On Character Development For Novelists, by Kate Forsyth
Why is it that some books you read linger in your heart and mind for the rest of your life, while you have trouble remembering much about another book only a few days later?
It is because some books have characters that seem to leap off the page, vivid and alive. These characters have a story to tell that moves and challenges you, making your pulse hurry and your throat thicken, making you turn the pages faster and faster because you so desperately want to know what happens next.
How do we, as writers, create characters who sing and dance and leap? How do we tell a story that makes someone we have never meet sigh, laugh out loud and weep?
To me, character and plot are the most important cogs in the well-oiled machine that is a working story. It is also where many writers fail.
Let’s start with character, the mainspring of any story’s mechanics.
Character building is, I think, one of the trickiest parts of writing a novel, and the one factor that can transform a mediocre book into a marvellous one. Usually our favourite books are the ones in which we wish the main character was our friend.
When writing about the books of Edith Nesbit, Noel Streatfield invented what she called the ‘bus test’: ‘One way of gauging the aliveness of a family in a children’s book is to ask yourself “Would I know them if they sat opposite me in a bus?”’
I think this is a test for all characters in all books – could you, for example, recognise Jo March and her sisters? Would you recognise Harry Potter or Miss Havisham? What about Sherlock Holmes? Scarlett O’Hara? Peter Pan?
Sometimes characters just appear in your imagination with a strong voice all of their own.
Sometimes you need to build them painstakingly from the ground up and wait for them to come to life.
I often find it takes about the first quarter of the first draft (around 20,000 words) for my characters to really begin to move and talk naturally. So don’t worry if you find it takes you a while to really connect – this is quite normal.
William Faulkner said: ‘It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands upon his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.’
First, let’s consider what exactly a ‘character’ is.
Characters are the people who populate your story.
Characterisation: the process by which a writer makes those characters seem real to the reader.
Protagonist: the hero or heroine; the primary character or point of view with whom the reader connects and empathises
Antagonist: the character or force that stands directly opposed to the protagonist and gives rise to the conflict of the story.
Foil: character whose behaviour and values provides a contrast to the protagonist in order to highlight their personalities i.e. weak to strong, quiet to talkative
Antihero: protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. He may weak and ineffectual; or greedy and cruel. It is much harder to build empathy for an anti-hero.
Static character: does not change throughout the work and the reader’s knowledge of that character does not grow.
Dynamic character: undergoes some kind of change because of the action in the plot. Usually the protagonist of a story is a dynamic character and their growth towards self-realisation and wisdom is the true narrative arc.
Flat character: embodies one or two qualities or traits that can be readily described in a brief summary. Can sometimes be:
Stock character: embodies stereotypes such as the ‘dumb blonde’ or ‘the cruel stepmother’ and so forth.
Round characters: more complex than flat or stock characters, and often display the inconsistencies and internal conflicts found in most real people. They can grow and change and ‘surprise convincingly’.
Showing and Telling: Authors have two major methods of presenting characters: showing and telling. Usually authors use a combination of both.
Showing: allows the author to present a character talking and acting, and lets the reader infer what kind of person the character is.
Telling: the author describes and evaluates the character for the reader.
Characters can be convincing, whether they are presented by showing or by telling, as long as their actions are motivated.
Character Tags: everyone has certain individual mannerisms such as chewing their nails, sitting with one foot on top of the other, playing with their hair, etc. Try to find one or two that will help define each character i.e. a nervous girl who chews her bottom lip, a confident man who stands too close. A character tag can evoke the personality of a character far more powerfully than whole paragraphs of explanation. However, be careful not to overuse them.
Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au
United States (and beyond)
United Kingdom (and beyond)
Australia (and beyond)
Writing Teen Novels