With an overview of your plot in place, let’s work on the most important element of any piece of fiction: the characters. Every other aspect of your story – plot theme, genre, exposition, engagement – depends on the characters you create to wrap them around. They are the single element that will keep your readers absorbed; even one believable, fascinating character that inhabits their imagination can make up for less than perfect plotting or writing style.
Think back to any memorable novel, story, film or TV series and see if it wasn’t one or two of the main characters who kept you reading or viewing, stayed with you long after the end, and who you still see, hear, love or hate in your head, even if you’ve forgotten the details of the plot.
A key step to creating such characters is the ‘composting’ process. It is vital to spend time living imaginatively with your cast before committing them to paper, letting them take shape over time, growing from a look or single trait into a rounded personality with a life of their own.
Often, your main protagonists will have introduced themselves as the starting point of your novel or short story; surrounding or lesser characters may take longer to materialise.
To build a credible character, you could start from someone you know, from life, the media or other fiction, making sure they grow into an original creation as you envisage them in your own settings. Never leave a character recognisable as a real person – for legal as well as creative reasons!
Alternatively, start from an archetype – heroine, villain, confidante, trickster – or a plot requirement – jealous ex, interfering parent – and gather physical and emotional traits around this.
Although the details may not play a part in your story, you, the writer, must know all your main characters’ ‘back stories’. Where they were born, grew up and were educated; how they were raised in what kind of family; the key emotional events in their lives before they arrived at your starting point – all these will have produced the attitude, motivation and purpose which are essential to writing a convincing character.
Whether you have all this material at your fingertips, or feel stuck on some areas, the next section of your story’s ‘bible’ is getting your characters into written form.
Characters aren’t robots: you don’t design and build them then expect them to perform a function; they must be people who develop organically through their own actions, reactions and interactions.
This exercise, though, will give you a solid grounding from which to further build your plot and storyline.
Whether you are writing your fiction ‘bible’ on paper or electronically, start a new section called Characters. Assign a page to each main character headed by their name, and perhaps half a page to each lesser character (don’t get carried away by detail at this point).
Depending on the structure of your work, you might want to group them in sub-sections such as Main Plot, Sub-plot 1, Sub-plot 2; or in different families or settings. The more order you bring to your ‘bible’ now, the more clarity it will offer when you start writing.
Give each character a factual background: date of birth, place of upbringing, family of origin, education, dates of key life events (marriage, trauma, career achievements…) their current home and environment; and brief physical description, although this is less important to readers than you may imagine, they will always create their own picture. If possible, assign them an archetype.
Follow this information with a one-line description of their role in your story, such as ‘Main protagonist, unwilling seeker of truth about his mother’s murder, falls in love with X after initial dislike’. You can return to this succinct summary to keep your character and plot on track while writing.
After the facts, allow your imagination freedom to describe your character’s emotional base – especially the motivation for their action and purpose in the story.
You might want to note down a typical snatch of dialogue or scenario. Quirks are a great way of signposting them to the reader, such as turns of phrase, beliefs, habits or tics – although don’t let these become clichés or excuses for real characterisation later.
Keep these descriptions to the suggested length to clarify and focus your thoughts and keep your full creative powers for the story itself.
Next week we’ll work on the setting of your fiction.
Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…
“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…AND, check out Lucy’s novels here