How to Write a Novel

Step Seven: Character Development

 

By now, you should already have a basic character profile for each of your main characters – now is a good time to go into a little more depth and learn more about what makes your characters tick and what makes them unique.

The Novel Factory contains a few different sections which can help you develop your characters:

  • Voice
  • Characterisation
  • Questionnaire
  • History

At this stage you’re encouraged to fill out some or all of these sections for your major characters, as much as suits your style.

(You might have also noticed a tab called ‘Viewpoint Synopsis’. We’ll get to that later in the Roadmap, but if you want you can skip ahead to the Roadmap step called ‘Character Viewpoints’.)

Completing these sections should also highlight if any of your characters are too similar. If you're finding yourself writing too many of the same or similar answers then your characters may not be unique enough, and it may be worth doing more to make them stand apart.

If you have two characters that both have wild hair, sharp blue eyes and a cocky, outgoing personality, you've got to ask yourself, do you really need both of them? Could their actions be merged, streamlined into one? (Compare the Trainspotting film and book for interesting examples of how this can be done). More importantly, if your characters are too similar, your readers might get confused between them, and that's a sure-fire way to ruin your carefully thought out plot.

Here is some more information about each of the sections:

Voice

This refers to each character’s unique voice. It’s easy for an author’s own speech patterns and favoured vocabulary to leak into all their characters, and it can often take a great deal of concentration to ensure each of the characters has their own style and manner – rather than all sounding too similar to each other.

The Voice section offers a list of prompt questions to help you think about various aspects of a character's speech and manner characteristics, including favoured vcocabulary, slang, educational level and more.

As you will see from the questions, Voice does not only refer to how they speak – it can be broader than that, and encompass their more general attitude and approach to interactions.

Favourite vocabulary

How large is this character’s vocabulary? Are there any words they overuse? Do they generally use short words or long words? Do they use a lot of words relating to a particular sense, such as sight or sound? Or relating to their job or hobby?

Speech patterns / habits / quirks

Do they tend to talk in long sentences or short ones? Do they use a lot of questions, or imperative statements? Do they always end a sentence with: ‘don’t you think?’ or ‘innit’ or ‘la’?

Educational level

How does their educational level affect their speech. More education may mean a more advanced vocabulary, but it could also mean pomposity or the desire to speak more slang to hide their class. Less well educated people may start to overuse long words in certain company to overcompensate for feeling defensive.

Race / culture / regional influences

Regional influences can affect a characters vocabulary, word order, slang, accent, attitude and priorities.

Slang

Do they use a particular kind of slang or jargon? Do they do it to build rapport or to make others feel excluded?

Direct and to the point or oblique and rambling

Does this character get straight to the point in the most clear, concise way possible, or do they beat around the bush – either deliberately because they are anxious or introverted or unknowingly because they’re jus

Assertive or passive

When dealing with conflict, is the character assertive or passive? Are they forceful, confrontational? Or do they shy away? This will come through in their choice of what to say, but also how they say it.

Proactive, taking charge or reactive and following

Does the character take charge of a situation and use their own agency, or do they wait for others to do something? Perhaps they don’t even follow, but create friction and drag.

Sense of humour

What sort of sense of humour does your character have? Here are a few: laugh-at-life, bonding in the moment, slapstick, bitter sarcasm, self-deprecating, dry/deadpan, highbrow/witty, jokes at others’ expense, toilet humour, quirky cultural references.

Metaphor preferences

What topics colour their metaphors? Do they use a lot of idioms about sport, sailing or the body? What is their profession, background or hobby? Can these be reflected in their metaphorical speech?

 

Characterisation

The Characterisation section encourages you to make notes on core aspects of you character, such as what drives them and how they relate to the world around them.

If you wish, you can use an archetype based on popular personality and role types to give you a springboard for your character's personality. You can read more about archetypes here: https://www.novel-software.com/characterarchetypes. It should be noted that an archetype is never going to be more than a starting point, on which to build nuance, quirks and contrast. Nobody in real life neatly fits into one of twelve or sixteen boxes, so your characters shouldn't either.

