Regardless of what type of novel you’re writing (romance, mystery, young adult), it will require two key elements: characters and a plot. You’ll eventually need to learn the best craft-writing techniques to make your story the best it can be, but before you can make it shine, you need to put the pieces together.
The first piece we’re going to look at are your characters.
It doesn’t matter how creative or suspenseful your plot is – if you don’t have believable, relatable characters, your readers won’t care what happens to the characters. If they don’t care what happens, there’s no reason for them to keep reading.
So how do you create characters your readers care about? It starts by knowing your characters.
It’s more than simply knowing your characters’ names and ages. You need to know your characters – where did they grow up, how did they grow up, and how does that influence their lives as adults? Essentially, you need to create entire histories for your characters. Things you want to know include:
- The Basics: age/birthday, appearance, hometown
- Family: parents, grandparents, siblings – who are they, what kind of relationships do they have
- Friends: who were your characters’ friends as a kid, who are your characters’ friends as an adult, where did they meet, what do they do for fun
- Education: where did your characters’ go to elementary/middle/high school, how do they feel about school (did they enjoy it or struggle with it), if they went to college, what did they study (if they didn’t go to college, why not?)
- Career: what do your characters’ do for a living, why do they do it, did they always want to do it or did they have different plans, is this what they’re going to do forever or do they hope/plan to make changes
- Religion: what do your characters believe, why do they believe it, who influenced their beliefs, how their beliefs guide them through life
- Activities: what do your characters like to do, why do they like to do them, how did they discover those activities, what keeps them interested in them
- Secrets: what secrets do your characters keep, who do they keep them from, why are they afraid to share their secrets
Why do you need to know all of this?
For a couple of reasons.
- It will make it easier to for you to write your book. The more you know about your characters, the easier it will be for you to write their stories. You won’t have to figure out what they might do because you’ll know – you’ll know how each character would respond to a car accident or to a marriage proposal because you understand the past that shaped each person.
- It will make your characters more relatable. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who doesn’t have an answer for anything? They don’t have a favorite restaurant or memory or hobby. They don’t like romantic comedies, but they don’t have a reason for why. That doesn’t make them more mysterious or interesting – it makes them impossible to understand. Creating vivid pasts for your characters will provide the history and motivation that your readers can relate to.
- It will make your characters more believable. Think back to the last time you caught someone in a lie. It doesn’t matter what it was, what matters is how it affected your relationship. When someone is dishonest with us, it’s easy to think that he/she gets what he/she deserves if something bad happens (reaping and sowing, karma, what goes around comes around).
A similar thing happens in fiction. Readers have to believe why characters think and act in certain ways. If they don’t believe it, they won’t care what happens – if the carefree, fun-loving character loses her temper for no apparent reason, then she’s either lying about being carefree and fun-loving, or she’s being melodramatic in her reactions. Either way, it’s hard to know what to believe. As the writer, it’s easier to create believable characters when you understand their full stories.
Before you start putting your characters into crazy situations, take the time to get to know your characters. Know everything about them so you can tap into those memories and experiences when its time to start your novel. Next time we’re going to look at how these character backstories create the substance of your characters – their goals, motivations, and conflicts.
Until then, who are your favorite (and least favorite) fictional characters. What do you like (or dislike) about them?