Building characters

Learn about the importance of character development in your book and how evolving your characters is critical to capturing readers’ attention.

Your story starts and ends with your characters. It’s a writer’s job to take the reader on a journey, and how a character evolves as they experience and overcome conflict is part of that journey.

Whether real or imaginary, the characters serve as the heart of what makes a story compelling. You’ll need to get to know your characters — know exactly what they want, their deepest fears, their emotions, and what motivates them. You’ll also need to explore how they look, their body language, their patterns of speech, and their unique gestures or phrases. Of course, you’ll also need to explore how they interact with each other.

“Plot needs to be driven by character. Any great book is a marriage of plot and character. Character cannot drive a book and plot alone cannot drive a book, they both need each other,” said Noah Lukeman, author and publisher. “When characters are being true to themselves and being organic and being original, the quirk of a character can effect and even drive the plot. But without the plot lurking in the background, a great character is just drifting on the stage so they both really need each other.”

Some authors know the plot first, then create characters to carry the story. Many also work in reverse, creating characters first and using their action to drive conflict and carry the plot.

“My books always seem to come to me characters first. They don’t come as a book or a story. It’s just a character,” said Jill Shalvis, a New York Times bestselling author of contemporary romance and fiction. “I’ll read the back of a cereal box. I listen, I’m so rude, I listen on people’s private conversations and people watch and everything is fuel for me for how to create a character.”

You can also try short writing exercises with different characters — from protagonists to villains. Try writing short snippets of dialogue or action, just to experience how that character acts or speaks.

“I write a paper for each character. What do they look like? What do they do with their spare time? What is their profession? What are their favorite colors? What are their beliefs? What are their morals and what are their goals?” said author Aileen Erin. “All those things I put on the paper and then I add all the key facts. I like to keep on the Notes app in my phone which also syncs on my laptop and my desktop, so no matter where I am I’ve got all the key pieces of information there.”

Erin said that she keeps these notes open as a way to go back and find pieces of her characters to work with. Other authors like Johnny Truant, of independent publisher Sterling & Stone, agree.

“One of the things that we do is extensive preparation before even beginning the work on depth of character. Who was this person? What is their earliest traumatic memory? What was their relationship with their mother like?” Truant said. “And this is stuff that never makes the story. It’s stuff that we as storytellers need to understand.”

As you’re beginning to work on your characters, ask yourself a few of the following questions posed by the authors in the video and write down your answers:

  • What does this character believe in?
  • What keeps this character up at night?
  • What clothing does this character wear?
  • What is this character’s earliest memory?
  • What is this character’s favorite food? Why?
  • Does this character have family? What are they like?
  • What college would they have attended in the real world?

The answers to these simple questions can go a long way in building authentic, relatable characters.