Creating Characters | Elements of a Novel – Part 1

Creating Characters

Creating CharactersI’m kicking off a new series all about the elements of a novel. In this series, I’m going to break down the elements you might want to consider while you work on your book. First up, we’re going to take a look at what goes into creating characters!

We’re talking about characters first because, if you ask me, they are the backbone of even the most plot-driven novels. Interesting and compelling characters are what makes readers want to invest in your story. If they care what happens to your characters, they will want to keep reading! So today, we’re going to talk about what goes into creating characters that grab your readers’ attention. First, we’ll look at what types of characters you might want to consider in your novel, then we’ll talk about ways to develop them into full and complete characters.

Types of characters to consider

When you flesh out a novel, you want to make sure you’re creating a believable world. And believable worlds are full of people! Here are some characters you might want to think about when you’re creating characters for your novel.

Hero/Lead

Of course, every book has a main character. This is the character who will carry your story. Ideally, they should be both flawed, but relatable. This balance is often effective because it gives readers someone to root for, while also allowing them to empathize with the main character. Often times, readers like to feel transported into a book, as if they themselves could be the hero. If your main character is too perfect, your reader won’t be able to relate and engage as fully as you might want them to.

Sidekick

If your main character has found themselves in a difficult situation, it might be a good idea to give them a friend who can root them on and help them achieve their goals. It also might be a good idea to have them balance out your hero in some way. So if your hero is super serious, it might be nice to have a sidekick who can keep things light. This can create a fun dynamic between the two characters while keeping your story balanced in the process. You might also want to consider how your sidekick can serve the overall story. Funny and supportive sidekicks are great, but funny, supportive and useful sidekicks are better. For more on how to create a functional sidekick, check out this post!

Mentor

If your main character has found themselves in an unfamiliar situation, it might be hard to justify how they can find their way on their own. That’s when the mentor comes in. A mentor can point your character in the right direction and provide the necessary wisdom and advice to keep your character and your book from stalling. Anyone with knowledge and direction can fill the mentor role, whether it be a teacher, a designated guide, or even a parent or other family member.

Love Interest

Romance subplots are always fun! (Or, if you’re writing a romance novel, this would, of course, be your main plot.) Relationships can push your character to learn, grow, and be honest with themselves, which is great for both character and story development. It can also provide your character with encouragement, support, and conflict in equal measure. However, like the sidekick, it’s best if the love interest is more than just a love interest. I’d suggest doing what you can to give them a way to contribute to the story.  Not only does it make the character more interesting, but it also gives them more of a reason to be around your main character, which gives you more of an opportunity to develop that relationship.

Villain/Antagonist

Your story will have more conflict if there is someone antagonizing your main character. This antagonist may be a villain, but they don’t have to be. They can simply be someone who is out to beat or compete with your main character. The example I like to give is that Voldemort from Harry Potter is a villain because he is intending harm. On the other hand, Aaron Burr from Hamilton is an antagonist because he’s not necessarily out to hurt Alexander Hamilton. He and Alexander are simply often after the same things and in competition with one another. Villains and antagonists are great because they create a natural conflict in your book, which pushes the story forward. If you are interested in a villain for your story, check out this post on creating strong villains!

Supporting Characters

Supporting characters help add depth to your world. You may only have a handful of characters involved in the ins and outs of your plot, but if you want your world to feel full and alive, you may want to think about having your characters interact with people outside of the core group. These characters may be seen on a regular basis, and from time to time, they may play a role in moving the story forward, but their main function is to support your main characters and add depth to your world.

Background Characters

Background characters play the smallest role in books. I consider them to be characters that are either only mentioned, but never seen, or only appear once or twice in the book.  Even we don’t see these characters, who they are and how they behaved is likely to be important to one of your main characters. For example, if your hero ran away from home, and never speaks to their family, and the family is never involved in the story, their family members would be background characters. We may never see these family members in your novel, but they may be talked about. Creating characters like these are important. You should be sure to put time into figuring out who these people are because they drastically impacted your main character, even if they never make a direct appearance.

Ways to develop characters

How you choose to go about developing and creating characters is completely up to you, but here are three methods to consider. They all involve questions, to varying degrees, and can be a great way to get your story off the ground. You can use them all together, or pick and choose your favorites.

Character questionnaires

Character questionnaires are probably the most common. You can find plenty floating around online with questions to consider for both your characters physical appearance and their personality and background. The pro to these types of questionnaires is that there are plenty of questions to consider that you might not otherwise have thought of. The con to this approach is that some of the questions can feel a little cookie-cutter and they don’t always force you to think about your character’s story arc.

If you want to give a character questionnaire a shot, here’s one from the Novel Factory.

Three big questions

This is my personal favorite approach. I consider these three questions for each of my main characters before I do anything:

What happened to my character before the book starts?

Who is my character at the start of the book?

Who do I want my character to be by the end?

These questions help me consider the nuances of what shaped my character prior to the start of the book and what will shape them going forward. I did a whole post on the specifics of how I use these questions to create strong characters, so if you want to learn more, be sure to check it out!

Core characteristic questions

This is the last set of questions to consider. I got these from grad school and I found them to be pretty thought-provoking. For every core character, consider:

What makes your character laugh?

What makes your character feel afraid?

What makes your character feel angry?

What makes your character feel ashamed?

What makes your character feel vulnerable?

Then for each one, figure out the “why” behind your answers. There has to be a story or underlying characteristic fueling each of these emotions. Understanding why your character feels this way will give you some insight into your character’s psyche, which will help you in creating strong characters.

I hope this helps you with creating characters for your novel!

Stay tuned for the next part of this series, which will be coming your way in a few weeks!

Now it’s your turn: What do you consider when you start creating characters for your stories? Tell me about it in the comments!

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