Part four of my How to Write a Novel series, today’s post is all about characters! (Which, let’s be honest, is what you were waiting for anyway, right?) Here I’ll focus on a couple of things: names, physical descriptions, personalities, and some suggestions for things to stay away from. I’ll also mention some tropes involved with YA, which you can disregard for a lot of other genres, but might apply to your particular novel anyway.
Characters We Love – And Love To Hate
Let’s begin with this: you don’t have to like every character. Let me say that one again, you don’t have to like every character. And I know this will blow your mind, too, but you don’t even have to like your main character. Trippy, right? But I’m saying this, because a lot of the time you see these “happily ever after stories” that have all of these characters, none of which die, all of which are *mostly* likable, and in the end, they all get along/make amends/admit they were wrong/etc. (Twilight, I’m looking at you.) And at first you might be thinking, “Well, what’s wrong with that?”
Let me tell you, a lot.
First, let’s talk about why. Why can’t I have a bunch of BFF characters who all get along? Why does anyone have to die? Why, why, why?
If you have a villain, you have conflict. Without that villain you’re relying purely on the adventure or love story or whatever to pull the plot along. Which, okay, you can try, but there still has to be conflict. Otherwise, you just have “A Day In The Life Of Mary Sue” (if you don’t know what a Mary Sue is, Google it; they’re terrible). But here’s the thing. Most of us accept that we have to have a villain and that the villain shouldn’t be very likable, right? But what if I told you that it might be better if the villain was sort of likable in a tragic past, life has done terrible things to her/him, and now we feel sad for the poor thing? And what if I told you it might be better if there were qualities in the main character (Jill, our protagonist from a couple of posts ago?) that weren’t really appealing?
We have a tendency to want our good guys to be perfect when writing. Some of this has to do with self-fulfillment. I’ll never be perfect in real life, but my character can be. Some of this is just the need to see the good guys do good things and win in the end. Which is fine. But if you’re going to do that, I suggest a strong adventure story that focuses heavily on things like fighting monsters and slaying evil dragons and saving princesses. That way it can be expected, even though it’s very tropey. (But even then, be aware, that’s not what *most* people are looking for.) Also, you could try a HEA (happily ever after) romance where the love interest is perfect and is a wish fulfillment for most of the female audience reading it.
(I write these for a living, so I am very bored with that subject since I’m a ghostwriter. That being said, if you guys have some questions in that area, please feel free to ask and I’ll help out if I can!)
So, we mentioned sympathetic villains and not-quite-so-perfect protagonists (which is not necessarily the same as an anti-hero, but I’ll get to that later). How does this bring conflict?
It brings conflict because we as readers are torn. On the one hand, we know that the villain is the villain… but all of that tragedy! Some little part of us is rooting for them, if only to fulfill that lingering need for some kind of justice! Some kind of fairness! Some kind of right in the world! But the rest of us realizes that if the villain wins, the world ends. And that’s probably not very fair to everyone else.
See? Already there’s conflict.
But there’s more conflict to be had and I’m going to go back to my lovely Jill the Changeling character for an example.
Jill’s always been a loner – except for Adrian. He’s been her rock. Understanding and sweet even when she’s been a pain in the rear end. Even when she’s thrown her tantrums and exploded at him when it wasn’t his fault. If there were only two musketeers, they’d be it. And he is sort of cute… but Jill’s never felt that way about Adrian before. He tried to kiss her once and she actually spit out her punch at him. It had been a bad moment, but they’re okay now. They’re good. Then the other Jill shows up. Her human counterpart. All of a sudden, Jill realizes that Adrian may not have been the best friend she always thought he was. She sees him steal a kiss from her human self (the Other Jill, if you will) and has a terrible feeling. Especially when she hears them talking about killing someone – killing her. “I’m tired of pretending with her,” Adrian says. “Can’t we just kill her already? You have no idea how volatile and annoying that childish girl is!”
The above gives us a few different points of conflict and character revelation to deal with. 1) It offers us a glimpse of Jill, who apparently is somewhat moody/volatile, a loner, but ultimately when she forms a bond it is very intense. 2) The Other Jill has been to this world and already seduced Adrian. She’s enlisted him to kill Jill. 3) Adrian has been a spy for a *long* time. He has seemed perfect by Jill’s initial description – but it’s all been an act. So how much of that Adrian was there really? Was it *all* an act and if so, what about the time he tried to kiss Jill? Could it be that Adrian isn’t as perfect, but also isn’t as cold blooded as he seems?
All of this is helpful, because it leaves us in emotional turmoil about the characters. This creates internal conflict combining with situational conflict. The plot is moving along with its own issues and complexities, but we’re starting to get the *real* stuff here from the characters. That’s why having imperfect, conflicted characters is important.
