Character Building Stuff

It’s important to give your main characters a personality, otherwise they’ll appear two-dimensional. They’ll all sound the same and the reader will find it difficult to differentiate between them. You want the reader to care about your characters (and to be honest, why would anyone carry on reading unless they did?) and to empathise with them. So the reader need to know what drives them. Characters need a context, a goal; maybe a challenge; certainly a history.

This may be all in your head, or you may prefer to write it all down. Some writers create a detailed sketch for all their main characters right down to the smallest details, such as where they went to school, and their favourite colour. They need to get under the skin of each character and have all the back story in place before they begin the story. This way they know exactly how each character will react in any situation or circumstance. There are no surprises.

Other writers prefer to plunge straight in, allowing their characters to react to circumstances that have been created for them to inhabit, developing along with the story. Rather than responding to a situation in a way that reflects their pre-determined background, characters have the freedom to go off at tangents, to do surprising things that may not be in the original script. There’s less control, and that’s sometimes a bit scary.

Neither is right or wrong. It’s just what works for you and which method you’re comfortable with. I know which I prefer.

To make your main characters stand out, you could try giving some of them a specific trait or trademark. Maybe a nervous twitch, a regular wardrobe malfunction or an annoying habit. If it’s something very unusual and outside the norm, or if it has an impact on the story, an explanation will be necessary at some point. Don’t forget, in a novel everything has to have a reason.

One of the regular characters in my novel, The Silly Season, comes to work dressed as a film star. A different star every day. Her outfits are part of the office scenery and other characters comment on which star she’s playing each day. But there’s a reason for it, which is revealed at the end of the novel.

In the past I’ve used characters who:

  • Whistle under their breath all the time
  • Only possess two pairs of shoes which are alternated throughout the week.
  • Sniff incessantly
  • Wears the same trademark bowtie, bright yellow, every day.
  • Nervously pulls mascara off her eyelashes whenever she’s in a challenging situation
  • Begins every sentence with the words, ‘What I mean to say is…

One last word on the subject – don’t overdo it. You don’t want a novel populated with wierdos, unless, of course, that’s your express intention.


2 thoughts on “Character Building Stuff

  1. One of mine swears under his breath, another starts a sentence with “Um” whenever she’s presented with an unexpected or off-the-wall question, another never remembers where she left her purse…. Some of them are very reticent about telling me such quirks. They don’t like to admit to them. But they come to realize such things make them more 3-dimensional to readers. (But they still don’t like to admit them!)

    • It’s these annoying little tics that make our characters more human – they reveal a lot and help them develop more sympathetically. They might not like it, but they probably wouldn’t like coming across as stick people either. 🙂

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