Characterisation, Part One

Characters are the hardest part of a novel. I've split this discussion into two posts.  Today's post will talk generally and offer some ways to get started.  Tomorrow I'll share some of my personal characterisation issues.

You've got to get characters right, otherwise your whole story won't work. No matter what your character does or what plot they're involved with, readers have to connect with them. You could have the most exciting plot of all time, but if you've got bland or flat characters, no one will be interested. 

If your story is stumbling or you're getting bored, take a good look at your characters and see if they're the problem.  And don't worry: if you think your characters are the problem, they can be saved.  If you're passionate about them, you'll do what you need to do to make them the best they can be.

Where To Begin

I hate spiders, but I do love a good spider diagram.  Thanks for showing me these, GCSE History teacher!

Think of your favourite character from your favourite book, TV show or film. Think of why you like them and what makes them engaging. Also, and this is SUPER MEGA IMPORTANT TO WRITING GOOD CHARACTERS, what are your favourite character's faults? Even if the character never explicitly refers to his or her faults, they should be clear to you, the reader.

Okay, now look at one of your characters, preferably the main character of anything you've written, and think what you love about them and what their faults are. Make lists, if you find them helpful!

I love post-it notes!

Why do characters have to have faults? Without them they won't be realistic. We're human; we all have faults. Your characters need them too to feel real.

Let me give you an example:

Character A is beautiful. Everyone loves her. She's a genius and she's never struggled for anything in her life. Her family are wealthy and she has everything she needs. She's the most delightful person anyone will ever meet: charming and caring and always ready to put others first. But when her life gets thrown into chaos after her mother dies suddenly, she deals with it perfectly and never dumps her grief on anyone. She copes, carries on, and life remains wonderful despite the tragedy.

Character B is ordinary. She loves her friends, isn't all that popular, but she's happy. She's an average student and works hard for the grades she gets. Life isn't always straight-forward, and then one day her parents die. Her life is thrown in to chaos, nothing make sense. Lost in grief, she doesn't know how to stay in contact with her friends and lashes out because she's devastated. It takes a long time and the support of her siblings and closest friend, but she makes it through and rediscovers her love for life.

Both are clichéd, I admit, but what it all boils down to is which character will go through a transformation between the story's opening and conclusion? And whose story will be a more realistic and engaging examination of grief and moving on?

Characters need to grow and it should show across the story. If your character is perfect from the beginning, they don't have room to develop. And while readers will engage with characters because of what they're good at, it's their flaws and battles with them that keep the plot moving and keep the reader involved. Characters have to struggle, whether it's a struggle to save a relationship or to save their own life.

Building good characters takes practice. They're the force driving the plot and they've got to be well-rounded, realistic and believable. If you're looking to create a character and have a story in mind, try answering the following questions and see what you come up with:
  1. Male or female?
  2. Age?
  3. Nationality?
  4. Family situation?
  5. Occupation?
  6. Interests?
  7. Motivations for what they do?
  8. Beliefs?
You can use the spider diagram model from above or just answer them like exam questions.  Don't worry too much about physical descriptions to begin with unless it's something that impacts the character significantly.  Names are important too, but we'll look at that next time.

Let me know how you all get on!

Happy Writing!


  1. Make... lists? ♥

    I find that characters are the most difficult part of writing. The story usually comes to me first, and I am terrible at creating the characters to match! This is very helpful. I can't wait to see the second part about names!

  2. Laura: Oh yes, lists ;)

    I think you get the basic plot, then the characters arrive and they keep it going and throw in all the twists the plot needs to keep going.


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