is when she teasingly calls her grandfather “you stodgy old bastard” which he secretly likes, and is always said with tongue in cheek.
Abigail narrates her world in tones of excitement, optimism and curiosity. How do your characters narrate their world? How do they speak to others? Do they have a sense of humor? Let their personalities color their view and language.
Motivation, Goals & Obstacles
We’re nearing the end of this article, so there are just a few more things I want to impress upon you. Some of the most important things to know about your characters are motivation, goals, and obstacles. See if you can answer these questions:
- What is your character’s motivation or goals in life? What is it they want for themselves, what kind of future do they envision?
Also, in a smaller way, as you’re writing, think about what your character’s motivations and goals are for each conversation and scene. Keep these things in mind.
- What things stand in the way of their motivations and goals? Is there anything you can foresee outside of some random event that could keep them from their goals?
Try not to take plot into account yet. For instance, what Abigail wants for herself, is to lead a life of adventure. She wants to do something extraordinary with her life. She DOESN’T want to spend her whole life in the little watch shop. The obstacles to this of course, are society and her grandfather. She doesn’t want to disappoint Hugh, and in her world, gallivanting off to have some grand adventure is rather frowned upon in general. It’s okay if there are no foreseeable obstacles in your character’s way – there doesn’t have to be.
Now, taking plot into account, think about what your character wants, and if there are no obstacles in their way, throw one in front of them. If there –are- obstacles, consider finding a way to remove them, or make your character attempt to reach their goal despite the obstacles.
I could have Abigail’s grandfather die: that would remove one obstacle. Or, I could have something crop up (like Abigail getting kidnapped) that suddenly makes her goals possible, whether she likes it or not.
Ask yourself this question as you write, and any time you get stuck: What does my character fear the most, and how can I make it happen? Where your story goes from there is anyone’s guess. Anything could happen.
What’s Abigail’s story? I don’t know. Her book hasn’t been written – like I said, Abigail and her grandfather didn’t exist before this article. Maybe she gets abducted by a handsome member of the local street gang, in trouble with the law and is held for ransom – and thus begins her adventure into a new and unexpected journey. Maybe she finds herself unexpectedly trapped in an arranged marriage and runs away, leaving her Grandfather behind, and joining the rail-line. Or maybe her Grandfather dies and leaves behind a watch and a mystery to solve. I don’t know – but if I’ve accomplished anything with this article, hopefully by the end of it, you’ve gotten a feeling for who she is, and on some level, care about her story. Hopefully, after all is said and done, I’ve given you the tools and inspiration to tell your own story.