The A to Z of how to develop characters in novels

How to create characters in novelsHere’s a complete A to Z account of characterization. We bring to you what goes into building and crafting memorable characters for your novel, short stories. Learn what “flesh them out,” actually means.

There is a writer behind every character

Whether the character is on-screen or is the one who comes alive in your mind as you process words, all characters are crafted by writers. Here’s a task: quickly name the first character that comes to your mind. The name can be from anywhere – books or movies or from a play. Can you visualize the person? So who was it?

Even as I write this I am thinking of vodka martini shaken, not stirred.

What makes a character memorable and stay on in our minds long after we’ve closed the last page of the book (or put the DVD back in its cover)? Characters are crafted down to their everyday quirk. Writers choose their appearance, clothing, their body-language, their attitudes, the accents etc (Read the A, B Cs below). And, richer the detailing, more memorable is the character.

Flat and Round Characters

Most books on writing craft will talk about flat characters and round characters. Jane Burroway in her book, “Writing Fiction” makes the distinction. She says, “A flat character is one who has only one distinctive characteristic, exists only to exhibit that characteristic, and is incapable of varying from that characteristic. A round character is many faceted and is capable of change.”

Flat characters would typically be your regular comic characters. You would expect Garfield, Dilbert or Calvin to behave in the same sarcastic-humorous, slapstick-humorous fashion witty-humorous fashion. And, that is a good thing. As a reader you know what to expect every time (not the punch line, the feeling) and honestly that’s why you are a fan.  The “this-is-what-you-get-always” is mainly because these characters find themselves (only) in similar situations – a comic quandary that gets them to display their funny side.

Round characters are main characters in stories (whatever the form: novel, short story etc). They change according to the situation and the plot.

The reason why I argue that round characters are normally main characters is because the ancillary characters such as the watchman or milkman or adulterous spouse display only one dimension of their character. As a writer you are not entirely expected to penetrate their inner worlds. Their deeds affect the main character and ‘rounds’ his/her personality.  Take the instance of Sholay (of course!). Gabbar Singh is a flat character. He displays only his evil side through and through. But, Jai, Veeru and Basanti display their many sides, transitioning from playful to serious to murderous as the plot unfolds.

How you can shape characters in your novel

It might make sense to brainstorm and sit with thoughts, paper and pen and make a list about your top characters. Take into account the A,B,Cs (as below) and jot down what comes to your mind. This also helps maintain continuity throughout the storyline. For instance, if you have described your character to have light brown eyes in the 1st Chapter, you cannot change it to some other color (unless s/he has a fetish for colored lenses) in the later chapters.

So, here are pointers to consider while crafting your characters. The more you know about your characters before you write, the more real they will appear in the final writing. If you were writing a biography about a person what would you do? You would firstly collect information. This is exactly what we are asking you to do for your fictional character. You need to know your character to some degree before you start writing.

How to develop characters in novels

Here’s the A to Z list of characterization tips

A: Age, Attitude

How old is the character when the story starts and when key dramatic events occur.

What sort of attitude that is to say, what sort of beliefs does s/he hold, acts upon and upholds?

B: Birth, Build

Where was s/he born? What are the circumstances surrounding the birth?

What sort of physical build – height, weight, towering, diminutive?

C: Color, Conflict, Culture

Color of hair, eyes, skin.

What kind of conflicts does s/he encounter? Conflict would typically be some form of opposition or obstacle. There could be multiple conflicts that require resolution throughout the story. So if you are writing a love story, your conflict points could be: unrequited love, rejection or parental opposition etc.

So think about his immediate cultural environment and detail it. What sort of festivals do they celebrate, for instance? What sort of clothes would h/she wear? What sort of cuisine? Remember the gingerbread men and treacle and ginger beer from Enid Blyton’s books? Doesn’t it transport you to that world? What sort of food does your character like and eat? For instance, if you were to just mention in passing about Dhansak or Navroze, readers will automatically understand that your character is Parsi without you ever having to name him (also known as show not tell).

D: Demeanor, Distinctive Feature

Demeanor refers to behavior especially in interpersonal relations. Is s/he soft-spoken, aggressive, gentlemanly / lady-like, tom-boyish?

Distinctive feature: Can you forget the hook-nosed, greasy-haired Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series or Harry Potter himself? Green eyes, bespectacled with a lightning shaped scar on his forehead?

Think of a feature that is distinctive: an accent, eye-patch, wooden leg, glass eye…whatever works for you.

E: Education, Ethnicity

It is okay to say, “His entire education consisted of ten days of training in pick pocketing,” but do think about what your character has studied or if he has studied at all.

Ethnicity refers to an affiliation from racial or cultural ties.

