How to Write a Novel – Pt 3: Creating Characters

For me, this is one of the parts about writing a novel I find most fun: discovering who you’re going to be spending several months if not a year or two of your life with.  Let’s start with the protagonist.

Your protagonist is your hero, your main character, usually the one telling the story or from whom we get the perspective of the story.  Whether Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, or Charlie Bucket, you want to spend some significant time fleshing out your protagonist and give them as much dimension as possible.  Depending on how you like to write, this can be accomplished in several ways.

Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone on this one either.   Guys write girl characters and vice versa all the time.  Although, if it is outside your experience, you will likely have to spend some time with people like your character to give it that kind of authenticity.  If you’re writing about a cop, but you’ve never been around their world outside of a traffic ticket, it’s time to make some cop friends.  If your main character loves his gun more than people but you’ve never been around a firearm in your life, time to head down to the gun store and get to know guns—maybe even fun a local gun club and meet some people.

For those of you about to object because you’re writing something otherworldly, like scifi or fantasy, etc., you can do your research too.  Wizards can be wizened men who’ve mastered a particular art.  Kings and princes can be wealthy CEOs or well-established men of the community.  Space captains probably differ little from pilots and sea captains who feel similarly about their planes and ships.  Settings may change, but people generally remain the same.

Let’s go through some simple steps to get your character fleshed out:

  1. Are they male or female?
  2. What do they look like?
  3. How old are they?
  4. What is their name?
  5. Why are they the best choice for your story?

MALE OR FEMALE

Consider the story in which you’re about to thrust this main character.  Would a male be the best choice for this story, or is a female preferable?  You may not want to use a female if your story is about a WWII veteran anymore than you’d probably want to use a male in a story about the woes of high school cheerleading.  That’s not to say either couldn’t work, just consider how well whichever character you choose can tell your story in the way you want it told.  As David Robbins said, hold auditions for your characters in your head.

For my example I’m going to chose a male.  A female could probably pull off the story I’m thinking of, but to me it makes more sense if he’s male.

LOOKS

Flesh them out.  What color of hair do they have?  What race are they?  Are they fat or athletic?  Shy or confident?  What is their most striking feature?  Or are they fairly ordinary to begin with?  A fat character will deal with the world around him differently than a beau hunk who’s gotten whatever he’s wanted his whole life.  Same with a confident blue-eyed blonde vs. a mousy brown haired shy girl.  Race, obviously, plays a big part of how they’ll see the world and how the world responds to them.

My character will be of latino descent.  His grandmother who migrated from Mexico to America always told him tales of El Chupacabra and the terror it ravaged on her village when she was young.  For this story, latino seems the best choice.

AGE

How old is your character?  Look back to my previous post on genre, and cast your character appropriately.  Do they need more experience?  More naivety?  Consider both your audience and your story and pick the age accordingly.

I’m intending to write this for middle grade readers, so I’m going to go with 12.  My character is nearly a teenager, making him a little more skeptical of his abuela’s (grandmother’s) crazy stories.  That, and he’s more interested in being cool than being with her anymore.  Twelve seems just right.

NAME

Personally, I like to choose names that have meaning.  But you can name characters after old friends, a grandfather long gone, maybe just because your character reminds you of someone you once knew.  I’m going to go with Javier Reyes, mostly because I think the nickname Javi is fun, but also because Reyes signifies something royal kind of foreshadowing some great feat he’ll accomplish in the near future.

If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi you’ll probably be tempted to make up some really cool name for your character, which is fine.  But consider your audience.  First of all will they know how to pronounce Traewystinun?  Will you call him Trae for short?  Will you turn off an agent who reads that Traewystinun of the house of Geernumgnm in the land of Phnumcaatnum?  You can give them a unique name, just consider how easy it is to read for your audience. (Bonus points to those who correctly guess the pronunciation of these.  Spell it out FOE-NET-ICK-LEE.)

BEST CHOICE?

I explained a lot of this under the age category.  Javi’s grown up hearing about the chupacabra, so when rumors start spreading around his school about a strange monster he recognizes the details right away.  Then, when his abuela goes missing, it’s up to him to stop the chupacabra from destroying the town.

FURTHER FLESHING

What strengths and weaknesses does your character have?  Are they afraid of heights, but must scale a sheer cliff wall to save a friend?  What are their dreams and aspirations for the future?  What’s stopping them?  Was there some childhood event that scarred them for life?  Are they dealing with a loss, bullies, etc? (You can also find your story in thinking about these things.)

Maybe Javi is afraid of the dark, but that’s the only time El Chupacabra is around to be stopped.  Then Javi not only has to face a terrible creature, he has to face his fears of the dark as well.

Some of this you may have to discover while you write.  There have been some characters I’ve only gotten to know by first writing them, or encountering them as the story went along.  While you want to have some idea of who your protagonist is, don’t be afraid to discover more about them by writing the first few chapters.  Never fear rewrites.  Any experienced writer will tell you it’s all part of the process.  Maybe you imagine events they face and then you go back and give them further reason for those events to happen.  Taking the time to discover your characters will make them more believable in the end.

And don’t be afraid to give them faults.  Perfect characters are boring.  It’s their faults and often overcoming them that makes them interesting.

SECONDARY CHARACTERS

Your supporting characters will need some significant fleshing too, especially those we see nearly as often as the protagonist.  Give them their own goals and aspirations.  How do they feel about the protagonist?  Do they believe in/support the protag or do they secretly hope they’ll fail?  In what ways can they develop a stronger relationship with the protagonist?  What could the protagonist say that would make them leave?  What could they say to the protagonist to make the protagonist leave them?

When I write scenes I usually start with solely the protagonist goals.  Then I go back and see what it is the secondary characters were hoping to get out of the scene.  You may never actually write what they are thinking on the page, but it’ll show in what they say and how they respond.

VILLAINS (or ANTAGONIST)

One thing I love is a good villain, and a good villain can be a tough thing to write.  They also have goals, in fact many “villains” simply seek good things in a wrong way.  They fully believe the ends will justify the means, so they do whatever it takes to reach that goal, even hurting the innocent.  The goals of the villain, much like the secondary character probably won’t appear directly on the page, at least they probably shouldn’t right away.  For me, it’s like keeping track of two separate stories, but the protagonist’s side of it is the only perspective the audience gets.

¡El Chupacabra!

Does your villain know who the protagonist is?  When do they realize who the protagonist is?  What will they do to stop the protagonist from foiling them?  Is it a thug approach, simply send the minions to get the job done (old gangster boss)?  Or is the villain clever—maybe wanting to use the protagonist to help accomplish his goals before getting rid of him?  Can the villain be someone we least expect (think Professor Quirrel or Mad-Eye Moody in Harry Potter)?  Or can the villain be someone we suspect the whole time, but we don’t realize how devious they are until they end (John Doe in Seven)?

Personally I always liked best those villains that mess with the protagonist’s head.  I love villains who try and convince the protagonist they are right, and are almost able to do it.

Of course, in your story your antagonist may not be supremely devious.  They may just be someone who doesn’t like the protagonist.  A school teacher fed up with him, a jealous kid, etc.  Whoever your antagonist, give them their own goal that goes against the protagonist’s.  Step inside their head and pretend your protagonist is the villain to them.  How would they respond?  What plans would they make?

With all of that I hope you can now go make yourself some characters.  Tomorrow  we’ll talk about getting to know your writing style.

But in the meantime, what do you think?  Do you have any ways you would add to the discussion of creating characters? 

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