Now that I’ve spent *forever* on conflict, let’s move on. I’ll semi-smoothly segue into character personalities.
So, there are a couple of ways to figure out character personalities. Working out which one is for you depends on what kind of writer you are and what kind of novel you’re writing, so I’ll give you a quick list here. If you’ve got another way that works out better than you, by all means use that. These are all just suggestions and helpful tips in the end.
- Decide what kind of characters your story needs. If you’re writing a story about dragon riders, then you probably need a dragon rider, right? But dragon riders are probably strong and brave, so decide if you need a character that fits that – or one who is the opposite of that, yet miraculously turns out to be the chosen one! I’ll give a Jill example:
Our story is about Faeries. So we need a Faerie, but our story is also at least partially set in the human world – so we need a human, too. We also want someone strong enough to survive this world and what happens in it. Jill is a Changling. This means she is a Faerie. But she’s been raised as a human. This tells us two things: She probably has some hereditary characteristics associated with Faeries – vanity, loftiness, flirtatiousness maybe? – but also some environmental characteristics which are from being raised as a human, possibly ones which conflict directly with the others. Strong work ethic, determination, kindness, empathy.
So now we have a list of characteristics that help us decide what kind of person she is. They still need to be fleshed out, but we can extrapolate from these that she’s stubborn, a little conceited, kind if a little distant, and empathetic – but probably not sympathetic. That gives us a lot to work with and tells us how she’s going to react in a lot of situations. We should keep this list in mind while writing, so that Jill doesn’t become a little “out of character” (OOC) as we go. She should behave according to the traits above – or there should be a very strong reason that she doesn’t.
- Focus on the details first, then expand. This one is about giving her little personal details – physical or otherwise – and deciding what sort of personality she has based on those details. Another Jill example below.
Butterfly shaped scar on her hip. Best friends with Adrian; doesn’t have other friends. Spends time daydreaming in a field of wildflowers. Hates swimming. Has detention on a regular basis. Her parents always fight. Daydreams about her life “really starting”. Works every summer at an ice cream shop – and hates it.
This one looks like a collection of random facts about our character. Which it is, but it can tell us about her personality, too, if we look through it. She doesn’t have any friends beyond Adrian – so she’s not a very sociable person. She spends a lot of time daydreaming – and waiting on life starting for real, meaning she feels entitled to more in her life rather than the small town she’s stuck in. Her parents fighting… That could cause a sense of distance for her, of loneliness maybe, or of anger and resentment. Could account for her “loftiness”? The detention suggests that she’s headstrong and butts heads with authority figures. And the working, well, that goes back to her work ethic, doesn’t it? Despite hating the job, she still does it. And she does it every summer, meaning they keep hiring her back. The scar? Maybe that hints to her Faerie heritage!
So you see, we got the same information in a very different way. We need to keep track of these details though so that when they come up again, we can use them correctly and effectively.
- Base on a real character… then make them fictional. This one is a little… iffy. A lot of times using a real person to create a fictional one is a great idea. It gives your character depth that you might not have achieved otherwise. That being said, be careful with this. Not everyone wants a starting role in your novel, best selling or not. Which is why I say if you’re going to do this, use the “real” person as a base, then change him/her to suit your story – and keep her/him from resembling the real person too closely. My example:
Real Person: five foot nothing, reddish brown hair, freckles, a little plump. Mother of three. She’s whimsical, selfish, and flighty. But she laughs often and is never afraid to try something new.
Fictional Person: five foot nothing with red hair and pale skin. A ton of freckles. She’s curvy and a little self-conscious of her weight, but doesn’t let it weigh her down. She studied poetry in college, but when the time came to settle down after she got pregnant with her first and only child, she took that secretary job and put aside childish things. She still laughs, but quietly, and she still daydreams about all of the exciting things she’d been planning on doing, but never got around to.
In the above example, we took a few characteristics of the real person and shifted them to suit our needs. Now the fictional person above seems like a realistic fit for Jill’s mother – and only resembles the real person a little bit. (This is a very basic example. You can use events, family history, etc. of the real person. Just make sure you change and shift everything enough to where you’ve got an original character, not a real one.)
- Figure out what’s happened in their life and how this has shaped them. This one uses events to shape how a character has developed as a means of figuring out their personality from those events. (This is a lot like the details example.) A Jill example:
When Jill was only six, she found a “faerie ring” which was actually just a bunch of rocks set out in a pretty circle. When she stepped over it, she fainted. When she woke up, the world seemed different. She saw a young boy staring down at her and he asked, “Are you okay?” His name was Adrian.
At twelve, Jill was hit by a car. She was crossing the street; the driver was drunk. He swerved, but the car rolled. It rolled right on top of Jill. When the ambulance got there, she looked so bad that they were sure she was going to die. She didn’t.
