Who’s playing the lead? Developing your Characters

So far in the quest to write my new book, I’ve come up with an idea that I’m super excited to write about, and I’ve checked it out with some trusted friends who like my idea and have given me helpful feedback.

I’m itching to get writing the first scene. I can picture it in my head vividly – my protagonist waking from his cryogenic sleep inside his pod. It’s cold and dark. He panics, desperate to escape from the tight space he is trapped in. So I sit down to write but it doesn’t come easily, and I realise that in my haste to get started, I have missed an important step.

I’m planning to write this book in the third person, alternating between the points of view of my two main protagonists. My first book was written from a first person point of view, but I think this story needs a different approach. (Click here for a good discussion on what the different points of view are.)

The problem is, how can I write from my character’s point of view, if I don’t get to know them first? Right now my characters have no character. I need to think hard about what sort of people they are. There are a whole host of questions that need to be answered before I can hope to bring my characters to life on a page.

At this point, I remember that the novel template inside Scriviner (the writing tool I use) has template character sketches. I pull one up, and start to seriously think about who my main characters are, as I fill it in for both of my main protagonists. I work through the checklist that Scrivener provides, adding a few items of my own. If you are interested, here is the list I’ve used:

  • Name and/or nickname
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Occupation
  • Physical description (including dress sense)
  • Personality (flaws and strengths)
  • Talents or special abilities
  • Fears
  • Habits & Mannerisms
  • Interests and dislikes
  • Background/Back story
  • Internal conflicts
  • External conflicts

Leading on from this, I consider what the character arc (how my characters will grow and change) is going to be for each of my protagonists. I want them to learn, change and grow over the course of the book.

By the time I’ve made decisions on all these points, the characters are starting to feel quite real.  Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve thought about them from time to time: while I’m drying dishes, watching the kids swim; whenever I have mental space to think. My characters fill out in my mind. They feel like fully formed people – real people that I know.

Now I’m finally ready to give my characters a voice, but there is still more work to do before I can start writing – this time some scientific research. More on this in my next post.

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9 thoughts on “Who’s playing the lead? Developing your Characters

  1. This was a great post! My novel attempt failed for several reasons, not the least of which was underdeveloped characters. It’s on the back burner as I decide how best to revise it, and this is helpful. I’ve been considering purchasing Scrivener, and I think you’ve just convinced me – many thanks!

  2. Thanks for your comment Gwen. I would definitely recommend Scrivener. It’s only a small investment and as well as using it to actually write, it keeps all your material in one place – writing, research notes, plot outlines, character and location sketches, cover pages, synopsis, basically anything you want to store that is related to your book. Good luck with revising your novel 🙂

  3. Really good post and very true. You need to know your characters inside out – if they don’t feel real to the writer, how could they to the reader? Great site, by the way, I shall be visiting regularly 🙂

  4. Pingback: But why did they do that? [writing] « datanode.net

  5. I sometimes write the Character in the first person, to grow them and learn their voice. Then I will decide where to place the piece, and edit it into the context of the story. Sometimes it becomes a third person view of the first character, and often small points are left out, ready for the later explanation. It works for me, because I know the character, having written it fully from their point of view.

  6. That’s a helpful list, thanks, and now I’m thinking about hobbies. I always wonder what my characters are doing when I’m not there to watch.

    I also like two suggestions from Sol Stein (Stein on Writing):

    1) imagine your character in the nude

    2) imagine sitting down beside your character. How would that person react to you and what would you talk about?

    Another technique I tried was: log into a free matchmaking site and complete a profile for your character. The questions are quite probing and I was surprised at how much I learned.

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