Building Characters

Someone once told me that there are two types of stories, plot driven stories and character driven ones. Although I can easily see where he was coming from I don’t think I agree. I mean generally you will find that this is true, however what good is a plot driven story without decent characters to take the wheel.

So this week I’ve been completing a detailed chapter plan for a novel I am writing. The details and bones of the story have been circling my head for a while now so it was about time I set it down in writing. My two main characters are mostly fully formed at this point but not completely rounded, this is because my supporting characters are underdeveloped.

So today begins my moulding of my novel’s supporting cast. Too many times I have read novels where the background characters are so far in the background that I can barely make them out. How can you write characters that are so integral to the plot and yet have no substance?

The best example of a well thought out cast is the Harry Potter series. I bet if you asked J.K. Rowling a question about any one of her characters, big or small, she could answer them in detail (or maybe this is me being presumptuous or hopeful!). So this what I endeavour to do. I don’t want to just be able to tell you the colour of their hair and if they get angry easily, I want characters to truly have a life of their own.

One of the most basic things I start with is their name. Regardless of what Shakespeare writes I believe that there is so much in a name. It took me two weeks once to choose a name…seriously…two full weeks. Yes this may seem a little over the top (God help me when I have to name a child) but what can I say I like to be thorough. A name has to fit perfectly, I once wrote a short story where my main character was simply ??? until about 3/4 of the way through when suddenly I heard the perfect name on TV (true story!).

Of course I do also need to decide on hair colour! And everything else that goes with it, from race to whether they wear glasses to what kind of clothes they wear. I like to draw so sometimes I’ll make little sketches to aid me but by the end I want to be able to completely visualise them.

An important aspect of this creating process is to build a back story. Who they were before we met them. What made them who they are. Maybe they were adopted, had a cat, once fell off a swing. Anything that may have contributed to their personality.

This stage will take a while but I don’t like to introduce a character until I know them personally, until they are real. This can sometimes delay my writing of the actual novel but I think its such an important part of forming my story.

So this is how I build my characters and why. Hope you enjoyed this post! Now its time for me to get back to my notebook…

‘When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.’
– Ernest Hemingway


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