3 Steps to Writing a Novel with Unforgettable Characters

pexels-photo-816229Character development is one of the first essential steps of writing a novel and it involves creating the people who will carry out your story. There will most likely be a variety of characters needed for your story, but none as important as your lead character – your protagonist. A well-developed protagonist has much to do with the success of writing a novel.

The protagonist should be someone that your readers feel is a “real person” that they come to love (or at least like a whole lot), can relate to in many ways and will care about and think about long after they’ve turned the final page on your novel.

How to Create “Real People” for Your Novel

When writing a novel, there are many ways to go about creating characters and much has been written about it in “how to write a novel books”, sometimes in great detail. There are as many ideas about what makes a good character as there are apples on a tree. The traits of a lead character may change somewhat by the type of novel, or genre, you’re writing and by what your protagonist needs to accomplish in the novel’s plot. Still, there are a few personality traits that every lead character must possess, no matter what kind of novel you’re writing.

Writing a Novel – The Lead Character is:

  1. admirable – has integrity, courage, beauty, kindness, strength, etc. – leave the rotten personalities and hang-ups for the antagonist,
  1. relatable – create scenes that allow your character to evoke an emotional response from readers,
  1. realistic – portrays emotions consistent with their personality traits,
  1. a problem solver – someone with an over the top problem, whom readers believe is capable of solving.

Writing a Novel – Three Attributes of Every Character

I have found that the best way to begin the process of character development is by using a “top-down” method.  It is composed of three elements:

  1. Primary Traits
  1. Traits that add “Complexity”, and
  1. Traits that Contrast Predominant Traits.

Let’s look at how we develop characters that possess primary, complex and contrasting traits. 

  1. Define Character’s Primary Traits

Starting at the top, you must decide on your character’s primary traits. A character’s primary traits are those traits that ultimately define the person and are consistent with them having the ability to do what it takes to carry out the plot. So, decide on 4 or 5 dominant traits that define your character and that will follow them through the novel, placing your character in scenes that challenge these traits yet allow them to prevail.

pexels-photo-433411For example, if you are writing a novel about a detective who must solve a heinous crime, you may describe his primary traits as competent, ruthless, street-smart, and brave. If your detective is all of these things, there should be little that happens in the novel that will deter from this characterization of him. Additionally, none of the dominant traits should conflict with the other dominant traits. He can’t be competent and lack confidence, ruthless and indecisive, street-smart and a homebody, brave and a scaredy-cat.

They are traits that, once established, should hang true to the character throughout the story. That doesn’t mean that character traits don’t ever change because a writer should always be flexible enough to change something that is not working with the plot. However, if a change in a character’s traits is made for the plot’s sake, any scenes that contrast with the changed trait must be re-written to support it.

To introduce your character into the novel, you first want to show his primary traits – scenes that portray these traits to the reader. When your lead character comes on the scene, a reader’s first impression of him must portray one or more of his primary traits. From then on, continually ask yourself, “Is this something my character would do, considering their primary traits? Is the scene consistent with his primary traits? If not, consider rewriting the scene to make it true to character. There is an exception to this that I’ll explain later.

  1. Define Character’s Complexity Traits

In this next level of character traits, add complexity to your character – add traits that complement the primary traits by giving them depth. They do not contradict the primary traits. They are important traits but not the most important. Using the detective example again, complementary traits might include being health-conscious, physically fit – works out, a lover of fast cars or women, or having a preference for working alone, etc.

  1. Define Character’s Contrasting Traits

pexels-photo-235355In developing the bottom level of character traits, identify those one or two traits that would make your character deter from his primary characteristics. Contrasting traits serve to “humanize” the larger-than-life character. For example, would the death of his only child cause the touch detective to break down in public? Would a certain type of woman break through his crusty exterior? Would a child running into the path of a bullet aimed at a criminal cause him to pause in his ruthlessness?

This is the exception to the rule of writing scenes that support your character’s primary traits. However, contrasting character traits are portrayed only in unique situations when writing a novel and should be used sparingly. They also should never be used unless the primary traits have been firmly established.

Other Considerations of Character Development

This “top-down” approach to character development is a great place to begin. But, creating multi-dimensional characters or “people” is essential for a well-written novel. For each character, you will also need to establish their:

  • history
  • work life
  • personal life
  • fears
  • hopes and
  • idiosyncrasies.

You may not use it all in your story, but you will know the characters well. You will also know/develop things like:

  • distinctive physical attributes (height, weight, hair color and style, body-frame, etc.)
  • mannerisms
  • strengths
  • weaknesses
  • pet peeves
  • the seemingly impossible problem that he must overcome, and
  • his obstacles in solving it.

Defining the “Other” Characters

pexels-photo-823724Create other characters using the same top-down techniques used for the protagonist, but also define how each character is connected to the protagonist; are they a(n)

  • confidante
  • antagonist
  • enabler
  • something else?

To determine a character’s connection to the lead, think about:  In what way do they help the lead solve the problem or how do they prevent him from solving it?

When Writing a Novel Know Your Characters Well

It’s very important that a writer knows everything (or mostly everything) about his characters. A writer should know, for example, much about that tough and crusty detective and what unique situation would make him veer from that persona; know the complexities of the detective that are consistent with him being tough and crusty. Does he drink hard whiskey and smoke a cigar? Is he an expert marksman and fearless, using his gun on criminals who don’t cooperate – perhaps taking off an ear in the process?

I think creating interesting characters is one of the more fun elements of writing a novel. You can make your characters larger than life, people who can accomplish great things that an ordinary person might only hope to do. In this way, we create characters that offer many things to the reader – escapism, enjoyment, identification with situations, perhaps even validity, to name only a few satisfactions that the novel can provide its readers. Writing a novel is a lot of hard work, but the rewards are great!

If you found this piece interesting, please share it with your friends on Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter. Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic and invite you to leave a comment. I always respond, and maybe others will too!


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