At fourteen, Adrian asked Jill to go to the dance with him. She thought as friends, but they dressed up anyway. Adrian tried to kiss her then and she almost spit punch out on him. Because she didn’t do “romance” and definitely not with him.
At fifteen, she got permission to work part time at an ice cream parlor. She hated it, but forced herself to smile at the customers and tell them to come again. She hated the little kids running around all over the place and didn’t appreciate the stares from the older guys she always got. She knew she was good looking, but did they have to stare like dogs?
Obviously this exercise was, by nature, a little more detailed than the others. But if you sift through what you have here, you’ve basically come to the same conclusion. Here we see that she has a strong work ethic, even if she doesn’t like her job. She isn’t into romance, but she still dresses up (vanity) and still strung Adrian along in some capacity (flirtatious). She knows that people look at her, knows that she’s something to look at, but doesn’t like it (distance from her peers). So we still get an idea of what kind of personality Jill has, but we also get some background info on her, too, which is why I really enjoy this exercise.
I *will* add that you should also just keep a list of her characteristics to help yourself out. All of these exercises are useful, but if you still aren’t sure what they mean, go ahead and spell it out for yourself and reference them later.
I don’t know about you, but for some reasons names get me stuck. Maybe it’s only me, but if I haven’t named a character, I can’t get very far in the writing process. How can I when my MC doesn’t have anything to be called by – other than MC? What if Jill wasn’t Jill? She was just MC. Not very appealing, right?
So a lot of times instead of writing, I end up spending *hours* looking at names and trying to find one that a) I like and b) suits my character. So I’m going to list a few quick points on this before moving to the next topic.
- Pick names you like – or you don’t like.
If you pick names that *you* like, you’re more likely to like your character. And you’re more likely to pick your name. But the opposite is mostly true if you don’t like your character. If the villain of my story is the evil queen of Faerie and I *hate* the name Elizabeth, then I could name my evil queen Elizabeth and be pretty confident than I’m not going to like her. (An example only; I actually don’t have a problem with the name Elizabeth.) But if I’m simply fascinated with the name Laura and I name the queen that, it sort of ruins the name for me OR makes me really like my villain! So liking (and not liking) the names you pick is important.
- Don’t worry so much on meaning unless you have a lot of symbolism in your story already.
Here’s the one a lot of people get stuck on. “But she’s a werewolf! She should have a name meaning wolf!” Okay, I understand where you’re going with this, but… it’s not necessarily true. Unless your character was born as a werewolf, raised by other werewolves, in a society that names based on symbolism – this is sort of moot point. (And even then, wouldn’t everyone have a name meaning wolf then?) Why? Because your character likely started as a normal human girl. If you’re making a big deal about destiny or irony (Kitty and the Midnight Hour folks!), then you can use a “wolf” name. But otherwise just pick a name you like. Because most of the time our names don’t “fit” us when we’re born, because we have no real personality when we’re named. The meaning comes after the fact.
- You can change names later – but it’s hard.
You should stick with your initial pick. HOWEVER, if it just really doesn’t feel right, you can change it. Just be sure you remember the change, like it, and don’t do it a lot. If I don’t think Jill really fits and I’d rather have Julianna, that’s fine. But I shouldn’t skip between Julianna, Jill, Jillian, Morgan, Mathilda, and Amanda. Why? Because it gets confusing and you start associating ALL those names with this one MC making them hard to use for later characters. So try to pick something you like the first time around.
- Make a list – mark what you’ve used.
Go through and just write down (or type up) lists of names you really like. Separate them by gender, include meanings if you’d like. That way, when you need to name a character, you can just go through the lists instead of looking through baby books and the internet for just *one* name. (You can do this for last names, too.) Just be sure that when you actually use a name for a character, you mark it as used that way you don’t have duplicate characters in your stories. (Sounds unlikely, but you’d be surprised…)
- Don’t worry about what other people are doing.
If everyone’s using bizarre, unusual names, but you really love classic names – use classic names. If everyone’s got boys names for girls names, but you hate it, then don’t do it. If everyone’s doing the nickname thing, but you just like longer, more elegant names, do that instead. Because all of this is cyclical and what’s popular now won’t last forever. You’re book may fit more with the names of next year than this year and that’s okay. You’re book will be around longer than these trends.
There are some key descriptions that you usually want to have handy: Hair color/length/quality (soft/coarse/curly/straight), eye color (maybe size/shape/eyelashes), height (average/tall/short), and body shape (petite/curvy/heavyset/willowy).Those are the main identifiers that will tells us what your character looks like in relation to other characters. That being said, you might also include things like “she has a scar through her left eyebrow” or “she has three piercings on her face and a tattoo that runs the length of her back” or even just “her boobs were flat as paper but her booty couldn’t seem to fit into anything”. You don’t need any of these (not even the key descriptions listed above), but they’re helpful and unless there’s a specific reason you’re avoiding describing your characters, you should know what they look like – and tell us at some point, too.
