The prospect of publishing a novel is always exciting business for us writers. As a result, it’s easy to get ahead of ourselves in anticipation of completing the final product, and subsequently overlook one of the first and most critical steps of writing a novel: getting to know your characters well.
Only after you truly understand your characters will you be able to walk comfortably in their shoes, talk with their lips and portray them as the flawed humans they should be. It’s therefore essential that you familiarise yourself with every single one of your characters, and in turn develop their characteristics, mannerisms, inner conflicts and individual journeys as much as you possibly can.
But where can you draw inspiration for your characters? How can you build substance into those characters and transform them into beings that resonate with readers?
Here are the top 3 tips on how to master your characters…
1. RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH
People – writers included – often dread the thought of research because they picture themselves having to read tall piles of thick textbooks and encyclopaedias. But research is so much more than that. With the exponential growth of the Internet, an ever-increasing amount of resources can be found online via a simple Google search.
However, because just about anyone can add resources onto the Internet, it’s absolutely crucial that you to choose credible sources, in order to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the facts, statistics and information that you've gathered for your novel. For a guideline on how to select credible sources, click here. Moreover, libraries such as the State Library of New South Wales offer comprehensive online collections that can be easily accessed by the general public.
Beyond surfing the net, research also encompasses the act of observing the people around you. Research can take place anywhere: when you’re cooking dinner, when you’re waiting in line for a coffee, when you’re stuck in heavy traffic, when you’re strolling on the streets, when you’re on the train… inspiration is everywhere.
So tune into someone’s conversation. Ask yourself why they're saying certain things in a certain tone or manner. Why are they talking about this topic? Why are they frowning? Why are they whispering? Why are they sitting with their arms crossed? As writer Joe Bunting says,
Before I could write dialogue well, I had to ask WHY. Why did this person say this thing? Why did that person reply like that? How did they get on this subject in the first place?”
Also, watch how others react and interact with the people around them. Look for interesting habits, and ask yourself what the story behind that habit might be. Why is that woman constantly re-adjusting her glasses? Are the glasses uncomfortable? Is she nervous about something? And why is that guy drumming his fingers against his cheek? Is he bored? Or is he rehearsing to be the drummer for some underground band? Create stories from those ordinary actions, and let your characters evolve from those stories.
2. BUILD BACKSTORIES
Creating backstories for all your characters – even the seemingly-insignificant minor ones – is imperative, because you need to know each character’s past experiences in order to determine the potential consequences that these experiences will have upon your story. As author Rachel Ballon says,
All characters come to your story with a problematic past and unresolved personal conflicts, so you should have a full understanding of what these problems are right from the start—even if readers don’t see the connections until later.”
Use backstories as a way to build depth into your characters, and to figure out what their motives are and how they’ll react in different situations. Write down dot points, short passages or entire pages – whichever you prefer – about your characters’ lives before the time in which your novel is set. Ask yourself: Why is he afraid to do this? What drives her to do that?
More importantly, be inspired by real events, real experiences and real people. This will help you to create authentic backstories and characters that readers can resonate with on an emotional level. Reflect upon individuals you've encountered or interacted with on a day-to-day basis. Click here to view a list of possible real-life ‘characters’ you could consider in your exploration. Write down their names, and recall aspects of their lives and physical appearances, the impressions they've left upon you, as well as any other significant traits or quirks they possess, then use the details that you've collated as a basis for your own characters.
Whether we know it or not, our minds and hearts are populated by all the characters we will ever need – though we may disassemble them and rearrange the parts into composites for variation.” - David Corbett, author of The Art of Character
3. CREATE CHARACTER PROFILES
Character profiles are by far one of the most common tools used by writers to strengthen and enliven their characterisation. Profiles not only help you organise your thoughts about certain characters, but also allow you to keep track of their physical features, idiosyncrasies and relationships. Lit Lift is a very popular website which provides you with character profile templates that you can easily fill out, store, manage and edit whenever you like.
While these profiles cannot fully encapsulate every facet of your characters, they do provide you with a more solid understanding of the kind of people that feature in your story, and thus act as a springboard from which you can further flesh out your characters into more realistic, more vivid and more captivating individuals.
Writer's website Scribendi.com notes that it's often these initial details that later become the instigator of conflict within the story and a means through which the character's psychology can be examined. For instance, in Flannery O'Connor's short story 'Good Country People',
The physical details of the main character are representations of her internal state. Without a vivid description of this character's physicality, a critical dimension of the plot would be lost and the central conflict would be nonexistent. Thus, answering questions about your character's physicality is the first step in creating a fully realised character.” - Scribendi.com
* * *
Remember: your characters aren't empty vessels; they're treasure chests just waiting to be unlocked and explored by you as the writer. So treat them as much. Don’t delay it until tomorrow – create, develop and add dimensions to your characters today.