F: Family, Faith, Friends

Think about his immediate and extended family and friends. Remember that you don’t want to end up creating more characters than necessary because you as the writer control their motivations. Do explain absences. If s/he has no father, the reader must understand why at some point even if it is a mention in passing.

Faith: Belief in a cause, religion or a situation. Think about the relevance to your story and include if necessary. Only you can be a judge of its relevance while you are writing.

G: Growing-up Years

Childhood traumas shape adult life. So, think about what sort of life s/he had growing up. Make notes about relationship with parents, teachers and peers.

H: House

The place, surroundings also shape choices. Brainstorm and understand what sort of home s/he lives in. Does he thrive in a chawl or is he lonely in a mansion? We all have our favourite corners in our homes. What sort of place does your character keep going to for solace or for company?

I: Interests

What sort of hobbies does s/he have? What does s/he do during leisure times? As I said, it is good to know your characters. You can choose what you want to bring into your writing.

J: Jeopardy

The dangers s/he will encounter as the story unfolds. Not to be confused with C – conflict or T-troubles. Conflict is whether or not to propose to the lady-love. Jeopardy is finding the family dog on the balcony after he’s clambered up a dangerously rusty pipe with a rose in his mouth. Oops

K: Key Incidents

What are the key dramatic incidents that alter the character’s personality? Say somebody accuses him falsely of stealing – so he transitions from a cheerful happy-go-lucky fella to a brooding man plotting revenge.

L: Love interests

Sexual orientation, love interests – all main characters have them. How does s/he affect your character? Is the love interest another main character or an ancillary character?

M: Mannerisms, Mind, Marital Status

Does s/he slur while speaking? Stammering, stuttering, limping is a distinctive mannerism. Marital Status is self-explanatory.

What goes on in a character’s mind? It is important for you to penetrate the inner world of the character at some points in time. For instance, does he abuse people in his mind even as he is sugary sweet to them while speaking?

N: Name (!)

Yes. Finally. Think about race, religion, ethnicity, community etc while naming your characters. You know that. Okay, give your character a nickname. How will his mother call him?  What was his nickname given by his friends in college?

O: Occupation, Offspring

What do they do in life for money? Every character needs to be doing something for the kitchen fires to be aflame. Or if there is no kitchen because he lives on the streets what does he do the entire day? How does he make money?

Is the character a parent? How does s/he treat his child? What sort of relationship does s/he have with his child? Do their personalities change over a period of time because of volatile and complex parent-child relationships? Recently I read Manu Joseph’s, “The Illicit Happiness of Other People” and the novel deals with a father’s efforts to understand why his seemingly contented son committed suicide at the age of nineteen. As he begins investigating he realizes that he never really knew his son and that his son lived an extra-ordinary life. Most recommended book!

P: Physical Attributes, Personality Traits, Political Views, Pet Peeves

Combination of color and build. Any other physical attributes that you might want to bring in – please do. Think about key personality traits (pathological liar, unforgiving nature etc), political views (liberal, right/left wing, moderate etc), pet peeves (peculiar irritant such as getting annoyed when one is served filter coffee in a ceramic mug as against a steel tumbler).

Q: Questions

Existential crisis if any: Is your character asking him/her-self questions about current state of life and traversing life wondering why something is happening or lives in a state of incomprehension? What are the questions that bother him? We all have niggling questions about life. Your characters will too. Bring it into your writing.

R: Religion, Religious Views

Atheist? Agnostic? Secular? Spiritual? Ritualistic? You get the drift

S: Speech, Secrets

Slow and deliberate or fast and incomprehensible? Loud and clear or mutters under his breath? Accent? Dialect?

What secrets does s/he hold close to his heart?

T: Troubles

This is different from jeopardy. I interpret “trouble” be issues the character already has when the story starts – ailing mother, unmarried sisters, sole-breadwinner. Jeopardy is the danger s/he will encounter as the story unfolds. I opine that troubles differ from conflict in the following ways:

  1. Conflict is more dynamic and perennially ongoing. The character is going to traverse from one conflict to another until he achieves his goal.
  2. Trouble is something more static. It’s there. Like a limp or a lost eye. Despite the trouble, the character has to overcome the conflict.

U: Universal

Writing craft books will tell you that a universal character is a sort of mould or an archetype into which your characters will fit in snugly. Confused? Okay, the hero, the villain, the outcast, the village idiot, the village headman, the troublemaker, the good cop, the bad cop, the prostitute with a heart of gold, the drunkard. Get it? Characters can get “slotted” into these archetypes and that makes them universal. So think about whether you want your character to get “slotted.”  I am not saying do/don’t make your characters universal. I am saying think about it when characterizing. People in real life cannot really be slotted; absolute categorizations of good and bad, this or that may not hold good. People are mostly grey.