*Do us a favor, don’t make them all look the same. And unless your story is set in Iceland, Australia, or California, please don’t make them all blonde. Seriously, natural blondes account for approximately 2% of the population of the world. And it gets annoying when *all* the characters look like beach bunnies.
(I’m going to quick mention race here: If it’s important, mention it, but mention it for *everyone*. If it’s not, let your reader come to their own conclusions. If the culture is a big deal for your story – say they’re from China and you want them to interact in America for the first time; they’re culture is then rather important for how they might behave. BUT if this is a Fantasy novel where characters have darker skin but are from the plant Piersollei, then they really don’t have the same cultures *we* do which means you have creative freedom. Just be sure that you are respectful and culturally aware when applicable. Try to avoid stereotypes unless you are making social commentary on them, because we are not as individuals necessarily indicative of the stereotype.)
What to stay away from.
I’m sure that at some point you’ve been reading a story and just thought, “Hm, that character is *so* [fill in the blank]”. You ended up just hating them and they sort of ruined the story for you. Why is that? Well, it might be for one of the reasons below – which is a good indication that you should *not do these things*.
In a word, Perfect. Seriously. A Mary-Sue character was originally used for FanFiction. The Original Characters created by the writer would be perfect in every way and loved by everyone – and hated and desired by the villain both, seriously. They would never do anything wrong, never be wrong, and even if they somehow were, that wrongness was actually condoned by everyone else. Really. This character is perfect, but also humble, maybe a little self-depreciating “Oh, I’m not beautiful (even though all the boys want me)!”. (Bella from Twilight is actually a really good example – all the boys want her, even though she’s Plain Jane; she’s super special omg mega powers; she never does anything to make anyone dislike her – and when she does mess up, they forgive her almost instantly.) This character is the most obnoxious character anyone can stumble upon. Because they aren’t realistic. No one’s really perfect and having flawed characters makes for a more interesting novel and a better overall experience. (The Gary-Stu is simply the male counterpart for this.)
You’re characters should evolve, change, become something else (better or worse) as a result of the things that have happened in their life. EX: Jill never thought she needed anyone – until she realized that Adrian was only playing her all along. Now Jill can’t deny the loneliness. She has to cave and admit that she needs help. She can’t do this alone. Originally, Jill is supposed to be self-sufficient, a loner type, but circumstances make her see the “error of her ways” or at least that she can’t do this as one woman against the Faerie world. This means her personality has changed as a result of the story. That’s a good thing. Let’s do more of that.
He’s from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s dangerous. He’s slept with every girl in town – except your MC. She’s holding out, but falling for him, too. What’s more, he’s falling for her! Now he’s reforming, because all he needed was the right woman. Your MC. <– Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s because it’s every Bad Boy romance out there and it’s *annoying*. Stop recycling the same plots and characters. Get creative. Have her fall for the Bad Boy and have him *think* she’s the one – but he can’t reform. He still cheats on her. She realizes he’ll never be what she needs. She falls in love with her best friend instead. But the Bad Boy is furious and stalks her. Obsesses over her. Tries to kill her. Her best friend saves her life and the Bad Boy goes to a mental institution. See? Much more interesting. And less predictable.
Why was that character there? If you don’t know, he/she shouldn’t be there. Ever. If they don’t bring anything to the story, take them out. I’m not saying every character should have a purpose, but if you put in that girl in the pink pinstriped socks who loves bubblegum and candy colored hair, wears bright green lipstick and puts rhinestones on her eyelids and ALL SHE DOES is pop her bubble gum and say “hi” once in the entire novel, you should probably take her out – or make her less noticeable. Unless she’s going to be important in book two. Why? Because she’s so noticeable and we spend so much time on her descriptor that it’s distracting. We keep expecting her to come back. So make her important, or tone her down a little – or make her the norm. *Everyone* wears green lipstick. Everyone loves bubblegum. Whatever. Just make sure that she serves a purpose.
As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into creating a character, but it’s worth a little effort. Make them interesting. Make us love them. Make us hate them. Just make sure we’re feeling something, because if we’re not, then what’s the point?
Thanks for checking in to my How To series! I hope you guys enjoyed and will stick around next time for (drumroll please) The Outline of Doom! It’ll finally focus on outlining, which is probably not what you’re looking forward to, but has always been the most helpful part of the process!
As always, if you have any comments or tips to share, feel free to post them below! If you guys have questions, I’ll do my best to answer them.