If you’ve followed me this far, you have carefully considered your alternatives, you have pondered over valid content, you’ve experimented and found the best way to tell your story, and you’re even able to craft a valid outline.
Now’s time to fill your novel up with characters! How?
I’m going to give you 5 well-tested ways to give life to memorable characters.
1. Know who you’re dealing with
Remember what I said about the setting? The same is true for your characters: you, the author, need to know them inside out. You need to know them as well as you know your sibling or your best friend. You have to be able to think as they would, even (and especially!) if they’re different from you. You have to be able to figure out how they would react to a certain situation — not how you need them to in order to keep the plot going.
All this is crucial, if you want your readers to believe in your characters. A good-looking character who’s also shy will hardly look at themselves in the mirror and think, “Yo, look at you, hottie!”, for example.
2. No identity crisis
A good and valid character is not an enhanced version of yourself.
Do not give in to the temptation of creating your character based on what you wish you were — unless you’re twelve and still need to find yourself and experiment.
A character based on yourself or on someone you know can turn out all right, but that’s quite often not enough. Consider what kind of situation your characters must deal with. What’s the most plausible behavior or reaction for them?
Remember: the answer to the question, “Why are they doing that?” cannot be: “Because” or: “Because they’re the main character.”
3. 3-D characters
One of the reader’s major disappointments is when they read a book and find 2-D, flat characters. What does this mean? A 2-D, or “flat” character is one that does not show any personality beyond what’s strictly basic, they’re in the book just because the author put them there to play a certain role, but they don’t have a back story, or anything that makes them “real”.
So, when you think about your characters, focus on what makes a person… a person.
a) Physical aspect
Write down everything you know about your character: their name, hair and eye color, complexion, height, build, distinguishing marks… This way you’ll make sure that Chloe doesn’t turn into Zoe in chapter 10; that her brown hair stays brown unless she dyes it; that the heart-shaped birthmark that’s on her shoulder doesn’t suddenly jump onto her knee… you get it.
If it helps you, you can think of existing people and keep a picture of them as a reference.
Your characters, just like you, have a family they come from, they have a nationality, a social status, they’ve had meaningful experiences… Don’t overdo the details, though, unless they are useful to the development of the plot.
According to the setting and/or the story, it may be necessary to highlight an aspect or another. Think of the film “A knight’s tale”. The main character’s social status is pivotal to the story: if William were a noble to begin with, there would be no story at all.
Once again: Internet is your friend. You can find lots of information about the main features of different personalities. It may not be all there is to know about someone, but it’s a (great) starting point. Here’s also where you think of hobbies, tics, and habits of your characters — they may be important to the story.
Quirks are not essential, but they can help the reader tell one character from the other, especially if you have many. Do not go overboard with this, though: if all your characters have quirks, that’s too much. And if one character shows their tic once every three lines, that’s too much as well.
Note: This is all for you. You don’t have to write everything in your book, but you need to know your characters well.
4. Imaginary characters
How to deal with imaginary characters?
We need to look at two different situations:
a) imaginary characters that someone else invented (i.e. vampires, zombies, elves, and so on).
In this case, you will have to keep the characteristics that have already been established. Mainly. Of course you can customize your elves, however you need to be careful not to create confusion in the readers: it’s okay to have a drunkard elf; it’s less okay to call “elf” a character who’s short, sturdy, has a beard, and lives in caves. Stephanie Meyer’s vampires — although quite controversial — are a good example of customization of an imaginary character.
b) Imaginary characters invented by you.
Things get a little bit trickier, here.
If you are creating your own imaginary character, it’s likely that you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel. In both cases you’re the master, but you’ll have to take care of a couple of things:
b.1) Fantasy novel.
You’re not only going to create a character different from any other character that was ever written. Your character needs to fit in a world where there are physical and social laws. If your characters do not follow those rules, they need a very good reason to do so.
Moreover: in case other races/populations are present, you’ll have to consider the relationships among them: is there a group that’s above/beneath the others? What commercial/political relationships exist?
You can find a good example in the fantasy book “The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss. The Adem live more or less in isolation, have their own system of beliefs and traditions, but they also interact with other people outside their community.
b.2) Sci-fi novel
You can either set your story on an existing planet, or make up your own.
b.2.1) Existing planet.
You’ll have to carefully consider the physics of this: what physical features should your characters have? In case your novel takes place on Venus, for example, your people need to be able to breathe Venusian air; their physical appearance needs to be compatible with the atmospheric pressure; they’ll need to have a way to survive acidic rains; etc.
You can find a good example in the “Luna” trilogy by Ian McDonald: second generation characters who were born on Luna are taller than their parents, because of the lower gravity they grow up in; their bones and muscles are less dense — also, bone and muscle density diminish the longer a Terrestrial stays on Luna, so it’s hard or even impossible for them to go back on Earth; etc.
b.2.2) Made-up planet.
Your world may be whatever you like, but remember that the physical aspect of your characters, as well as their biology, their experiences… all depends on how the world is built and on how the society works (laws, rules, traditions, politics, religion…). As a good example, you can read the “Robot” series by Isaac Asimov, where every world developed independently from the others, in a unique way.
5. Ideal types
In the book “The Hero’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler, a few “typical” characters are mentioned, which can help you create yours:
- The “shapeshifter”: an ambiguous character, who can stand with the hero, or with the villain, but it’s hard to tell;
- The “trickster”: a sort of a comic relief, whose words or actions may produce a change or be of inspiration;
- The “anti-hero”: ever heard of Robin Hood? An outlaw, but one who does good, because he only steals from the rich to give to the poor;
- The “shadow”: this is generally the Villain, and you really want to create a memorable villain. Remember: as always, the answer to the question, “Why are they behaving like that?” can never be, “Because” or, “Because they’re the Villain, bwahaha!”
Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of books you can read, if you wish to learn more:
- The Hero’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Elements of Fiction Writing by Orson Scott Card
You’ve made through this crash-course on “How to write a book in the times of Covid-19”.
Have fun writing, and leave a comment or ask a question if you wish.