Creating believable characters is one of the most exciting and rewarding elements of being a writer. To write great characters you must know them as well as you know yourself. In her excellent book, From Pitch to Publication, agent Carole Blake says ‘To make the reader care for your characters and storyline, you must certainly care for them.’ And she’s right.
So by now you have your general idea and your setting – next you need to create authentic and compelling characters. How? Read on.
Your characters must be three dimensional, and you, their creator must understand them and their motives for doing things, their passions, their fears, their dreams. Ponder real people’s motives. Why does your friend excuse her ex husband for regularly forgetting to ring his young daughter? Why does your sister think her husband is having an affair? Question why people do things all the time, make the world your laboratory.
Before you begin writing chapter one, here are some practical tips that might work for you if you’re starting out.
- Get your notebook out and write character sketches for each of your main characters.
- Start off by giving them names. Choose these carefully. Try the phone book or a baby names book for ideas if your mind goes blank, but remember, the name must suit the character.
- Make the names interesting and memorable. No Mary or Jane Smiths please, unless you are making a point (maybe you want your character to feel anonymous – with apologies to any Marys or Janes out there!). Ensure they all have different initials (to avoid confusing your reader)
Here are the names I chose for one of my books, The Shoestring Club. I came up with the central theme first – two sisters who run a second-hand designer shop, one sister going through some pretty awful things – losing her best friend, breaking up with her boyfriend, losing her job; then I fixed on the setting, the second-hand designer clothes shop (Shoestring) in Monkstown, County Dublin, and the girls’ house in Dalkey.
Here are the main characters:
Julia Schuster (Jules, or Boolie) – she’s artistic and can be difficult
Pandora Schuster (never shortened) – she’s loyal and stubborn
Bird Schuster (their 70 year old granny) – strong and a little crazy
Arietty Pilgrim (their zoo keeper friend) – regal, clever, different
Lainey Anderson (Julia’s ex-best friend) – traditional dresser, but would like to be as quirky as Jules
Iris Schuster (Pandora’s 8 year old daughter) – sweet and bright
Remember – pick strong, memorable names that suit the character.
For more on naming characters in children’s books see here
Once you have the names pinned down, build up a detailed character sketch or biography for each main character. You need to know everything. For example:
- Their age and birthday (so few books have birthdays in them – I don’t think most writers think of giving their characters an actual birth date!).
- What type of person are they?
- Their height, hair colour, eye colour, size.
- Can they dance, play any instrument, sing?
- Do they have parents, siblings, friends?
- What are their hopes, dreams, passions, disappointments?
- Do they have a dream job?
- Did they attend college/university?
- What did they study?
- What do they read, watch, listen to?
Here’s another tip: if you are finding it difficult to form a strong picture of what your character looks like, make her/him look like a real person but make modifications to suit. Give her/him the girl in the video shop’s curly hair, the milkman’s nose, the librarian’s smile. I wouldn’t suggest using friends or family for obvious reasons. Magazines are excellent for inspiration. If you see someone in the magazine you like the look of, tear the page out and keep the picture beside your character’s biography.
Continuity is another reason for keeping detailed character sketches (and this is vital if you are thinking of writing a series – this is called your ‘Character Bible’). You don’t want your character’s eyes changing colour half way through the book; by keeping detailed physical notes, you can check back and get it right every time. Your editor will love you for it.
Don’t have too many main characters. More than six and it gets confusing for the reader and for you.
And remember, your characters must be memorable. Make them BIG, larger than life. Make them feel things deeply. Don’t be afraid of making them too big, you can always tone them down at the editing stage.
In the Ask Amy Green books (age 10+), I have a character called Clover Wildgust. She’s brave, strong and completely wild; she has long white blonde hair and thinks more in terms of costume than fashion. She has a musician boyfriend, Brains, and she works in a teen magazine as the agony aunt. She’s a HUGE character and she’s also most of my readers’ favourite character. They identify with Amy but they want to be Clover.
Here’s what Cecilia Ahern has to say about character: “Listen to what your characters are telling you. If you’re becoming bored with your story and are rushing by one part to get to another, then that means the reader will feel exactly the same. This means you’re heading in the wrong direction in the book, you’re taking the characters to a place that they don’t want to go to. This is when you need to listen to your characters, I find that even though I’m trying to steer a story in one direction, the character is dragging me in another. When you listen to your characters it helps you stay away from going down the predictable route and you want to have your readers hanging on until the very last minute.”
More tips from Cecila can be found here.
Find out about Sarah’s latest book for adults The Memory Box here.
(c) Sarah Webb
About The Memory Box
Pandora Schuster is about to turn thirty but that’s the least of her worries. She’s just been tested for a hereditary family illness and, expecting the worst, she’s desperate for her ex-boyfriend and father of nine-year-old Iris to be a part of her daughter’s life. But there are two major problems: Olivier Huppert lives in Paris and he has no idea that Iris even exists.
Pick up your copy of The Memory Box in bookshops or online here!