How to Create Believable, Memorable Characters for Your Book
J.K. Rowling once said:
“You can have a very intense relationship with fictional characters because they are in your own head.”
A writer, when writing a book, usually builds up a relationship with the characters in their book. But how do they draw a reader into their world and make their characters not only believable but also have an ever-lasting effect on them? Because, let's face it, if the character isn't convincing or appealing, whether it be a love or hate relationship with them, the reader will soon lose interest in your book, even if you have the best plotline of all time. If your characters are dead, the reader will be soon snapping your book shut and it may well be thrown in the next charity bag.
The answer is of course: Know your main characters inside and out.
This is the hand-out I take into schools when I go for book talks:
How to Create a Fictional Character from Scratch
The one thing that virtually every single book, play, movie, novel, and game has in common is that they all have at least one character. Most have 2 or more, and some—a cast of thousands! Sometimes the "character" is you.
If you're creating a story such as Harry Potter, for example, you will need an entire world of characters—some good, some evil, some male, some female... even some that are not good or evil or male or female.
If you're creating an intimate story, you may only need one character.
Regardless of who the characters are books and movies, and all the rest, would be lifeless and boring without them. So where do they come from, you may well wonder? Here I will show you how you can bring out the best in your characters, and how to make the characters your own!
Creating Your Own Fictional Character
1. Define the setting, or initial Scene:
Whether you are ‘raising the curtain’ on paper or on the computer screen, your character must exist somewhere. It may be in a school playground or in a vast lake in an ancient world. This sets the stage for your character. It will help to define him or her, as well.
2. Define your character’s Identity:
Who, what, where, when, why and how . . .
What is their name? Description, mannerisms etc.
Are they human, animal or even an alien being from another planet? Are they male or female?
Where do they live, work, play or go exploring? Education, school, occupation.
What age are they and what era do they live in? Young, old, live in the present or a different time?
Why do they draw the reader in? Are they villain or hero?
How do they become the characters they are? Have they had a hard life with no love and many grievances? Are they jealous of other people and crave power? Or do they have a deep desire to help and save other people?
All of these traits help develop the character and give them the bare-bones in the process of becoming more real to the reader.
3. Take mannerisms and Features from people around you:
Look at people around you, at school, home or even out playing.
Note physical features – the shape of nose, jaw, ears, body shapes, how their clothes fit, or how they carry themselves.
If you like their look, describe to yourself the details you find attractive, and translate that to your characters. If you see somebody that looks scary, honestly tell yourself why that person scares you, even if the reason is totally irrational. Use this information to inform your character.
4. Define your character’s purpose or Goal:
How your characters deal with the inevitable obstacles that stand between them and their aims will most clearly define them. In complex stories these might cross repeatedly, with the motivations and accomplishments of some characters getting in the way of others, generating further action and twists, and even raising the stakes.
5. Give them Attitude:
To really flesh out a character, give them a personality that goes beyond the story itself. Some parts of their personality may never make it into your story, directly, but will help inform the decisions your character may have to make.
Make a list of all their likes and dislikes and make sure the list is balanced. In other words, don’t have 10 dislikes to 1 like or visa-versa. Even the crankiest character likes something, even if it’s just their mirror.
6. Give your character Quirks:
Good habits, bad habits, or just things the character can’t stop doing like: biting fingernails – which would indicate a worrier, or obsessive hair-combing – vanity or insecurity.
The more of these tics and traits you give your character, the more they will ‘come alive’ in the audience’s mind.
7. Work out their fears, weaknesses, motivations and biggest Secrets:
It creates a much more realistic character and helps to develop their originality. A popular hero strength/weakness has to do with loyalty/disloyalty.
I also have some fun visuals for the kids to identify with.
I start off by pinning my skeleton to the board. I tell the children that this is Herman in my books. Of course some of the kids look quite excited about a skeleton being one of my characters, but most look at me as if I've totally lost the plot. This is quite intentional.
I then ask them, what does he need to build up his character? They all know the answer. He needs skin. I call this layer 'Identity' (His name, main description etc.)
I go on then to ask what else he needs. They tell me top and trousers. I've called these layers: Features and Goals.
The children have soon cottoned on that we are building up the character and each layer we put on next: shoes = attitude, hat = quirks and scarf = secrets, are identified with building up the characters features in a book.
It's a really fun way to visualise the technique I use, and why it is so important to do so.
Here is one of the characters in my books with my layer-building technique.
Appearance: Dark-brown, neck-length hair. Blue eyes. Square, stubbly jaw. Crooked nose. His stature is tall with broad shoulders. He is extremely strong.
Herman is Gran’s gardener/grounds keeper at Fowesby Hall. He oversees and maintains the surrounding gardens and land of the estate.
Formerly known as Hercules as he was once from the ancient world of Crete.
He came to live at Fowesby Hall, when he was a young man, after meeting Pearl and Bill (Gran and Grandad) on one of their travels.
He soon fell in love and married their young house-keeper, Olga. They live in the small cottage on the Fowesby estate.
Over the years of living in the North-East of England he developed a strong Middlesbrough accent. This was exaggerated quite considerably to cover up his true identity. He was always worried that someone would find out where he really came from. He feared not for himself but for his friends, Pearl and Bill. If ever the secret of Fowesby Hall was ever discovered, he knew all would be lost for his dear friends.
Herman is hard-working, determined and very down-to-earth. He also strives for perfection in everything you do. He is a loyal friend and a protector.
He once rescued a huge purple dog, called Ceber, on one of his visits back to ancient Crete from Ceber’s three-headed mother. Poor Ceber had been born with only one head and his mother had rejected him. Ceber was brought back to Fowesby Hall to live and he and Herman have been inseparable ever since.
Scene: Herman lives in a cottage, with his wife Olga and purple dog Ceber, on the Fowesby Hall estate. Formerly lived in the Bronze-age of ancient Crete.
Identity: Name - Herman, male, mid-fifties, brown, hair, blue eyes, tall, broad shoulders, extremely strong.
Features: With his crooked nose, (having been broken several times) square-jawline and stubble, his appearance looks rather rough at times. This is a mask of deception in many ways. Only in his work and the care for his friends do we see the true perfectionist he really is.
Goal/ Purpose: Herman is the protector. He acts as a bodyguard whenever they go on their travels. Herman is a very strong man but in the ancient world his powers are exceptionally potent. An extremely good ally to have on your side.
Attitude: Herman’s personality is kind, caring and extremely loyal to the ones he loves. He also sometimes has a short fuse but doesn’t stay angry for very long.
Quirks: Herman’s quirk is his accent. His h-dropping and word-merges makes him quickly identified in dialogue.
Secrets: Herman's secret; formerly known as Hercules from the ancient world of Crete. He changed his name when he came to live in Middlesbrough. In his own words: ‘Ow many people in Middlesbrough are called ’Ercules? Think it might be a bit o’ a giveaway. Besides, I alwayz liked the name ’Erman.’ Herman lives in fear that his true identity will be discovered.
By layering up my characters I'm making them more rounded, believable and memorable. I do this with all my main characters.
Just remember identifiable characters connects readers to the people in your book and if the reader is attached they will go on reading until the very end. And that's what it truly is all about :)