Developing characters for fiction writing by Vanessa Grossett

Your characters for fiction writing are the people who make the book and who your audience gets to know, especially the main ones. Yet they can cause frustration to many authors, even the most professional ones. 

An author recently informed me of the trouble she was having with her characters: “I just don’t know these characters, I can’t relate to them at all,” is how she put it. If you as the author cannot relate to your characters, then your audience will be unable too as well, and this can affect your writing. 

Unlike with screen or theatre writing, you have to describe your characters from head to toe. Writers for screen or theatre don’t have to do that, since actors/actresses will play out the characters for them. 

You, as the novel writer, have to place yourself as that character, and be both actor and actress to make them believable in the book. You have to feel and imagine how they would talk, walk, what they look like, their personality…

When describing a character, just writing ‘He has short hair’ is not descriptive enough. What colour is his hair? What is the texture? Is it short, or is he almost bald? And guess what? You have to do this for every single character in the story to illustrate to the reader who they are, especially the protagonists. Swapping and changing from one imaginary person to the other can be difficult, and if you are not ‘feeling’ the characters, it can make it more difficult and frustrating. But you need to get it right, so what do you do?

Now that you have a synopsis of the story (for example, what the story is about and a little bit about each character), before you start writing it would be helpful to make a list of each character in the story, starting with the main ones. 

One by one describe each character, sometimes visualising a particular actor or actress, or imagining one playing that character can help – not your favourite actors, but ones you believe are like your character –

 and, if your book was made into a movie or television series, the person you could imagine playing that character.

Write down the important questions – ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘Where?’, ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ – for each character. For example, where were they born? How old are they?  What do they look like? Describe eye colour, hair, complexion, etc. What are their likes and dislikes? What significance do they have in the story?  

If the character is from another culture and background from yourself, it is very important to study that culture and background. Do as much research as you can, so you get the character right. If they speak another language, it is important that some of that language goes into the book, so you don’t remove their culture from them. 

Publishers are more receptive to accepting characters from different cultures and backgrounds nowadays, especially since the anti-racism movement. 

You will be pleased to know that, for characters with a smaller presence in the story, you don’t have to go into so much detail; for example, ‘The shopkeeper gave the coins to Esther’. If the shopkeeper isn’t going to be in the story much, then you don’t have to go into extensive detail about the shopkeeper. If you want to make it more descriptive than ‘shopkeeper’, you could write ‘The woman behind the counter gave the coins to Esther’.

Once you get the characters, the story will be fun to write, and you will find that the chapters will flow together more easily. I hope you will find these tips helpful. Keep calm, don’t get frustrated, take a break if you need to, and the characters will come to you. 

Happy writing. 

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