How To Write Great Characters
I’ve written a lot about plot and structure, but there’s another important element to novels. Without a cast of characters, you don’t have a story. There are many methods to creating characters, but I’m going to explain my process, which avoids lengthy character notes and bios. This makes it easy to write the first draft in three months.
Finding Your Characters
The first thing I do after I’ve thought of an idea is to decide what characters are suited to the plot. What protagonist is going to drive the story? Are they a perfect character, or are they full of flaws? Perfect characters are boring to read about, yet characters who have no redeeming qualities will make the reader hate them. For the main protagonist, you want your readers to at least care about them. In other words, the reader has to want the character to succeed at the end of the story.
After I’ve an idea of what sort of character I want, I think about what they look like. Here’s a great tip that could work well for your own work: I pretend I’m casting a movie and choose an actor I can picture in the part. When that person is in my mind, I’ll put the laptop away and go for a long walk with the dog. On this walk, I’ll start picturing that character in various scenes that will form part of my plot. I’ll think about my opening and pop them into it. I’ll imagine how they’ll react, what they’ll do. I’ll start holding a conversation with them in my head, create other imaginary characters for them to interact with. By the time I get home, I’ll have a good idea of their personality, knowing what their dreams and desires are. What drives them.
As with my plot, I don’t make extensive notes because I’ve not fully got to know them at this stage. When you meet someone for the first time, do you know everything about them? They will only come alive once the story starts to unfold. The first few chapters will be a struggle, but I’ll soon begin to get a good idea of who they are. By about chapter two, I’ll have a grip on their backstory.
The Plot Creates the Characters
The plot fills in all the details about my character as it goes along. They’ll change and evolve the further in the novel I get, especially when new characters are introduced and they interact with them. Because I don’t tie myself to an outline, my process is fluid and constantly changing as I move forward. Sure, you can spend weeks planning every detail about them, writing every flaw down. You can create a full backstory, most of which you won’t even use in your novel. Have you avoided starting the novel? You could’ve been 20,000 words in, but instead you’ve just spent the month writing notes.
A second draft is where you refine your character after going through the journey with them.
Drop your character into scenes and see what they do. They might surprise you! Keep the writing fun and you won’t want to give up. I constantly tell people if you’re bored with your story, your readers will be, too. You’ve my permission to be bored of it after you finish draft five!
I’m currently between books at the time of writing this. I have the basic idea and know roughly how it will end. At this stage, I’ve only been thinking about the antagonist and the protagonist. If you take one of these away, you don’t have a story and they’re the most important element. A story is conflict, after all.
For my antagonist in my next novel, I want someone dangerous, but controlled. The first actor I’ve thought of is Clancy Brown who played the Kurgan in Highlander. The Kurgan is an evil immortal, hundreds of years old. We first meet him as a sword wielding knight, killing with ease, relishing in death and destruction. He’s a real agent of Chaos. Then we meet him in present day where he’s this hulking man dressed in leathers. I’ve always thought his character would work better if he was wearing a suit in the modern parts of the film, a man deadly in business who evolved through the centuries. We know he’s really evil, but his outward look say something else. That’s what I’m picturing right now, this huge figure of a man who looks too professional to be a threat, yet you wouldn’t mess with him for reasons you can’t quite explain. He’s got this darkness about him, concealed behind his business attire. It’s his eyes that betray him, the way he stares at you for a little too long.
I’ll think about meeting him, what he’ll say, how he’ll react. Try this with your own characters and you’ll be inspired to write about them.
For my protagonist, I’ve not yet thought of an actor, but I know it’s going to be someone who’s been broken by a past event involving my antagonist. Every action she has will be influenced by this past and she can’t let go of it. She’s scared to sleep at night, doesn’t like to get close to people. As I write this, my mind is going through different actors. I’m auditioning each actor and asking them to read lines, deciding who fits best. There’s probably a film with an actor similar to this character.
It’s a fun part of the process for me. What would you rather do? Sit down and write out an entire document on every little detail about them? Planning a novel is a process of imagination and daydreaming, and I’m very good at that. People think I’ve not listened to them, but it’s because I’ve been caught daydreaming about a scene. Sometimes I can get really caught up in the process, which is why long walks with the dog are great.
Because the dog doesn’t care if I’m not paying attention, so long as he can happily trot by my side in his own little world, while I wonder in mine.
Do you agree with my methods, or are you a planner through and through?
Kevin Grover is an indie author of supernatural thrillers. His books are on Amazon and his website, Indie Bookshelf, shares various tips and experiences about his indie career.