Finally, we come to the hardest, yet the most interesting part of your preparation for writing a novel – character creation and character development. You’ll remember that the expanding snowflake potting method suggests writing characters just as you would write plot. That is one way for you to create your characters. But we shall start from beginning.
You aren’t really able to plot your novel until you develop your characters, at least enough for you to know how they would handle the situation you throw them in.
On a very good day your characters might even come naturally with your idea, but that happens rarely and they still need character development I’d love to hear your thoughts on that topic – be sure to tell me your experiences in the comments.
The reality is simple: as you did everything else, you must turn on your brain, sit down and write.
This post will cover:
- Creating characters
- Character development
- Making characters feel real
Pick a name
A simple way of creating characters and preparing them for character development is to start by giving them a name. I’ve heard of authors who don’t bother with names until they complete the story, then just insert names. Personally, I’m against it – the melody of pronouncing names decides which words we’ll use in connection to the names.
Google some names and throw them down on a piece of paper. You can always change them, but it’s good to have some kind of compass during the process.
To me, names have their associations that influence characters. Has it ever happened to you that you meet someone, they say: “Hi, I’m James.”, and you think: “Of course you are, you look like a James.” It’s incredibly weird but it happens to me a lot.
Of course, that is the case because we have some preconceived notions of which names go along with what characteristics.
I my culture names have roots and meaning and were given to children in hope to help them through their lives (sickly children would be named Vuk (Wolf), to make sure they survive; mine means ‘forever young’ – that’s going to be ironic some day).
Search for the perfect name for your protagonist.
Create a one-line description
This helps with everything you do! I took it directly from he expanding snowflake since it works very well – also, in combination with other methods, it’s a great boost of creativity.
Describe your character in one sentence. Don’t bother with physical description yet – you probably have that locked in your mind – describe their journey.
I.e. Jonathan, retired special agent, unwillingly goes on a quest for a document he doesn’t know anything about, but discovers the case is deeply connected to his past.
There’s a lot going on there. A lot of questions to be answered. That’s where the next step comes in.
This is the part where you expand your one-line description and deliver answers. We’ll continue on our previous example.
Why is Jonathan retired? Ten years ago, he, along with his partner, failed to solve a case. They got trapped and Jonathan never completely recovered.
What was the case about? In Ukraine, a hostage crisis got out of hands. Gang members kidnapped a number of ambassadors.
What does Jonathan do now? He writes thrillers inspired by his successful cases under an alias, he lives in deep cover in Spain.
Why does Jonathan go on the journey unwillingly? He is summoned by his old partner who is an adviser to a European investigation agency; as he tries to politely refuse the call he finds out someone broke into his house.
Now, you can do this all day. I’ve just made up an agency, characters and an inciting event.
Follow this logic.
Apart from having your characters described through a story, you have another aspect – their personality.
You should have a clear idea on what your character stands for. Quick tip: Don’t make them all good or all bad – that doesn’t even work in fantasy anymore.
You should describe their personality separately. I recommend drawing a mind-map, but feel free to use any method you find useful.
You should have a set of questions about your character’s personality. Ask yourself what your character’s favorite memory is, favorite color, least favorite movie, favorite music genre, favorite book, least favorite memory, etc. These sorts of questions give you an insight in their minds – use this knowledge.
Quirks and mannerisms
This one’s interesting and it’s a hoot to do! Find some quirks that would soot your character (please note that every single phobia is already off the table).
This will help make your character much more real and it will bring them closer to readers. It will also help you when you start working on character development.
On that note, it doesn’t have to be a quirk. I like adding some dimension of psychological burden, such as a complex. It decides the outcomes of a lot of situations if you have it set before you start writing.
And finally, my one trick to make your characters more interesting, especially if you’re writing in fantasy genre – tarot and horoscope. These are the sources of continuous inspiration and ideas. You should consider giving your characters some traits in connection to that.
Personally, I’m not into astrology but using it once in a while gets my creative juices flowing.
Research tarot cards and see what would suit your characters. They don’t necessarily have to be interested in astrology (but if it serves your story make it that way) as long as you find some use for it.
There’s a single, most important process when working on character development, and it is change. Change can be considered as the only constant in life, however paradoxical that might be.
