How to Create Characters for a Novel

Characters are the first thing that pull us in to a novel. We can like and feel attached to characters with tiny roles or to characters who are villains. It all depends on how well they are developed. This is my monster post on how to create characters for a novel. First, a little terminology:

 

Character Ranks
~Main Character(s)
The novel is about the main character, focusing on them, telling their story. The main characters play the largest role, and are usually the good guys.
~Sub-Main Characters
Not all novels have sub-main characters. In fact, I think I coined this term on my own. I got tired of being unable to identify my characters who were not the main characters, but were in almost every scene. Hence the term sub-main characters. They’re somewhere in between main and secondary character status.
~Secondary Characters
Characters with smaller roles are secondary characters. Their roles can range from one or three scenes to being part of every major event. How big their roles is affects how much development they have. They may or may not be named or described or have their own history and relationships.
~Background Characters
Characters who’s only purpose is too supply setting and background. Then man sitting by the window when the main characters walk into a restaurant. The minion guards. They have no names, and only have token lines, if any lines at all.

Main and sub-main characters need full profiles. Secondary actors with reoccurring roles may need full profiles as well. But secondary characters who are only in one or three scenes do not need full profiles (or may not need profiles at all, if they are minor enough not to be named), and background characters do not need profiles, period.

 

Name
I don’t really need to talk about how important a name is, do I? The real question is: how do I pick names for my characters? I could write an entire post on naming, but I’ll try to keep this short.

Sometimes, when you already know the appearance of a character, you can say “He looks like a Caleb,” or “She reminds me of my friend Hannah.” This is an easy way to go. There is also the ever-classic naming characters for the people who inspired them.

A common method is to search baby-naming sites for meanings that are relevant to your characters. Many people do not know the meanings to names, but that doesn’t stop this from being an easy method. Plus, anyone who does know the meaning to the names you choose will be pleased to see the connection.

If you need wild, exotic, or futuristic names, just play with letters. You can pick regular names and play switcheroo or replacement with the syllables or letters. I like to look at the keyboard and pick out letters that I have yet to use and slam them together. Warning: This method results in names such as Xetessa and Jandice.

How does the culture of your world affect characters’ names? Are people given many titles? Do names change throughout life? Is the culture stiff and logical, giving their children one-syllable names? (I swear, I wasn’t thinking about the Vulcans when I typed that.) Is the culture peaceful, and the names soft? Or is the culture war-like, and names filled with hard k’s and g’s? Giving a culture unique naming patterns is actually very crucial to world building. Not only do name patterns give incite in to a culture, but they identify a character’s nationality.

But before you name your main characters Lacy, Lucy, and Lucian, (and plot many long and deep conversations between the three), a word of advice: make all your names unique from one another. How many times have two similar names having a conversation or a fight confounded you? Pay attention to the beginning letters, the ending syllables, the number of syllables. Vary them all. I was once told to never give two characters in the same novel names that start with the same letter. This is obviously a fanatical position, but it does fix the problem. Of course, if you want to give two characters similar names for plot purposes, go ahead and ignore everything I just said.

~The first step in creating a character profile: write down their name!

 

Appearance
The appearance of characters affects readers’ (or audiences’, if you’re talking about cinema) perception of them. If a man is dark and squints his eyes, we think of him differently than of a young girl with blond curls. In fact, we may think of the fat girl with blond curls differently than of the fit girl with blond curls.

Some aspects of a character’s looks may have a story behind them: the character dies their hair a wild color because they are rebellious, or the character has a scar from a near-death accident. Characters’ looks can affect the way they act as well. Maybe a character is self-conscious about their height and wears high heels. Similarly, characters’ acts can affect the way they look. Maybe a character is very outgoing and open, consequently wearing their hair free.

Carriage, if you think about it, is an important part of a character’s appearance, and may even tell something about their history. Are they proud, and carry themselves well, or are they quiet, and walk around closed toward everyone else?

Do not forget clothing when describing a character. Clothes tell so much about us; our status, our attitude, what we like, how we think of ourselves, etc. It is no different for your characters. The clothes a character wears can easily affect scenes or actions. A character stuck in the latest fad will not be prepared if they suddenly have to hike their way through a forest.

