Book Writing Basics – Characters

Good morning world! Tis I, Olive again, here with another wonderful episode of “Book Writing Basics”! This week I’ll be covering the basics of creating characters for your storyline. In the future, I’ll have another series of posts covering character types and how to write them (writing a protagonist vs an antagonist), how to develop your character, and much more! For the purposes of the “basics” posts, I shall keep this to the bare bones of what to consider when putting together your arsenal of characters.

Number of characters: The amount of characters in your story really determines the shape of your story. You can’t have 20-some (main) characters and then only develop 5 of them because you do not have enough space to write extensively about the rest. If you can only properly develop and connect with 5 characters, make your story a 5-character story (not including passersby – characters that are only there to be temporary shopkeepers, persons walking by on the street, bystanders. Ordinary folk who make your world have a decent population). A couple important things to remember when determining the size of your cast is:

  1. Each character is a person – is there enough space in the story to develop them as living beings with pasts, or are they just empty role-fillers?
  2. What role does you character play in the story? If you need to make your cast smaller, can that role be transferred to a more rounded character? Oftentimes, stories with a minimal cast of Villain, hero, sidekick(s), love-interest(depending on your plot), and mentor are all that is needed for a well-rounded story. Of course, this outline can always be expanded upon (and roles can have multiple characters within them) as you find needs in your story.

Role: The character’s role in your story is the most important thing to think about when deciding what and how many characters to use in your story. All your characters need jobs. Ask each of your preexisting characters (if you have any) what purpose they have in the story. They should “answer” with things like, “I am a close friend and confidant of the protagonist, but I betray them.” Or “My skills and connections with this city’s criminals are a vital tool in our mission.” And the list could go on for eternity. On the other hand, responses like, “I am the love-interest,” or, “I die and cause tension,” is too weak of a purpose. The characters must not only serve a purpose for the protagonist (works against them, is their love-interest, etc), but they must have their own agenda. Sometimes, that agenda works in harmony with the protagonists, but other times it causes them to clash. It is always important when writing the characters to make sure they have their own lives and plans, that don’t always revolve around the protagonist.

Personality: If you wanted to classify your character by a personality test, there are many tests out there that can do it, each with their own style of determining and classifying your characters. I would recommend the “Myers-Briggs” personality type indicator; more specifically, the “16 Personalities” site (which uses the Myers-Briggs system to create detailed assessments on your/your character’s personality). Not only will you get a better idea of how your character will realistically react to situations, but during the quiz you may find questions you may never have thought about asking your character before. (Also, the system is free.) There are also hundreds of character questionnaires (for developing your character) to be found online if you really want to dive into the deep end of knowing your character inside and out.

Appearance: The appearance of your character(s) is important because: a) you need to have their likeness in your head; and b) your readers also need an image in their head that they can relate to your character. A common mistake when describing these qualities, is somewhere near the beginning of the book, giving a laundry-list of the characteristic of the main character. What I would recommend for solving this problem is simply tell the reader (at the beginning) what things stand out about the character. Like, if you were to meet the character for the first time, what would stand out? Tattoos? Shaved hair? Tall and intimidating? You get the point. Over the course of the story, you can drop hints as to what the character looks like (though I would not focus on that, it could prove to be distracting from the main storyline). Though, one of the reasons you could add more detail to your description over the course of the book, is if your character views appearance as a priority in their life.

Background: Every character has a past, and that past determines everything about who they are in your story. Tragic backstories can either lead to heroes who have become strong because of their endurance through trial, or villains who didn’t know how to deal with the pain, causing them to turn to things that they think will make them feel better. Even the characters that don’t always take center-stage have lives before the protagonist. It’s always a balance between unrealistic or over-the-top tragic back-stories, and backstories that are downright boring. You don’t want the character to have too tragic a backstory (nor do you want to bring it up often) lest your readers start to not sympathize with your character because they think your character whines or is unrealistic. On the other hand, if a character has had a relatively pampered life, that luxury way of living may prove to give the character obstacles to overcome later down the road (and during the story). Everyone has trials in some form or another in their life; you just have to decide which trials you think will equal the growth you want from your characters.

Relationships: Relationships between characters are vastly important for your story. Inter-character relations, good or bad, can make or break your story. Dating characters that are too sappy and love-struck can make your readers roll their eyes every time they confess their love for each other.  The relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist is especially crucial. Aside from downright hating each other, you can make them fall in love, but with completely polar goals and personalities. Nothing is just good and evil. A well-rounded character is some good, some bad, making it harder for both your reader and the other characters to fully determine what is right and wrong. To keep your story from being one-dimensional, think of ways to blur the lines between good and evil with your characters’ relationships. The “good side” doesn’t always have to get along. Agenda can get in the way and relationships can crumble under pressure. The “bad” side doesn’t have to be pure evil. The evil henchman association goes bowling every Tuesday for fun, and sometimes Mr. Bad The Great has a great personal relationship with each of his underlings, going out of his way to memorize and greet them by name. Point is, mix up the relationships in the story. If you have a lull in your story, or things are going too well, redefine the relationships and turn everything on its head.

Realism: This is a point that has been laced into almost all of the previous categories above. Realism, even in the most fanciful of stories, is what will tie your reader to the story and keep them immersed into everything you write.  Characters that don’t have “human” flaws will be shallow and unrelatable. Worlds that have too many completely unrealistic traits, unrecognizable from our reality, will simply be confusing for all parties involved. Realism doesn’t mean keeping to all the guidelines that make reality what it is for us, but it means drawing clear guidelines for your own story, and presenting them in such a way that when the reader steps into your world, they can almost touch it.


And that’s all for this week’s Writing Advice post and, the Book Writing Basics series! Thank you all for reading! Feel free to leave comments for anything you found particularly insightful or useful in your book-writing travels~

Until next time!

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