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How to Write a Novel Step by Step

Step Three: Character Introductions

Now you've got a basic grasp on your plot, it's time to bring in the cast.

We're going to use a technique to quickly build a basic character and then will build on that foundation in later steps to ensure each character is layered with depth, inner values and mannerisms.

We're not going to try to describe and pin down every aspect of each character right from the start. We'll begin with a broad brushstroke, then slowly fill in the detail and dig down into the character's persona until we discover what really drives them; then we'll keep adding spices and surprises until we have a fully formed, contradiction-prone character with history, values and motivations.

For now, let's just get a basic understanding of each of the key characters in our cast. You’ll need to complete the following steps for the characters you have identified so far in your plan. This includes your main character and any other key characters you know you will need for example a mentor, a villain, a love interest, a sidekick and any other supporting characters.

Character Development Layer One: The gameshow introduction.

Write a gameshow style introduction for your character, a single sentence. This can be fairly flexible, so it'll probably be easiest to demonstrate the right kind of thing with examples:

  • A depressed housewife whose closest friend is her little terrier.
  • A geography teacher with sweaty armpits and lots of nicknames.
  • A naive young prince with a good heart.

Good - so far so shallow, right?

Character Development Layer Two: breaking down the introduction, and expanding

Now break apart the gameshow introduction. Take each word (or cluster of words) in the gameshow introduction and expand it – asking and answering as many questions about it as you can think of.

A depressed housewife whose closest friend is her little terrier.

Depressed - How does it manifest? Is she actually on medication? How long has this been going on? Does she confide in anyone about it?

Housewife - Does she have children? If so, how many? How big is her house? Where is her house? What does her husband do? Is it a loving marriage? Does she enjoy being a housewife? Is she a good housewife or a bad one?  How long has she been a housewife?

Closest friend is her little terrier - What is the dog's name? What kind of terrier? How long has she had him? How did she get him? What do they do together? Are they ever apart?

A geography teacher with sweaty armpits and lots of nicknames.

Geography Teacher - Is he a good teacher? Did he always want to be a teacher? What age does he teach? What sort of school does he teach at? What sort of methods does he use? What sort of geography does he teach?

Sweaty armpits - Why does he have sweaty armpits? Is it a medical problem? Does he wear too many layers of clothes (why?)? Do they smell? Does he exercise on the way to school?

Lots of nicknames - What are they? How many kids use them? Do the teachers use them as well? His wife (is he married?)?

A naive young prince with a good heart.

Naive - Why is he naive? Is it a lack of education? A lack of experience? Is he deliberately sheltered? Or is he simply a bit slow? Or maybe just optimistic about people?

Young - How old? Does he act young for his age?

Prince - Prince of where? Where is he in line to the throne? Does he have servants doing everything for him?  Is he being lined up for responsibility? Being groomed to be King?

Good heart - How does he show he has a good heart? Do people approve of his good intent or is he seen as soft or perhaps weak? Or does he try to hide it? 

Character Development Layer Three: Basic Info and story role

After the first two stages you should be starting to get an idea of your character. To tidy up the loose ends, also make the following notes about each character:

  • Full Name
  • Age
  • What motivates this character?
  • Single sentence summary of character's role in story
  • Single paragraph summary of the character's role in story

Here’s an example:

  • Mrs Jessica Jones
  • 41
  • Love of her dog.
  • Jessica acts as the mentor to the hero and she teaches him to accept the friendship of others.
  • Mrs Jones inadvertently teaches the hero about the value of friendship by being a demonstration of the results of friendship failed. She wails and moans about how pointless it is to have friends and yet clearly values the companionship of her dog. The hero then realizes that even Mrs Jones can't be completely without friends and so agrees to take friends with him to Twickenham rather than go alone.

Task Three: Do character introductions for all the major characters in your story.

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