Monday, September 6, 2010

Novel Design: Characters

For those looking at NaNoWriMo or considering starting a novel, I’m working on a series called Novel Design.


character_jack Last week, we talked about the eight fundamental Character Archetypes in Mythic Storytelling. To be clear, “Mythic Storytelling” is an account of a Hero-type character facing challenges in order to solve some problem…which encompasses most fiction of all genres.

So here you have a concept for a character. There are tons of character worksheets online, simply Google “character worksheet” or “character profile” if you want examples. Some are in the form of long questionnaires or interviews, others are forms. I’m not going to attempt to recreate those things here. What I want to do is talk about the “process.”

Get to Know Your Character

The ultimate goal of Character Design is to know your character so well that you know how they would react to any situation. But how do you achieve that?

First, start off with some of the basic online character sheets. Name, gender, age, occupation, skills (think résumé or C.V.), family members, home, lifestyle, social status, hobbies, physical attributes. Do not carve these in stone. With the exception of gender, I have almost never kept all my original design of a character.

Next, develop a small backstory. Only include the most important events. Births, deaths, marriages, divorces. The Big Stuff. Moves, hiring and firing, greatest achievements, greatest disappointments. Remember to not go overboard. Like everything else, the backstory is subject to massive revision. You will eventually up with ten times the backstory you actually need, so it’s a balance. If the backstory really needs to be that big, maybe you’re writing the wrong story. Usually the novel itself describes the most important event of a character’s life. Note that this also varies by genre. Mysteries are all about discovering the backstory, the “crime.” Fantasies have whole extensive histories. (I’ll talk about World Building another time). For this discussion, just focus on the individual character’s history, not all of civilization’s.

The final thing you want to think about is personality and motivation. How are they with friends? Enemies? Lovers? Family? Co-workers? What are they greatest fears? Deepest desires? What do they want out of life? What will they do anything to avoid? You need to know this character better than they know themselves. Characters usually do not act in their own best interests, so define what trade-offs they make on a daily basis between what they want and what they don’t.

Use Your Character

Armed with this basic knowledge, it is helpful to put your character in motion. If you can’t wait for NaNoWriMo, then simply write a few scenes with your character and some others, maybe characters from a whole different book. Give your character a small problem to solve and see how they go about it. Work on their speech patterns, words and phrases they like, gestures they make. What sets them off? What do they fall for?

Here’s the thing. You could spend months and months working on character worksheets, detailing mannerisms and backstory and listing every article of clothing. It can be a lot of fun researching and developing these things. But worksheets are static. For me, I learn most about my characters when they act and interact with others on the page. So what I suggest is get to a level where you’re comfortable but not entirely sure. Go ahead and write your first draft. Then go through the whole process again, eliminating everything that doesn’t fit your new concept of your character, and adding things to strength them. Research where it’s weak, revise and develop where you can.

Your initial character design is what you want your character to be.
Your revised character design after the first draft is what your character needs to be.

What I’m trying to say is that Character Design is not a one-time process done over the course of a week or a month. It’s an iterative process that spans the lifetime of your drafts. Certain things don’t work. You might have made your character too passive, so when they suddenly defeat the Bad Guy it’s out of the blue. So your character needs to show some assertiveness at times. Or your character is too strong, so when they defeat the Bad Guy on page 15 you’re like, “Oops…now what?”

One last thought. I’ve planned and planned and planned, but my characters never fail to surprise me by doing something I didn’t expect or intend, but it makes so much sense or helps the story so much I can’t unwrite it. They change, they grow, they learn over the course of the novel. So when two characters kiss that you had absolutely no intention of creating a relationship between, I say go for it. Because your characters are telling you something important about themselves, something you need to pay attention to. Once they’ve kissed, once you wrote that line, you can delete the line, but the two characters will still know. And they will never be the same.

Have fun with it! And like the example above, it’s perfectly acceptable to doodle.


  1. I'm naughty, I hate writing down 'character sheets' so I spend lots of time daydreaming about them instead. It's my way of knowing them :) I think it's the pantser side of me breaking out as otherwise I LOVE detailed plotting :)

  2. @Nicole: I hate them too, but they can help. Sometimes it depends where you are in your writing. For me, I write them but then I pretty much ignore them after that unless I need a specific detail. It's the process of writing them that helps me.

  3. My writing program has this as one of the forms to fill hard to make myself do it, but I'm usually really glad I did.

    Great post!

    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  4. I find it helps me to write out a character profile. I didn't do that with the first novel until about half way through the novel. I could'nt keep it all straight so I wrote it out.

    Ah, what a difference it made to be able to refer back to that profile. My characters still manage to surprise me of course, but they don't stall me anymore. I have a plan! Not this indepth, but a decent enough arc for my own self to follow.

    Good advice Andrew.

    BTW: I have an award for you at my blog.


  5. @Raquel: Sometimes you just have to do the will pay rewards!

    @Donna: Thank you very much for the award!
    Character design is a process, something that doesn't just happen at once. I think point is to get it started, then fill it in as you learn more about your characters and what situations they are going to face.


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