A Writer’s Life: Building Your Characters

Greetings fellow bloggers/readers/writers… whoever you are, welcome!

I just did a post on Tips for Aspiring Authors and I wrote a section about creating believable characters. I wanted to expand on that a little more so I decided another blog post was in order. I also wanted to give you the character profile template that I use – which was complied of various ones I’ve found on the internet. There are so many out there – keep looking because you might find one that better suits your story! But basically this is just a quick and easy go-to document that you can use yourself as a way to start leaning about your characters. It’s at a link at the bottom, so keep scrolling!

While having an interesting and compelling plot is important, that ain’t gonna mean squat to your readers unless they identify/like/root for/hate some – if not all – of your characters. Speaking on a personal level, if I don’t connect with at least one character in a book I’m reading then I lose interest very quickly. The same goes for movies/tv shows!

So how do you go about making your characters interesting?

Make them real, of course! And make them varied. No one is going to relate to a cardboard cut-out little-miss perfect… because, chances are, if you did meet someone like that in real life, there is a reason she is like that. She would probably have some interesting stories to tell about her life, aka her…

Backstory

Your character shouldn’t just *BOOM* appear into existence. The key is to make your character as real as you and me. The first full-length novel I ever wrote was contemporary and had three characters: my lead, Peter and his two sidekicks, Johnny and Katie. I wrote this book on and off for so long that they actually feel like real people to me.

I created a playlist for this novel and sometimes I play it in the car while I’m driving. When I do, I actually feel like they’re in the car with me. Peter would be in the front, of course, because he’s quiet and a little more serious than the other two. He prefers watching where we’re going and engaging in conversation with me, the driver. Johnny and Katie – however – would relish being in the back. Katie would be working, most likely, and Johnny would be doing his best to be the biggest distraction known to man. They would be bickering. Peter and I would be watching them from the mirrors up front and sharing knowing smiles at the adorableness of our friends in the back.

I sound crazy, but that’s okay.

In fact, that’s what you want! I don’t care if people think I’m crazy that I almost actually sense their presence when this happens. I swear I can almost see them. Feel them. And I miss them when this happens because it’s been so long since I’ve written this book that they feel like old friends I haven’t seen for a decade.

If you’re starting to sound crazy like me, you’re on the right track.

At least, in my opinion.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should spend years and years developing these characters. Research is important for every book, but you don’t want to get caught up in the research phase for too long. Otherwise, you’ll never finish the book.

The ‘But Why’ Method

This is something I touched on in the previous blog post and I just wanted to drop another note about it here as a reminder. The ‘But Why’ Method basically means that you should never just accept things as they are when it comes to a character’s personality. We, as real human beings, have reasons for every single thing we do.

I commissioned my best friend Ash to draw the characters of my book Relic a few years back. I was still writing and planning the book series. Ash is a writer himself and a very intelligent person. He sees the world differently to your average person. For each drawing, he would ask me to explain a little bit about the character because that would help him understand how to draw them accurately.

We started with Kaylan and I said something about her personality and immediately Ash went ‘But why?’ and I froze. Why did Kaylan do this thing that I just casually threw out there? With each new character, and each new trait, he would ask the same question. It got me thinking. And now it comes instinctively when I am creating my characters.

Why do they do that? Why do they sleep on the right side of the bed? Why are they defensive with the opposite sex? Why do sunsets make them cry? Again, you don’t want to go too deep but if you’ve decided it’s important enough to include in the plot of your story, there should be a reason for it. You want the backstory for it and you don’t want to include it just willy-nilly.

Just dropping a note here to say that if you sign up to my newsletter, you’ll get early access to information about my upcoming YA fantasy novel Riven (plus the whole series), exclusive giveaways and more!

I’d Like One Serving of Consistency, Please

Your characters should change and develop over the course of your novel, I don’t actually need to tell you that, but mate please don’t forget – make them consistent! If at the start of the book they don’t trust men but by the end of it they learn to let go and open up… great. We don’t want them to be necessarily consistent, in this regard.

