We are all accustomed to the types of writing one is bound to rely upon throughout school and in everyday circumstances; from essay writing and letters to stories and articles. However many of my students find that they come unstuck when they finally sit down to write a full-length story or novel, and the most common problem that seems to arise is how to write a realistic, living, breathing character.
Character is the central, essential lifeblood of a novel or story because if the reader doesn’t believe in, empathise with and truly care about your characters then your story cannot be a success, they simply will not believe in the reality of the world you have created. Character is what really drives storytelling and narrative; it is the thing that keeps us coming back to a good book again and again and also what prevents us from being able to put it down. That elusive, wonderful feeling that you have found a true friend or kindred spirit in a novel is priceless, and causing that feeling in your readers is the ultimate aim of all authors.
Of course, the entire process of imagining a character and bringing them to life would be far too long and complex to detail here, but here are some of my top tips for getting started and helping your character to develop realistically. I hope you find them useful!
One of the most common mistakes writers make with characters is diving right into what they are like here and now, in the story as it is being written, instead of working out how they made their way to their present state and position and what has made them who they are.
Even if your novel or story is set entirely in the present before you start writing you must begin by brainstorming the most important aspects of their past. If you only know the aspects of your character that you reveal in the novel, the reader will subconsciously be able to tell that they are just an invention. Imagine your character as a friend or a person you know – you don’t think of them as simply a person at the moment, but you think of them to be a mixture of all the things you know about them and their past.
So ask yourself as many questions as you can imagine about your character – where were they born? What was their immediate family like? What have been the most important moments of their life What was their education like? What is their world view and why is it that way? Try to really get to know them until you are confident that you understand them completely.
This will inevitably give a much fuller and more rounded picture of your character when you begin to write; even if the background information you have worked out isn’t actually included in the text.
The way that a character speaks is very important because it is here that you make the distinction between their voice and the narrator or author’s and it is here that the reader often subconsciously decides whether or not they believe in the character as a separate entity. You must ensure that your character does not speak with the same inflexions, style and characteristics that you have used in the narrative sections of the text, or the reader will immediately associate them with the author and see them as your creation.
In deciding how a character speaks it is very important to consider the influences and experiences you decided upon during the ‘background’ section. Was your character well enough educated to always get their grammar right? Does their local area have a specific linguistic influence? Do they have an accent? It is often useful to bear in mind that, a character’s opinion of themselves is often most evident in the way in which they choose to speak.
Remember that a character’s speech is not only reliant on whether they have a specific accent, but also the words and vocabulary they choose to use and the length and complexity of their sentences. All these aspects add to the overall, rounded view of them as a real person in the eyes of the reader.
What is your character’s motive?
Perhaps above all else, it is very important that you know the exact driving motive of your character in order to portray them realistically. Everything a character says does and thinks should be irrevocably linked to their overall motive. What does your character want? Why are they in your story or novel? What are they looking for, searching for, wanting, missing, needing?
It is very important that you are absolutely certain of your main character’s driving motive in your mind before you begin to write because subtly influence the way that you write about them, helping them to come across as a real person.
The next stage will be to break down your character’s motives into smaller, individual objectives for each scene or chapter. For example, the driving motive of your character could be the love of another character, but in a certain scene, they might need to convince another character of somebody’s guilt in order to elicit their help. For that scene, their objective would be to persuade and convince that character, and this should be evident in everything that they do, think or say.
By making your characters’ overall motive and driving force clear, you truly bring them to life as a real person with real aims, goals, thoughts and feelings. This truly is the key to writing a successful novel.