Characters Come First

Although your novel must have a great story for it to succeed, it also needs to be populated by believable, flesh-and-blood, characters. When writing fiction, most established authors will tell you that their characters come first.

Here’s a real review from Amazon (I’ll spare the author’s blushes by not identifying the book in question) that’s typical of many on there:

Part of the blurb called it “unpretentious writing”, but it would be better to call it uninspired. I don’t think we’re witnessing the start of a stellar career: no cliché goes unused, and it’s the same with stereotype characters.

I wanted to like this book – I like a period setting for crime novels, but for me the skill level just wasn’t there, and life’s too short to read so-so books.


If the author had spent more time working on his characters, then I’ll bet that would never have been so negative. Readers can forgive many failings in novels, including “no cliché going unturned”, but never cardboard or stereotypical characters. If the reader doesn’t care about and relate to the people in the book — especially the protagonist and the antagonist (a.k.a. hero and villain) — then all is lost.

Three Simple Steps to Generate “Real” Characters

Step One: take a long, hard look at your story and decide exactly what characters you will need. Just the main guys, don’t worry about minor roles at this stage. Jot down the absolute basic information about who they are and what their roles are: protagonist, antagonist, protagonist’s friend, protagonist’s boss at work, and so on. You can give them names (though remember that nothing is written in stone at this stage and everything can be changed and improved on before you start to write) or you can leave naming them until after step two.

Step Two: build up your characters into flesh and blood— metaphorically speaking. Think about their part in the story, and slowly build up a picture of each character. Decide their sex. Their age. Think about their habits, what quirky mannerisms they might have. What do they look like?
Once you have a broad framework of their physical aspects, move on to decide what motivates each character. What their past is. Write a mini biography for them. Think about how will they change during the course of your novel.

Remember: everything you write at this stage can be changed as you work on the other characters and begin to plot your story. If any character starts looking like or behaving like any other character you have seen in fiction or in the movies, change it. These are your characters, not someone else’s. Be original.

Step Three: interview your characters. Yes, pretend you are a radio or TV interviewer and ask your character a series of questions to find out who they are. Write down the questions and the answers. Imagine what their voices sound likes. If any questions do not receive satisfactory or unlikely answers, change the biography accordingly.

At the end of the process, you should have a set of believable, flesh and blood characters. And, even more important, you will know enough about them and what makes them tick, to be able to write your story.

Here’s another useful hint: if, during the writing process, you run into a problem or a block concerning one or more of your characters, interview them again. Find out what they think. You might be surprised at the results.

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