You can also look at the internal and external motivations of your characters and a few other key elements that will influence their behaviour.

Characterisation (character development)

Personality Types

Personality Types can give us a good foundation for our characters' personalities. They can provide inspiration in the early stages of creating characters and help ensure our cast members are each different from one another.

We have created personality type resources specifically aimed at authors based on the following structures:

Bear in mind that an archetype is always only a starting point and each character will need plenty of specific detail to make them unique and fully fleshed out.

 

Flaw

Most interesting characters are flawed. Their flaw gives them something to struggle against, something to overcome. It also makes them more realistic, because nobody’s perfect. Flaws can create conflict with other characters and also inner conflict.

A flaw could be anything from being afraid of needles to being a drama queen to being a serial cheater.

External Motivation and Internal Motivation

External motivation is something your character wants which they believe will bring them happiness, but in reality is superficial. It could be a promotion, to meet their sporting hero or to have the perfect wedding.

Internal motivation is what your character really needs in order to feel fulfilled and complete as a human being. This almost always boils down to something relating to love of self and love of others: they may need to learn to accept themselves as they are rather than being self-critical, or they may need to forgive their imperfect parents / partner / friends / neighbours their perceived flaws.

Often a truly moving story comes when a character is forced to choose between their want and need.

For a fuller explanation of internal and external motivation, go to: https://www.novel-software.com/blog?article=what-your-character-wants-versus-what-they-need

Positive Traits and Negative Traits

All characters should have a balance of positive and negative character traits – thought of course what is considered good and bad is almost entirely subjective.

When considering traits you could think about how they see the world, how they treat others, how they affect the atmosphere of a room and how they deal with conflict.

Quirks, mannerisms

Giving your main characters quirks and mannerisms can really add dimensions and make them memorable. Quirks can add humour and empathy. They may contrast with the character’s immediate impression, for example a very serious, highly respected character may secretly love wearing socks with unicorns. You could also think about when this habit appears – is it in particular situations, like when the character is stressed?

Fears, phobias

Our fears make us vulnerable and can make seemingly straightforward situations fraught with tension. For example the generally brave Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, so while running through giant blades and leaping over fire doesn’t have him break a sweat, hand him a snake and he’s paralysed.

Fears can be used to drive a character’s entire motivation (e.g. fear of failure, fear of being poor, fear of being hurt) or they may just add tension in particular scenes (e.g. fear of snakes, fear of heights, fear of old ladies).

Life philosophy / motto

This should be something pithy and brief that helps keep you anchored to the character and guide how the character will behave in various situations. Some examples: Go with the flow; life fast die young; if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again; don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened; what goes around comes around; god will punish evil doers.

Most treasured possession

Treasured possessions are often weapons and / or family heirlooms. They could also be something a character acquired at a key moment in their past, something that represents a memory or an aspect of themselves.

Questionnaire

The Novel Factory includes a very extensive character questionnaire to help inspire you to get more detail about your characters, and find ways to make them unique.

You’re not expected to answer all the questions for each character – rather to browse through and answer the ones you find helpful or interesting.

Some of the questions may give you little insights into the characters and these details may lead to interesting twists and layers to your plot.

Even if the answers you discover have no direct impact on your plot, the information will help round out the character in your mind, and when you write from their perspective - this will come out, whether you notice it or not.

You probably won’t want to do questionnaires for multiple characters in one sitting, or it might start to become difficult coming up with interesting answers, and may start to feel a bit monotonous.

Another advantage of spreading these out over a little time is to give you a chance to people-watch in between. With the questions fresh in your mind, observe all the people around you - family, friends, colleagues, strangers - watch them all, and see what inspiration you get to supply interesting answers to the questions.

Many of the questions in the character questionnaire are deliberately vague, they are meant to be open to a bit of interpretation.

History

The History section is an open section that allows you to put down anything you think is worth noting from your character’s past. You might want to describe their childhood, teenage years or more recent history.

You may want to provide a brief summary with a few key points, or write detailed descriptions of several of their most formative experiences.

 

Task Seven: Complete Full character profiles for all of your major characters.

Click here to go to the next step or go back to the Novel Writing Roadmap overview.

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