This is the third post in the Confessions of a New Author series. This series chronicles my adventures of becoming a self-published author, from the very moment I woke up and decided to be an author to when I finally published my debut novel and beyond.
The last post in this series focused on creating a plot outline (if you missed that blog, you can find it HERE). Once you have the plot outline down, now it’s time for the next critical element of any novel: developing the characters.
Unfortunately, I didn’t think this was an essential element when I first began writing “Novel A” and as a result, my characters turned out to be drab, to say the least. While the female protagonist was funny and relatable in one scene, she became irritating and annoying in the next scene out of nowhere. Meanwhile, my male protagonist didn’t even have a personality at all. The kitchen table was more interesting than he was. I was throwing in random characters for flat dialogue and uninteresting interactions. My novel was starting to take on as much life as a poorly-written middle school play. Don’t even ask to see what that horrific train wreck looked like – I don’t even want to think about it!
Part of the re-planning for “Novel A,” aside from the plot outline, was developing my characters into real (yet still fictional) people. I gave them full names and backstories. My female protagonist got her own share of baggage while my male protagonist got an actual personality (imagine that!). But I didn’t stop there. I also developed my secondary characters, as well. I didn’t bother too much with a backstory for secondary characters unless I felt like that was going to be vital to this novel or a later spinoff book. This took another day or so of planning because of how much detail I put into each character. But because of this planning, my characters in “Novel A” (and also in Finding Paradise) became real (fictional) people that you could relate to and maybe even have drinks with.
No two people on earth are exactly the same. Neither should the characters in your story. The reader should feel a distinction between Female #1 and Female #2. Otherwise, you might as well be reading a script:
FEMALE #1: “How was your day?”
FEMALE #2: “It was cool. How was yours?”
FEMALE #1: “Good. Thanks.”
You want to read 300 pages of that? Probably not, and neither do readers. So how exactly do you develop your characters?
Start with simple demographics and descriptions for both your primary and secondary characters: full name, age, city they live in, height, hair color, eye color, body build. From there, you can dive a little deeper into their physical description. Curly hair? Short hair? No hair? Do their eyes sparkle in the sun, or darken when they are mad? Scars? Tattoos? Birthmarks? Keep going with every little detail you can think of until you can see a real person in your mind.
But physical descriptions aren’t anything. Like me, you can have the sweetest of eye candy as your male protagonist, but if he has the personality of a washcloth, it’s just not going to work. Take the time to think about and decide on each character’s personality. Are they headstrong? Weak? Outspoken? Quiet? Do they take risks, or play by the rules? Are they funny or stiff? Mean or loving? The more personality your character has, the easier it will be to create their backstory. Don’t forget their mannerisms, nervous habits, and annoying traits.
That brings us to the backstory. The baggage. The history. Every person has it and so should your characters. So what’s their story? Picture perfect childhood? Bullied at school? Awkward teenage years? Loving home? The more detail, the better. Don’t be afraid to draw from personal experience if it’s relevant. Just beware to not involve details that you wouldn’t want people to know about you or sue you for plagiarizing.
But you might be asking yourself, why is the backstory so important if it has nothing to do with my plot? Great point! And you’re absolutely right: your characters’ backstories might not be relevant or even come up in your novel. But again, remember: we are developing your character. Many of these traits that you’re giving to your character may never find a place in your book, but they shaped your character into they are. So, really, the details are for you to keep in mind while you are writing their dialogue and interactions with other characters. Because they were bullied in school, perhaps they are more guarded now. Or because they had a loving home when they were growing up, they are wearing rose-colored glasses all the time. None of their backstories has to be mentioned if it doesn’t contribute to the plot, but it will make their mannerisms and actions different from your other characters. And wasn’t that the goal in the first place?
By the end of the character building phase of planning out your novel, you should have at least a handful of characters who seem like real people, even if it’s just to you. They exist in your imagination, hanging out in limbo, waiting for you to drop them into a great story. Isn’t that exciting?!
Thank you for reading, and keep writing your heart out.