Tag: creating characters in novels

Creating characters in novels

Creating characters in novels

Readers treasure their favourite books for many reasons. It can be for the story or plot, the setting, the language but more often it is for the characters. A story can have a great plot and be written beautifully or set in a glorious place but if the characters don’t seem real, how can we get involved and enter their world? How can we relate to them if they are just cardboard stereotypes or ill-defined ghosts of reality? Minor characters can be less defined but the main characters in a novel need to be bold and reflect real life people. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary from the book of the same name or more contemporary characters like ditsy Bridget Jones or socially challenged Elizabeth Zott from Lessons in Chemistry. Creating memorable characters in novels is an art and some writers ace it and others not. If you are starting your first book let me share a few tips.

Creating great characters in novels

What tools do writers need to create great characters? Well, you may be surprised to realise that life itself is the best teacher. Your life experience of people and understanding of what makes them tick is your best guide. So, I guess in that way, the older writer can have an advantage. I’m a great people watcher and love to listen to the stories others tell me about their families, marriage and friends. My husband says I’m a busy body! But I do listen and take interest in others and this has helped me enormously in writing and creating characters. Why people do things is particularly interesting, isn’t it? I don’t mean crimes as such but just more everyday things, like fall in love with the wrong guy, decide to move overseas or just run away.

Capturing real life people as characters

As I write this, I realise that all of my five novels have characters, notably women that run away from their current lives. Maybe it is a coincidence or possibly more because I myself am a runaway! The whole runaway concept fascinates me, so I guess I used my own experience to fashion these characters. Did you know that Agatha Christie was also a runaway? My runaway characters run away to escape trauma in different forms. A failed love affair, an abusive marriage, to conceal a pregnancy, a death in the family are the motivations for my women characters and for Oscar, my runaway male character, it is his perceived grievance with his family.

These characters are all based on people I know or meet. They are heavily disguised in most cases. You have to be careful not to just model your characters on friends or family! No one likes to find themselves in a novel unless the writer airbrushes them into a hero or heroine. The characters in my novel The Last Hotel are based on strangers I met while at Nice airport in March 2020. Stranded by the Covid-19 outbreak, I sat for endless hours hoping for a flight home to Australia. While people watching, I observed then chatted with a male ballet dancer, two young British girls then a mother with her teenage daughter. All of them like me had their lives interrupted by the lockdowns in Europe. We all had nowhere to stay as hotels were closing one after the other. Our common fate pulled us together. We shared details of our lives. They became characters in a book that was only just crystallizing in my imagination. Read more here about the crazy writing process of The Last Hotel. 

Heroes and heroines?

But did I create these people as shining heroes and heroines? No, I didn’t. Because they do not know they became my characters, it was ok and better to make them the thawed people they are and like we all are. Each of us is a mix of contradictions. We can be strong then weak, loving then mean, depending on what happens to us. If character always behave the same in every situation they won’t be like real people will they? Nor will the story be interesting. Perfect guy meets perfect girl. End of story. Yawn. There has to be conflict to drive the plot and characters create this conflict. You just have to decide on what that conflict will be.

Use characters to describe other characters in novel

Minor characters are needed to help drive the plot and also it is through these minor characters that we can learn stuff about the main characters. They can talk about their character, looks or their past in a more interesting way than the narrator (you, the writer) can. I use this technique in my contemporary romance, The Last Hotel.

“I think there’s something going on between Jenny and the dashing Rene. They look like love struck teenagers,” commented Tim. This is one character’s observation of two other characters.

Another character, Maggie comments on Jenny’s looks. ‘Are you a dancer yourself? You are so slim and dainty just like a ballerina.”

Just a note about mirrors. So many writers use the tool of the character looking in the mirror to see themselves (often naked, he he). I think this is a bit cliche now. Use another character to comment on their appearance and not necessarily a naked description. Sometimes this is too much information that is not easy to dismiss in the imagination. Maybe the mirror thing works better for male readers.

Actions speak louder than words

Just don’t describe your characters, let them speak and act to reveal themselves. Give them gestures, movement and dialogue in different situations so we see how they react. When Tanya first meets Vinnie in my mystery romance, Colour Comes to Tangles, she has to steady herself by grabbing the counter. She loses her ability to act and speak normally. The reader quickly senses she is smitten by him.  In The Last Hotel, when Sasha grabs his mother and dances with her in the kitchen, the reader realizes they have a close bond. Writing is such fun. It’s like painting a picture that becomes a world to escape into. The final creation is often quite different from the original layout.

Read your story aloud.

As the story progresses, ideas come to you and instinctively you feel what works and what is not working. Read your writing, especially the dialogue of the characters ALOUD. Then you can hear if it sounds authentic. Also this essential technique also lets you see if you are telling the reader too much. Less can be more. Leave some room for the reader to create the character in their mind’s eye. This is why some films wreck books. What a lovely, imaginative escape is a book or film. Some films are so right for us that we can watch them over and over again. The same goes for reading books. But beware of the film made from your favourite book. If the film director has interpreted the character differently, butchered the plot or made the character’s appearance different then we can be shattered. I felt this way when I viewed a BBC production of Pride and Prejudice wherein both Darcy and Elizabeth have wishy washy complexions and blue eyes not dark- haired and dark eyed as in original. it put me right off!

Point of view and thoughts of characters in novels

starting your book

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This is a massive topic in itself. Point of view refers to who is narrating the story. Is it third person omniscient, a narrator who knows all and can tell all. This has been a standard for many novels through history. Or is it first person, ie “i’ or ‘me’ narrated. This form does give us more insight into the main narrating character but can be annoying if “I’ is overused. There is no need to write, ‘I saw..’ or ‘I heard..’when this form is chosen. The character can just report ‘the sky was achingly blue..’ or whatever. Some writers use third person and first person combined but it is a bit tricky. Maybe not something to try for the first book!

Point of view leads to the topic of thoughts. The thoughts of the characters can add to our understanding of them. But keep the thought dialogue to a minimum, I think. No long reflections as this can interrupt the flow of the book and action. Use thoughts instead to build tension. eg ‘Will he be there? Can I dare face him again?’

Well, thanks for reading if you did. Lots of other blog posts on books etc on my website. joniscottauthor.com

Ciao for now.

Joni Scott is an Australian author with four published novels: Whispers through Time, The Last Hotel,  Colour Comes to Tangles and her latest historical WWI drama, Time Heal my Heart. Joni has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.