When you’re planning a novel, one of the first things you need to think about are your characters. Personally, I often start by drawing out each character and writing down a little of their background before I even write them into the book. From here, a character will usually develop its own little story, especially if it’s only a minor character to begin with. Although you need to watch out for lengthy histories to make sure they don’t wreck your plotline, usually character backgrounds can be good for the novel; they help to lengthen it and make it more entertaining.
Because characters are so important to the story, you have to consider them carefully. If a character changes personality half way through the plot, make sure that it happens on purpose. You cannot have irregularities or inconsistencies in your story or you’ll end up confusing your audience and then no one will be happy.
Every time you add in a new character, create a spider-diagram of her personality, her appearance and her background. Really, this part is up to your imagination. If it helps, use the basic persona of one of your friends and change their name and personality a little. Since many of my friends requested a part in my story, here are a couple of examples of how this might work:
Felicia Puxley = Felicity Pillsbury Fadererah Segun = Faderah Shegan
However, if you’re going to use the personality of someone you know but want to show the character in a bad light, I strongly suggest that you don’t make it too obvious, or trouble could ensue. I usually ask my friends to help craft the character which will be based on them, as new opinions on a personality can often lead to a more varied storyline.
Depending on the genre of story you are working on, you will need to create different numbers of characters. For example, a murder mystery only needs three main characters: the perceptive detective, his supporting sidekick in the form of a cop or a journalist and finally the vile villain. Of course other characters are essential to the plot to make it more interesting, to create twists and turns which grip the reader.
You must choose how many main characters are necessary to your plot. Who is your protagonist? Do you have more than one? Or does everyone else primarily affect this person? And because your protagonist is so important to your story, you need to think long and hard about his personality. Don’t just opt for the perfect boy or girl next door. You must invest your protagonist with personality — or else relegate the squeaky-clean character to a secondary role.
When creating a personality, you must be sure to keep your character original and diverse. There are a few things you ought to keep in mind as you invent each unique person which will make for a more fluent and believable story.
Firstly, avoid stereotypical characters. Any generalisation could be offensive to someone and it is important to open your story up to as varied an audience as possible. At the same time, you need to get the balance between the farfetched and the stereotype to allow the readers to relate to your characters. For best results, combine your character with elements of another character type to make them seem more diverse.
Here are six stock characters to avoid:
1. Sidekick: The protagonist’s right-hand man usually serves as a clashing counterpart: daring vs. nervous, thoughtful vs. tactless, and so on. Make sure your sidekick complements the protagonist, but also keep their relationship fresh by introducing a kind of vulnerability in the lead that your subordinate can exploit.
2. Scatter-brained professor: This can be used to humorous effect, but you need to deepen your character further for a more interesting plot. Perhaps Doctor Puzzle is just pretending to be a shock-haired scientist but really has a deep dark secret.
3. The mistake-maker: A comic-relief character who needs to be more than just a clumsy or impish type. Perhaps he’s pretending to be a hare-brained idiot simply to divert attention from his true purpose.
4. Tomboy: The tomboy transformed is a common ploy. Resist the urge to use the old ‘Rags to Riches’ story. If a girl won’t conform to feminine societal standards, go with it. But you have to ask the question, why does she rebel against these standards? That’s the key to her character.
5. Jiminy Cricket: The character that acts as a conscience is very often seen in moral stories. It is used to contrast with the protagonist and offer useful advice to help extend the plotline. This may be an effective device in some instances, but you must handle it with care. Remember: Ceaselessly righteous characters are boring, and stories in which they have no real challenges fail to engage readers.
6. Dork: Geek, nerd, nimrod — been there, done that. The stereotypical braces and glasses are now used in almost every cartoon. You need to decide why you need this character. What makes a dork a dork? What makes him interesting? Maybe there's a subtle hint of malevolence or passion hidden within that could burst out over the course of the story.
Secondly, you need to check the names of each character. It is very common for an author to become familiar with a certain letter that they use for their names. Personally, my overused letter is “s” as in Serena, Simon and Skye. This is not good. If you have too many characters sharing the first initial, the reader may get confused as they get the names mixed up. I often find it useful to write down all of the names in a list so that you can easily check for repetition. If you need inspiration for alternate names, baby name websites such as www.babynames.co.uk have randomisation devices and name generators which can find a name based on meaning, origin or initial letter.
Thirdly, be realistic. Don’t try to make your protagonist your perfect ideal of morality, the person you should be like. Characters who always know what to do and what to say, who always do the right thing, are less appealing, because we are less likely to relate to them, to see our own imperfect selves reflected in them. A faultless character is a weak basis for a successful story. Adventures appeal to us because we sympathise with people who fail but can dust themselves off and try again. We can relate to that and that is what builds character. Allow for mistakes in your character’s opinions or views, because no one is perfect and everyone has a different opinion of a particular issue.
Finally, make a short biography of each character and keep this, with a description of the character’s appearance, to dodge irregularities in your work. Create extra background, such as where they are from, what event in their childhood spurred them to choose a particular job or hobby, or what their relationship with their family is. Even if you do not choose to add this into your writing, it will serve as useful in helping you to connect with your characters. A writer who fully understands each of their characters can create a more convincing storyline which the audience will be able to relate to. Simultaneously, you will be able to compare your character backgrounds and make sure there are no accidental similarities which may lead to confusion in the novel. Personally, I keep a small, green book filled with drawings and scribblings – information about my individual characters.