~Create a picture of your main characters. You can use any medium you like; tangible paper and pencil, or something on the computer. If you want to dress your character, http://www.mvm.com/cs/ had a vast selection of (modern) garb you can place on a 3D model.
~Create “Appearance” sections for your characters’ profiles and list their height, weight, and eye, hair, and skin tone. Also include how they carry themselves, their common apparel, and any unusual or identifying markings.

 

Family/Friends/Mentors
Family, friends, and mentors may or may not play a role in your novel (and if they do, they have their own family, friends, and mentors).  But they have all affected the character in question.  Maybe your character has a strong sense of justice instilled in him from his father.  Maybe your character is  a loner because they never really had friends and have become accustomed to this.  Maybe what starts the whole plot brewing is the death of your character’s beloved mentor.  There are so many ways other characters can affect a character!  Chances are, so or most of your plot is hinged on one character’s relationship to another.

~Draw family trees for your main characters.
~Create “Relationships” sections for your characters’ profiles, and list how your characters are related to each other.

 

History
All characters have history, whether relevant to the main plot or not. Where they lived, who they knew, and what they did can all be very useful – or it can come back to haunt them.

History can also be an extremely useful plot device. We all know what it’s like to write ourselves into a corner. None of the options are realistic. To get the plot moving you need John to refuse the merchant’s help, but why would he does such a thing? Answer: He was once cheated by a merchant. Suddenly, you have a new subplot.

~Create a mini-timeline of your main character’s lives, but only if their history is going to have a significant affect on the novel.
~Create “History” sections for your characters’ profiles. List where they lived (and thus area they are familiar with), who they know (and thus who is already their friend or enemy), and what they’ve done (skill they learned that could be useful, or crimes that can get them hunted).

 

Personality
You probably already know at least part of the personalities of your character. You know how they are on the outside. But what happens inside? Are they internal or external? Are they a daredevil or cautious? What is the breaking point for your character? What causes them the most joy? Do they act the same alone as when with someone? What are their habits? And for each of these answers, why? Is it just their personality, or did external circumstances cause this? Many sites have very handy lists of questions to answer for your characters.

~Fill out a personality test from the point of view of your main character. You’ll be spending a lot of time inside your main character’s head, so you’ll want to know them the best.
~Create “Personality” sections for your characters’ profiles. List at least three (for a minor character) to ten or more (for a major character) adjectives or phrases to describe them, the answers to the questions above, and any other aspects of their personality.

 

Voice

Voice is how a character says something, how big a vocabulary they have, what their speech quirks are. Voice is affected by personality, culture, education, and upbringing. An energetic character will not give every statement a full sentence. A college graduate will not speak the same way as a country boy.

~Create “Voice” sections for your characters’ profiles. Write a paragraph on the way they speak and refer to it when you are editing dialogue.

 

Purpose and Uniqueness
The ever-important purpose. If you don’t have separate purposes worked out for each of your characters, you will eventually have to combine one or more. I can tell you, that is not fun.

So how do you make sure none of your characters are going to need to be combined? Well, pull out your outline. Next to each event, write down what part each character plays in it. Characters who do not have part in enough events for their rank either need to have their roles increased, or their rank decreased. Character’s whose roles could be filled by other characters need to be deleted.

Look at your character personalities and history. Do each of your characters have unique personalities and stories, or is Mary to much like Sue? Don’t let any of your characters be copies of each other, even if one is a woman with black hair and the other is a little blond boy. If you are having trouble making two characters unique, consider allowing one of them to have their roles replaced by other characters.

~Create “Role” sections for your characters’ profiles. List their main scenes and general effect on the plot.

 

Character Arc
This is perhaps the most important aspect of a main, sub-main, or major secondary character.  He must have an arc.  He must change over the course of the novel.  He must learn something, he must decide something, he must become something, otherwise there is no point in reading about him. His arc may be part of the plot: he is afraid to take people in to his care at the beginning of the novel and must overcome this by the end. Or the plot may be all adventure, and the character arcs are not obvious.

Think about what you’ve decided so far for your characters. Their personality, the way they respond. Look at your plot. See how they would each react to the events and the obstacles in their way. No one (and definitely no characters) could go through a good plot without being affected.

