Writing a novel is hard.
There’s just no way around that. You’re building an entire world that, hopefully, someone doesn’t mind getting lost in. If you’re really lucky (and work hard) people might love to get lost in your novel. That, right there, is my dream.
A huge, HUGE part to writing your novel is nailing down your characters. Without a doubt, this is by far my favorite part of the writing process. I have little dates with my characters, listen to their problems, and sandman their dreams. “Umm, Vivien, that’s really creepy.”
I know, it’s so much fun!
What is an awesome character?
Easy, one that we like. Ha! Your character(s) need to have a problem, a fear or flaw that impedes their progress with that problem, and then either triumph or fail at solving that problem. Generally, you don’t want your characters to be jerks. You want them to be likeable in some way, but more importantly, you want them to be relatable. Say you have a character who gets a million tattoos over every inch of their body. What if you, as a reader, don’t believe in marking your body? What if you think that person is an idiot for doing that? You can’t find any way to feel sympathy for this character, or relate to them. But then what if I tell you that this character tattoos over scars they obtained through a horrible accident? This character empowers themselves by tattooing their body. Would you feel a little more sympathy then?
Let’s get real!
If you haven’t talked to your characters, you need to jump on that crazy train asap. If you want other people to imagine your characters as real people, you need to think of them as real people.
How do you go about doing that?
People watching is one very popular way to do that. Analyzing your friends or co-workers is another. Now, I’m not saying you should model your characters after these people, but you should figure out what makes them real. Everyone, and I repeat, ever-eee-won has faults. Analyzing those around you is a great way to hammer this into your brain. Take me, for instance. I’m a Type A kind of gal…most of the time. Laundry? I never fold it. My huge flaw has always, and probably will always be cleaning. I’ve never been a cleaner. Never.
How does pin pointing my obvious short comings help my writing? I’m a real-life, breathing human being! I know, I can see the shock and horror on your faces now. As a human being, I have flaws. Therefore, if you want your human characters to seem real, they also need to have flaws. “Oh, but Vivien, I’m writing about an alien race and they don’t have flaws.” I just said every human being has a flaw. What better way to gain sympathy from your readers than writing about someone like them? Even if you’re writing about a perfect alien race, you need to give that main character some flaws. Like yesterday.
But how much is too much?
You can never have too much quality character time! Just kidding…but not really. Here are some ways that you can have some real bonding time with your characters:
- Pinterest boards. I’m in the process of creating a Pinterest board for each of my characters. You can see what I currently have so far here. Although I’m new to this one, it’s been my favorite so far. If I ever have free time, I jump on Pinterest and get to know my babies a little more. Cora, my main character’s best friend, is a badass of a girl. She colors her hair, listens to music loud and wears some outrageous clothes. I search for things like “dyed hair” or “blue hair” to pin pictures that match her style. I do this for her clothes, her room style, her shoes, favorite foods (she’s a vegan). This one thing has helped me tremendously with picturing who my characters are.
- Playlists. My boyfriend laughs because a song will come on the radio and I’ll say, “This is Cora’s song!” Yes, it’s weird that I talk about someone like they’re real, when they only exist in my head. But we’re writers. We’re allowed to do that without getting sent away for “help.” I downloaded the free version of Spotify and pick genres I think my characters will like. I listen to their radio option a lot as I can find more variety this way. If I find a song that I like, I star it and sort it later to the playlist I want it in. If I get stuck writing, I’ll listen to a relevant character’s playlist for a minute and get into their head!
- Character sketches. This one isn’t my favorite, but it’s absolutely necessary to understanding your brain-children. Not only do you learn more about your character, but it allows you to stay consistent while writing about that character. This is where you ask those important questions that might never come up in your novel. Has your character ever owned pets before? Do they have any pet peeves or bad habits? What kind of car do they drive? What’s their dream car like? Why did they/their parents choose to live in that city? Ask as many questions as you possibly can and then keep them close! I keep all of mine in Scrivener and while I’m writing I can easily reference it. One of these questions might come in handy and you want your character to always be consistent. You don’t ever want to catch your character spouting off about every dog breed in the world, to later find that she doesn’t know what a Labradoodle is. Random, but you get the idea.