But everything else? You should know exactly how each of your characters would react to a particular situation. Like that example I put above about Peter, Katie and Johnny in the car? I know how each of them would react to just… being in a car.

Time for a Hot Date

Treat each character like you’re on a hot date with them. Unless it’s a child character, then maybe act like you’re the babysitter or the teacher…

It’s time to get to know them. To learn what makes them tick. And don’t make them perfect! Can you honestly think of a single person in your life that isn’t a little bit annoying? That hasn’t failed at something? That hasn’t made a mistake – or twelve? That hates something you love? I personally love when a character has an annoying little habit that makes me cringe.

You’re on a date with them, remember. So open your eyes and ears and learn. Otherwise, you might end up like that girl in Friends who went on a date with Joey and couldn’t see the clear indications that he doesn’t like people taking food off his plate.

But that’s a character flaw of hers, right? She’s clearly not observant. Aka she’s a real person. I found her super annoying, by the way, what a dingus.

Supporting Cast

Protagonist – tick. Antagonist – tick. Full and wild supporting cast – tick. Don’t forget to make your supporting cast just as interesting! I usually find the side characters way more interesting than the main character. I think this is because sometimes the main character is made to be a cardboard cut-out, a pair of pants you can put on to experience the story, so making that character accessible to many people is beneficial, right?

But then you have your wild, wacky characters on the side that often end up being the fan favourites. Look at Harry Potter, for instance. Harry is probably my least favourite. Don’t get me wrong, I still love him. But look how quirky Hermione and Ron and the twins and Hagrid look when standing next to him? Sure, you can chalk it up to the trauma he’s experienced and his upbringing of being suppressed but Harry is the pair of pants you are putting on, and it’s easier to do that when he’s easier to relate to, when he’s a little more generic.

Your side characters have to be there for a reason, of course. Think of your real friends – you probably keep them around for a reason, right? In a story you need to go deeper than that, they should have another purpose than just making you feel good or being a loyal friend. Their reason for being in the story. They should help the protagonist achieve their goal in some way.

For example, Hermione is the bookworm who saves their butts on more than one occasion with her intellect. Even the twins play their role – for instance in the third book when they give Harry the Marauders Map, which affects the rest of the plot of book three. Sure, Harry could have come about it on his own, but this is way more believable. Of course the twins would snag it from Filch’s office and use it to sneak around. Typical.

Making your supporting characters different won’t just keep it interesting for your readers, it will challenge your protagonist. By surrounding them with people who think and feel and act differently to them, it will ensure your plot becomes less predicable and more interesting.

Essential Ingredients

Your protagonist must have flaws, interests and an arc. It’s as simple as that. Even if the character’s arc is that they don’t change over the course of the book, that’s still an arc.

Then there’s your antagonist. I’m a big fan of living in the grey when it comes to my antagonists. I don’t often like the whole black and white he’s evil and she’s the hero approach. Your antagonists should have their own sense of morality. It might be a completely warped sense of morality but if the villain is going to that much trouble to be a problem to your protagonist, they’re going to have their reasons. Make sure your antagonist also has an in-depth character profile.

A Start: The Character Profile

This is a good place to start – for me, at least! Fill out this character profile – try not to miss a single section. You can definitely go way deeper and I sometimes do myself. I sometimes write a more in-depth timeline for certain characters, pinpointing the ‘big’ moments of their life. It helps me get a more rounded look at their life and at who they are – and how they got here, aka to the start of your story.

I also create a folder on Pintrest for each character. I like to choose actors that might be suited to play the role if it was ever made into a movie – this helps me visualize them while writing. Create a folder for each character with facial features, actors, hair, clothing style, the house they might live in, colours that remind you of them, etc.

Enjoy and good luck!

~ Bronwyn xo

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