Great literature is populated by great characters. Women and men and children who are noble, lecherous, brave, cowardly, vain, generous, quiet, loud, jealous, gallant, angry, smart, dumb, placid, horrid, lovely and, often, all of those. After all, real-life people are complicated, and so should the characters in your novels, at least the main characters.
Before I embark on a new novel I have a three-page list of questions I ask myself about the main five or so characters, before I begin writing my novel. The questions include:
1. Physical description: Age, weight, height, hair colour etc.
2. Where was the character born? And what was the character’s family life like?
3. Brothers? Sisters? Parents? And the character’s relationship with them.
4. What does the character fear the most?
5. What does the character want the most?
6. What was the character doing the day before page 1 of the novel
7. Which real-life person comes to mind when you think of your character?
8. What are the character’s weaknesses? What are the character’s strengths?
9. How does the character talk (quick, slow, proper, slang, educated, uneducated) and what reoccurring phrases/words does the character use.
10. What is the worst thing that could happen to the character?
Why do I need to know this much about my characters? Well, because their history determines what they say (dialogue), what they do (action), and how other characters interact with them.
The website Novel Writing Help (novel-writing-help.com) suggests the following:
- Make the characters charismatic
- Make them likeable
- Make them interesting
- Make them ordinary... and extraordinary
- Make the characters well-motivated
- Make them dynamic
- Make them good at what they do
- Make them a little unhappy
I disagree with a few of the above points mainly because not all characters need to be likeable, or competent, or just ‘a little’ unhappy. I do agree that they need to be well-motivated although the reason a character does something is often not evident to the reader.
Alex Jenson, writing for Ezine Articles (EzineArticles.com) suggests the following:
- Read as much as you can but remember that many books are designed for commercial reasons and will not necessarily help you to achieve the full three-dimensionality of character that you are looking for.
- Use people you have observed/met in real life. I would not recommend writing characters based directly on friends and family. Amalgamate several real people into one new character and get to know that character well enough to start off your writing.
- Let the character take control. Let him/her talk to you, tell you what's on their mind. Have a dialogue with the character, ask them questions, listen to what they want.
The amount of time and thought you put into your characters will make your job as a writer significantly easier and help to give your characters and your novel life. So much life that, in the words of Margaret Hollingsworth, one of Canada’s most famous playwrights and novelists and Harbour Square resident, “Be aware that however much you think you know, the character will always surprise you.”