- Back stories. I’ve done this numerous times and have even posted one here on my blog. This story may (and I think should) have nothing to do with the main plot. Pick a character. Think back to their past and try to write about something really amazing, or really awful that happened to them. Now write about it. You might think this is a waste of time since it won’t end up being in your final draft (I don’t know, it could). But, I think this lets you bond with your character in a way that you couldn’t accomplish through your WIP. Especially if this character is a supporting one, who you don’t get to spend much time with. Have a funny character? Write a scene that shaped their need for humor, often a dark one. Have a depressing character? Write a scene where they felt truly joyful and how nothing compares to that now. You can literally write about anything in the world and throw your character into the mix. See how they react! You never know, it might give you some ideas for subplots!
How do I make my characters different?
I know, I know. If we’re writing about six different characters in a scene, how can we make each one stand out from the other? How do we keep our characters genuine, but genuinely different?
Why, give them different traits, of course! I think a great way of making this come across is using different voices for all of your characters. And I really do mean all of your characters. Now, if your main character and her best friend say the same phrase, that’s fine. But I can say for sure, my best friend says “girl” way more than I do, even though we both say it. Have your character’s “reaction” phrases be different. If something bad happens, one might say “shoot” and the other might say “dang.” This helps the reader differentiate between characters when rapid dialog is happening. An awesome example of this is Link in the Beautiful Creatures trilogy (all of the characters, but Link has a very specific voice). When I was reading this series, I never needed a tag to know that Link was the one speaking. His words were different, his execution was different, his go-to phrases were unique. This is what you want!
Flying the nest!
Introducing your babies to the world may seem truly daunting. But, of course, I have some tips for you on this subject!
Do it more than once. What I mean by this is briefly mention a supporting character (if you can) before they really come up on the story line. Say your main character, John, bumps into a woman as he exists the elevator and she gives a maniacal laugh as the doors close. John thinks it’s weird but moves on. Chapters later, we find out that crazy woman is John’s best friend’s aunt, who becomes the number one suspect in an on-going murder investigation. No, we don’t need that first encounter, but it’s a quick two sentence scene where we establish crazy-aunt’s character. We build a history with that character without consciously realizing that we did. The golden gem of character development, Harry Potter, introduces us to many, many characters before they ever become pertinent to the story.
What about my main characters? This is a touchy subject. Some people think you should immediately give a description of your main character, others think it should wait until it’s important to the story. I think you need to give some detail near the start of your story. Otherwise, I’ll literally have a blank person/image for that character until I can fill it in. I don’t like having a blank, cardboard cut out of a character to visualize for longer than is absolutely necessary. BUT, this should be done gracefully. I like trying to make character descriptions as organic as possible. The opening scene of Divergent does this well, as the mother is cutting Tris’ long hair, and she sees herself in the mirror for the first time in a year. You don’t want one full paragraph of all of your main character’s physical descriptions because it’s going to stand out. Really badly! Sprinkle them in, but sprinkle them early! I think by about Chapter 3 we should have a good idea of what your main character looks like.
Writing forgettable characters.
Huh? That goes against everything we were just talking about, right? Yes and no. You only have so much time as a writer and you probably don’t want to spend a year fleshing out every single character in your novel. You don’t have to. I’m formally giving you permission to let some of your characters not stand out. Only spend your precious time getting to know the characters that are important to the story. Don’t spend pages and pages on a gas station attendant if we don’t see that attendant blow up the joint five chapters later. If you know that attendant isn’t important, briefly mention her and move on.
If you’re writing a series, you have plenty of time to delve into that attendant as long as the story needs her. You can hold off on getting to know her character if you won’t have to deal with her for another book or two. Always remember though, if it doesn’t better the story, cut it! Better yet, don’t write it in there to begin with!
Having awesome characters is just one step in the huge formula to creating a winning novel. I hope you got some little nugget of glorious information from my rather large post and can apply it to your own writing.
What do you do to befriend your novel’s characters? Is it something people lovingly think you’re crazy for doing?