Writing Basics: Part One--Creating Characters

by Michelle J. Prima




So you finally have time to sit down and read that romance you picked up three weeks ago.  It was difficult to decide between the two books you had in your hands.  They both had beautiful covers, were both by authors you'd read and admired, and both were set in the time period you enjoy reading.  So why did you choose this book over the other?  The blurb on the back sounded like a more interesting plot line.  You crack open the book, settle down with your cup of herbal tea and begin reading.  But much to your horror, you don't read more then ten pages before you are totally disgusted with the hero, and have no sympathy whatsoever for the heroine.

Why is this?  The story sounded exciting on the back cover.  Why do you dislike the characters?  Because they weren't developed properly for the story.  So you put down the book, disappointed.  Why waste time on characters you can't identify with?  Your time would be better spent fleshing out your own characters for your own story.  Here are a few tips to help you create sympathetic, believable characters for your story.

The first thing you must do is identify the type of story you are writing.  Whether it be a romantic suspense or a British Historical, your characters will need to be shaped accordingly.

The are three Categories of Characters--walk-ons, minor characters and major characters.  Walk-ons appear only once or twice in your story, and are there to serve whatever purpose it is in the scene.  While they may make another character react or change, walk-ons are not themselves developed, since they will not be seen any more in the story.  Minor characters play a continuing role in the story, but aren't there for the entire story. They may be eccentric, or their flaws exaggerated.  They are given more time in the story as walk-ons, but are not as developed as main characters.  The main characters are the ones who will occupy most of your story.  Therefore, they are the ones who should receive 100% of the opening of your novel.  Your readers will expect any character who has an important or pivotal role in the first scene to appear again later with frequency. 

In a romance, your hero and heroine are main characters, but so are their friends or relatives who appear frequently as confidant, mentor or antagonist.  You must properly develop all your main characters according to their importance in the story.  You can do this by starting with a Background Character Interview.  Everyone has a past, and that is what shapes the type of person they become.  You need to do this with your main characters.  Create a past for them, so you know how they will react to situations. 

For example, an only child who was given everything, including a house, vacations and a car by his parents, will have a different reaction to losing his job than someone who has a mortgage to pay, kids to feed and a disabled parent living in his spare bedroom.  A woman who grew up with six brothers will interact with men differently than a woman who grew up with only her grandmother, mother and sisters. 

Determining who your characters WERE will decide who they will BECOME.  Were they criticized constantly that they've become insecure?  Or were they supported and encouraged to take chances and risks?  By answering the "WHY" (why do they react this way), you will make your characters more believable and sympathetic to the reader.  Even characters with negative traits can be sympathetic if you explain why they are that way, and if the character grows and changes to become a better person. 

Make your characters true to the story you are writing.  How many self-employed martial arts expert females were there in 19th century England?  Probably none.  How many are there living in your city now?  Probably several.  While you want to create characters who are different, you need to remain true to the times.  Yes, you can break some stereotypes.  It makes for a more interesting read.  But you need to explain WHY the character is a departure from the norm.  Otherwise the reader will not believe, and will become frustrated and put down the book. 

Related to this are the traits and personalities you give your characters.  Like their behaviors, their personality traits must be tied in to their backgrounds.  A young girl raised in a convent will be more prudent than a girl raised in a brothel with her mother the prostitute.  A boy whose parents always lied to him is going to be more skeptical than one raised in a vicar's home and attended daily mass.  Of course, that is not to say that children raised under any of these circumstances WILL grow up as we expect. And your characters don't have to, but if they do vary from the norm, you must have a very good explanation for the reader early on.

By remembering the above, you will create characters your readers will love or love to hate.




Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, Writer's Digest Books, 1988.

The Writer's Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, PhD., Writer's Digest Books, 1999.

Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon, Writer's Digest Books, 1996.


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