Today we’re talking about creating characters, but first I just want to remind you that you can get the first 3 chapters of my novel, The Fair Queen, by clicking here.
With that shameless plug done, let’s take a look at the basic principles of creating characters for your stories.
What is their role?
This is usually a good place to start, your characters all need to serve the story, or you’ll just end up deleting them or merging them with another character later. Roles include:
Your leading lady/man/person/creature, etc. (I write fantasy, my MC could be literally anyone or thing.)
Examples: Harry Potter, Bilbo/Frodo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen.
The evil baddie. (This can also be a thing, an illness, a multinational corporation, or your protag might even be their own worst enemy!)
Examples: Voldemort, Sauron, President Snow.
Your main character’s best buddy/loyal pet/apprentice…
Examples: Ron Weasley/Hermione Granger, Samwise Gamgee, Gale Hawthorne.
A teacher or parent – someone older and wiser than your MC who imparts knowledge.
Examples: Dumbledore, Gandalf, Haymitch Abernathy/Effie Trinket.
Not every book has a romantic element, but there is often a love interest, whether or not they actually end up together. We fangirls do love a good ship!
Examples: Cho Chang/Ginny Weasley, Peeta Mellark.
Those are your five basic character types, you can pick and choose from them and dress them up any way you like, but most stories will have at least two or three of these, as well as a cast of minor supporting characters.
What is their name?
Some people do this last – even going so far as to call a character ‘X’ throughout their first draft because they haven’t chosen a name yet – but I like to do it first. Names are really important to me, the books I grew up with and loved almost all had characters with meaningful names, for example, every single name in Harry Potter was meticulously researched by J.K. Rowling, and chosen to fit the character’s personality, back story or future purpose.
Check out baby name websites and scroll through until you see something you like, they’ll often have a few ‘similar names’ or ‘names people also liked’, so even if it’s not the one it might help you find it.
Personally, I google ‘names meaning xyz‘ and trawl through the lists of names from various nationalities and cultures that mean what I want it to mean.
For The Fair Queen, most of the names are traditional, old-fashioned British names, because that’s the vibe I was going for with the whole fictional world I created. I did the same with place names, googling the meanings of words and their roots, and putting them together to create new place names that accurately describe the terrain or location. It’s just a fun little easter egg for anyone who takes an interest in that kind of thing, whilst really adding to the authenticity of the book (I hope).
What motivates them?
Now that you’ve given your character a purpose and a name, you need to decide what is driving them to commit the acts that they do in your story.
- Is it love? Ambition? Jealousy? Greed? Fear?
- Do they want to be rich? Famous? Happy? Successful? In a relationship? Single?
- Are they seeking vengeance? Justice? Approval?
Every single one of your characters needs a clear motivation (at least, it should be clear by the end of the book). It will not only make their actions more credible for readers, but also give you, the writer, a context for your characters’ reactions. When something happens in your story, you’ll be able to look at your character’s list of motivations (yes, they can have more than one) and know that he would get mad in this situation, or she would go very quiet rather than shouting and screaming. He would beg for his life, or she would die for what she believes in. You get the idea.
You want the characters’ behaviour in the book to be believable, but not boring or predictable. Don’t worry, you can still surprise your readers occasionally! For example, fear makes people do unpredictable things at times.
Also, don’t be afraid to let your characters learn from their experiences throughout the book, and change their reactions accordingly. The aim is to show their personal growth and development in a gradual, natural manner that will satisfy your readers.
What are their vices & virtues?
Your characters need positive attributes to help your readers root for them, but if they’re too perfect you risk annoying readers. Pick a few positive traits (their appearance doesn’t count here), and then counterbalance them with a handful of flaws, to make your characters appear human, fallible, and relatable.
Your MC might be confident and quick-witted, but clumsy and stubborn. He could be physically weak and bear a grudge, but incredibly talented musically. She might be an animal lover (always a positive, who doesn’t love an adorable puppy?), but she smokes and bites her nails. He might be vain and superficial, but is great with kids and has a big heart.
Pinch ideas from people you know, or books and TV shows you love. Is your mum a great cook, but eats by scraping her food off her fork with her teeth? Does your best friend always know exactly what to say when you’re feeling down, but has the absolute worst taste in men/women? Don’t plagiarise your friends and family completely, chances are they’ll recognise themselves when they read your book and probably won’t appreciate you telling the world about their quirks and weird habits.
Using your characters to further the plot
Just like you used your character’s role in the story and personal motivations to help develop your plot, you should also use their vices and virtues.
The best piece of advice I’ve seen online was that your characters should have two conflicting aims or desires – one that helps them towards their goal, and one that holds them back. The essence of any good story is conflict, without it your book will be lifeless and dull, but it’s really easy to inject a little conflict into every chapter. It doesn’t have to be major, you should have your main conflict that builds throughout the book and climaxes towards the end, but each scene or chapter should have either a small, unrelated conflict, or a new revelation about the big one.
For example, in The Fair Queen, Aria dreams of getting out of her small town and finding adventure in the big wide world, but she loves her parents, her dogs and her best friend and doesn’t want to leave them. In some ways, she’s afraid to try in case she fails, she wasn’t the best at school and thinks she’s never going to make anything more of her life. She discovers that she’s the daughter of a fairy king, destined to be queen, and she struggles to reconcile the life she’s always known with the life she’s only just discovering.
She’s impulsive and reckless (teenagers, eh), but when she realises that the Fair people need her, that there is a prophecy that says she will end the war and bring peace to the realm, she starts to feel a sense of duty and moral obligation, and more importantly she wants to do whatever she can to help.
There’s a lot of debate about whether the best stories are plot or character driven, but both are essential to creating a really great book. It’s up to you which will really drive your story. You should put as much time and effort into crafting your characters as you do your plot outline. Give your characters agency, don’t just let them be dragged along by the story without really affecting events.
What are your suggestions for creating three dimensional characters that readers will relate to? Who are you favourite fictional characters, and why? Tell me in the comments!
The Shadow Queen by C.J. Redwine
I plan to finish this by next weekend when we jet off to Turkey for a well deserved holiday. I want to take three books away, but I haven’t decided which yet, I’m thinking Wintersong, Prince of Thorns and The Diabolic.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I haven’t started this yet, but I finished And I Darken the other day (review coming soon). I’ll start this week and probably finish whilst I’m away. I’ve also got Nevernight in my Audible library, so that’s what I’ll be listening to next.
Current word count: 44,761
Looking forward to Camp Nano starting tomorrow! Hoping to write 35k words in April and finish draft two.