Here is what I mean: if your cells die and get replaced daily, and in a rough estimate your body is made of a completely new set of cells every seven years – is that still your body?
How about this: if you stand next to yourself from ten years ago and compare interests: is that still you? When we try to answer the oldest philosophical question, who am I, we need to answer different two questions: What is who? When is I?
So, we change. That’s as real as gravity.
Not to go too far with philosophy, even though I wouldn’t ever mind spending hours talking and writing about it, let me just say that if we want our characters to feel real and act as if they indeed are real, we need to apply this natural process to them.
In your first chapters, in so called stasis, according to the eight point structure, we, the readers should meet your protagonist as they are. They live their lives as they did the day before, your story still doesn’t affect them. They have their quirks, mannerisms, their tone.
But as your story progresses, the protagonist is affected by it – otherwise there’s no need for them to be in the story, or for the story to even happen for that matter.
Pay attention to your plot points and the ways they affect your characters.
If there’s a love story between your protagonist and another character, but isn’t the main plot, you might easily miss changing your protagonists behaviors because of it.
See, we pay a lot of attention at our main plot and the ways it affects our characters, but it’s not uncommon for beginners to actually forget that the subplot is as important to our characters as is the main plot. I mean in a sense that it affects their life just as much but in a different way.
For example, the plot of your story is in thriller genre but your subplot (for simplicity’s sake, let’s go with the most common one) is a romance – it’s easy to say that thriller affects the hero and turns them, well, into a hero; but we mustn’t forget that the romance will also make them act differently in other scenes.
After all, when I’m in love and have an exam, I do study but that’s not the same as when I wasn’t in love – I almost dedicate my efforts the the person I’m in love with. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that – is it just me or do you do that as well?
At the end of your novel your protagonist should return to the same world that is just a little bit different. It is advised very often that the world should go back to balance, but I’d argue that we see the world through your protagonists eyes, so when they go on a journey and do come back, they are different and so is the world. After all, the whole world is made up by what we experience in it.
Making Them Feel Real
The character creation and character development are exciting processes since your job is to give life to new people. You must use all your intellectual power to create a person that will be both interesting and real.
There’s a simple way of doing it.
Go outside, sit in a cafe and watch the real people in the real interactions. I mean it. Do it now! Go for a walk in the mall. You could even go to a funeral and I’m serious – there’s no better way to experience human expressions and feelings than when they are sad.
It might seem rude of me to suggest such a thing and it’s not really a conventional thing but do it anyways – it will feel strange to you and it will be a bit uncomfortable. I’m not saying you should attend a funeral, but you should by all mean visit it from a distance.
People are amazing. You can create a whole story from one facial expression. That by itself is a big part of communication sciences – non-verbal communication.
You won’t be able to create characters and have character development if you just use manuals or read fiction. It will help but you won’t create as much as you’ll recycle.
Recently I was in a bus, trapped for two hours, and the only thing I could do was to watch people and make up stories about where they were going, where they were coming from, what burden freckled their faces. I live in a society where people suddenly get old and tired, so I know they bear burdens of their own and I try to guess them. Of course, I never know if I’m right or not, I never ask. I watch them as they gaze through the windows or down at their hands.
That’s a mental exercise I would recommend to every author. It helped me greatly with The Rotten Town and I’m still finding new ways to incorporate interesting faces I meet in my novel.
So, get out of your comfy chair and see some people. When you come home write down impressions they’ve made on you. Be careful not to stare, just check them out. It will inspire you and bring some reality to your characters.
This is the best way to get to know your characters since it’s hard to keep track of all the details that define them while you write. You want them to feel real and to make their gestures appropriate to their personality – best way to do it is by studying how people actually make gestures and facial expressions in connection with their situations.
If you try it out or have tried it already, be sure to tell me about it in the comment section. I’d love to hear your experiences. Was it weird? Was it helpful?
Be sure to leave comments if you agree or disagree on the topic. I love a discussion – it is the purest way to find the truth. Be patient and don’t procrastinate – you’ll have your characters come naturally.
As always, good luck and keep writing!
Author: Mladen Reljanović
Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.