~Create “Arc” sections for your main characters’ profiles. List how they are in the beginning of the novel, how they are at the end of the novel, and what happens in between to change that.

 

And that was my monster post to make up for missing Sunday’s post. Do you have anything to add? How do you create characters?

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About Kathrine Roid

I'm an science fiction and fantasy author living in Texas with an undead parakeet and teleporting cat. Think about that for a moment.

Posted on February 8, 2011, in On Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. I liked your idea on what to do for voice. I like to throw different ways of speaking around, but I don’t do it enough and don’t have it set for different races. It’s a good idea and I should do it…. now…..

    Thank you for the monster!

  2. Great post!

    Something I like to do is interview my charries. I start with a set of questions to ask… and it usually ends up going all over the place, but it is very helpful (and fun :) ).

    And I also fractal my charries with Sir Emeth’s system. It takes forever, but you learn a lot.

  3. This is great! I love making character profiles, and you hit the nail on the head as far as keeping us writers away from the dangerous and highly contagious Mary-Sue-ism.

    My biggest problem is I create about five characters whose roles could be accomplished in one well-defined character. I’ll work on fixing that, even if it means killing off a couple before they hit the final draft.

    Awesome post! (And I’ve been playing around with that character image generator for about half an hour. Love it! XD)

  4. ~
    Oh, I love creating speech patterns for cultures, Vil! And it was really fun to do that while working on Honor System. My MC in Honor System is a spy, so something she didn’t even have to see a person to know their race/nationality. That was an unforeseen side effect.
    *pets monster* He’s a darling, isn’t he?

    ~
    Neat idea, Abby. And then of course there’s what we do when the chatroom on Holy Worlds is empty: schizophrenic conversations! :rofl: Terribly fun.
    I’m ashamed to say I’m not sure what it means to “fractal my charries with Sir Emeth’s system.” I’ll have to go look into that. :)

    ~
    Thank you, Aloha. Next I shall talk about language cliches such as “hitting the nail on the head.” ;) I’m teasing you, don’t worry.
    I. . . I think I have that problem as well. That’s part of what I’m fixing during Fix Your Messy Novel that Doesn’t Have a Chance Month.
    *face/palms* I should have put a warning on that generator. It’s addictive.

    • I think it’s a sticky in character development on HW, but I could be wrong about that… :)

      You really should check it out; it’s amazing. :D

  5. Leandra Falconwing

    That’s…a far more detailed system than anything I’ve ever done for my characters, I think. :P I tend to just name them and think about them and make up scenes for the story and that’s how they develop.

    I may try this for my new story idea. We’ll see if it gets too intimidating or not… :P

  6. I don’t really create characters, I just use an inner voice for how they talk, but I am going to create characters for my equally monstrous novel that I will plan out :) Thanks, Kat!

  7. I tend to mess with my characters. Nate has a very perticular way of speaking!

    Oozes! I love creating names and appearances!

    Some of my characters names have meanings in them, like Anakin-Je’hek, his dad was from Tosia and his mom from Earth.

    I also write languages, my current one in Jackle (pronounced Yackle). My character Jyian’s (pronounced Jai-anne) name means Traitor.

    Liesel

  8. ~
    Haha, Leia. Pansters will need less details than planners. Feel free to cut some of the steps out if they feel like too much. Don’t get intimidated! Being a recovered panster (well, recovering from pansting my characters, not my plot), I know what it looks like. Really, though, all these character profiles need is time.

    ~
    That’s great, Louisa! Glad to be of service. Monstrous novels definitely need character profiles – I can attest to that.

    ~
    Sounds like you already do quite a bit of this, Nimsky! I love the meanings behind your names.
    Ooh, languages. I want to look into that.

  9. Great post, Kathrine! I wrote a post on my own blog about character development and used some of the principles from this post. Linked to you!

  10. Hey — I am a newbie :) — I am in the process of developing my characters to fit them into a plot that has been running through my brain/heart for years. Voice scares me. Born and raised in WV — lived in MS for 12 years — you can only imagine my dialect and it was only once I moved to Colorado for a short two years that I even realized I have a very thick dialect. I have no ear for voices. Any suggestions — reading material — anything on how to develop unique voices for charcters in writing dialogue?

  1. Pingback: Where do characters come from? | headywriting

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