V: Villain or The Antagonist

Don’t think of Mogambo. Think about the relationship with the character who opposes your character or is the creator of conflict. This can be personality-altering.

Or is your character entirely negative? Delve deeper. It is important to give your readers a sense of why he is negative. Readers need to be rooting for your main character. Think back-story and think of all the driving forces that motivates and propels negativity.

W: When?

The character’s relationship with time. When do things happen to him? At what age? At what points in time? How long does it a take for him to resolve conflicts? Timing is important

X: X-Factor

What is that special stand-out feature about your character that distinguishes him from the crowd? Is he The Chosen One to save the world?

Y: Your touch as the writer

Have you heard of, “within all of us there is a book?” It is often said that some characters are pseudo-autobiographical. As a writer you draw from your internal experiences and feed them into your characters. You might exaggerate or use creative license but you will think about your favorite grandmother and you might get your characters to have an oil bath every Sunday.  Recently I read Jerry Pinto’s “Em and The Big Hoom” (Hindu Literary Prize Winner, 2012) and I was floored by the way the author wrote about mental illness. The detailing, the imagery, the emotion – it was so beautifully written and later I read about how he drew from his own personal experience. Somebody very close to him was ill in a similar fashion.  A certain personal experience that is dear to you or that moved you will find its way into your writing and that is your own unique touch.

Z: Zealot

Until now, we’ve spoken about a character’s relationship to time, place, other people, his/her internal and external worlds. What about his relationship or personal feelings towards country, society and political affinities? Is he fanatical about any of these? A zealot is one who is fanatical about a proponent – a partisan – devoted to the cause usually socio-political. So, think about your character’s views about society, about immediate politics surrounding him. Will it affect his motivation enough to be an agent of change?

Note: Some of these are entirely my own personal opinions arrived upon after much introspection and much thought. Others stem from classroom discussions, discussion with like-minded people and from wholesome debates. The writing process is an experience in itself. It is as much about what you put on paper as it is about what you take once you finish writing.

Do you have another idea or word that might be more suitable an assignment for a particular alphabet? We’ll be happy to hear from you!

About Lavanya

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind | MBA | Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) | MFA in Creative Writing programme (City University of Hong Kong) | Her literary fiction novel will be published soon by Roli Books.

4 thoughts on “The A to Z of how to develop characters in novels”

  1. Thomas Paul

    Hi Lavanya,

    I got some really good inputs on characterisation from your posts. These got me back to the fundamentals from which I seemed to have strayed in recent times. Thanks a lot.

    All the best for your literary fiction novel that is due to be published.

    I too have a crime /adventure fiction novel with a publisher lodged under “Projects under consideration”.

    Keep the posts coming

    Regards,

    Thomas Paul

  2. Lavanya Post Author

    Hi Thomas,

    Thank you for reading our posts and liking them. Yes, the post of characterization does touch upon a lot of fundamentals that we as writers sometimes forget to bring into your writing. We are so caught up in the “what’s happening” that we forget to showcase the “who it is happening to” aspects, which are important too.
    Thank you for the wishes and all the best for your crime / adventure fiction novel too! Do let us know when it gets accepted for publication!

    Regards,
    Lavanya

  3. Pranav Kodial

    Dear Lavanya,
    I have read a number of your posts on this website. They are as excellent in their information as in their language and presentation; a wonderful combination! Thank you very much. They are of great help to amateur writers like myself.

    And no, I think of anything to add; you’ve truly covered everything from A to Z of characterization in a fiction story.

    I am an absolute amateur, at the stage where one is overwhelmingly inspired to write something, but is also diffident whether one’s work will be ‘worth reading’. In my case, the diffidence is probably more so because I am from a completely different profession.

    The amount of information on the Internet about the methods and ‘rules’ of writing a good quality fiction story, makes one wonder if one can ever write anything read-worthy. The process of publishing sounds even more painful and discouraging.

    But your articles are very inspiring. In fact, so much so, that I am seriously considering writing to the email address mentioned on your website and getting your opinion on my little story. And if you do feel it is worthy enough, I might actually request your services to improvise on it, go ahead and actually publish something! 😀

    Thank you once again. I will be eagerly awaiting your book release. All the best and congratulations for the same. It will no doubt, be a BIG hit! 🙂

    Regards,

    Pranav Kodial

  4. Lavanya Post Author

    Hi Pranav,

    Thank you for reaching out and thank you for the kind words about our posts. Readers like you keep us happy in the game.
    The whole idea of the Booksoarus community that we are building together is to keep writers happy, engaged, motivated and encouraged.
    Thank you for encouraging us!

    I can see that you have written to us and you have corresponded with Sameer briefly. I’ll be in touch soon. Happy Writing !

    Regards,
    Lavanya

    Regards,
    Lavanya

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