How to Write a Novel to the End: Defining Characters in Your Story
Creating the characters in your story might require you talk to yourself or stare into space — job benefits for a writer, right?
In all seriousness, character development is a vital aspect of writing a novel. The most amazing plot imaginable wouldn’t amount to much if centered around wooden characters. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at defining your characters.
Dynamic Characters Versus Static Characters
The first thing to sort out is which characters will be dynamic characters and which will remain static.
- A dynamic character grows and changes internally throughout the course of the story.
- A static character exists to further the plot and doesn’t change within the story’s context.
This brief video does a good job of defining how this works in a story.
Dynamic characters call for character arcs that cause their perceptions, attitudes, and definitions to shift, translating into a change in behavior. They are then able to overcome the obstacles that held them back from attaining the goal they strive to win.
Develop a Story Line with a Theme gives examples to show you how to use a story problem and theme to round out character arcs within the story structure of your novel.
Every character should have a defining desire. A dynamic character should have a goal to win or avoid something important. Obstacles arise to prevent its attainment, however a shift in circumstance leading to a change in perception makes that possible. Your protagonist’s greatest desire propels the main story line, but giving the other dynamic characters interweaving arcs adds layers to your story and allows for the development of subplots. Your characters’ desires may counter or run parallel to one another to create interesting conflicts or alliances. This sort of complexity can make a story come to life.
You can often turn around a character’s greatest desire to find a fear you can develop into obstacles your character will face. For example, a woman who wants to hold onto her workaholic husband by giving him a child fears losing him. Obstacles that prevent her from gaining her husband’s attention by becoming pregnant might be that she discovers she is unable to have children, he is tempted by another woman, or that he is dead-set against having children. Working out these obstacles sets your story line in motion.
You’ll need to know a lot about the dynamic characters in your story, but the static characters may be less defined, depending on their importance. Details to know about your characters include background, belief system, appearance, traits, quirks, desires, and fears. Keep in mind the focus of the story as you define your characters.
Contrast and Emphasis
Here are some techniques I find handy for character development:
- Contrast: Black just looks blacker next to white.
- Emphasis: With everything black, we forget that white exists.
- Contrast: If your story is about a grieving widow afraid to trust, perhaps she isolates herself in a community of young marrieds. The glaring differences between her lifestyle and her neighbor’s serves to highlight her loneliness.
- Emphasis: Perhaps this widow carries on an uneasy truce with a stray cat that wanders onto her isolated farm.
- Contrast: A teenage boy who longs to revenge his fathers’ death lives in an Amish community.
- Emphasis: This teenage boy lives in a ghetto rife with gang violence.
- Contrast: A young girl afraid of rejection enrolls in a parochial school with a tight-knit social structure that excludes her.
- Emphasis: This young girl enters a school for students who don’t fit into the school system.
- Contrast: The grieving widow afraid to trust was once a counselor for rape victims.
- Emphasis: This widow had an alcoholic father.
- Contrast: The vengeful teenager was once an altar boy.
- Emphasis: This teenager was once beaten by the father he wants to revenge.
- Contrast: The young girl afraid of rejection bullied others in her previous school.
- Emphasis: Her parents took the young girl out of her old school because a bully wouldn’t leave her alone.
- Contrast: The grieving widow thinks that finding love again would only bring someone else into her loneliness.
- Emphasis: This widow believes remarrying would betray her deceased husband.
- Contrast: The vengeful teenager thinks peace will come from revenge.
- Emphasis: This teenager believes he’ll never find peace again.
- Contrast: The young girl thinks she’s not as important as others.
- Emphasis: The young girl believes others don’t matter.
- Contrast: The grieving widow has a sultry appearance.
- Emphasis: The grieving widow looks like a nun.
- Contrast: The vengeful teenager resembles an altar boy.
- Emphasis: The vengeful teenager looks like a rebel.
- Contrast: The young girl is attractive.
- Emphasis: The young girl has frizzy hair, zits and glasses.
- Contrast: The grieving widow watches her neighbors as they come and go.
- Emphasis: This widow keeps her blinds shut tight, even when the sun shines.
- Contrast: The vengeful teenager cries over movies.
- Emphasis: This teenager cuts off other people in traffic.
- Contrast: The young girl wants to fit in but doesn’t respond when others approach her.
- Emphasis: This young girl talks too much when she gets nervous.
Desires and Fears
- Contrast: The grieving widow longs to love again but is afraid to trust.
- Emphasis: The grieving widow wants to be left alone even while she fears becoming a hermit.
- Contrast: The vengeful teenager seeks revenge but fears his softer side.
- Emphasis: This teenager is afraid his desire for revenge will make him a monster.
- Contrast: The young girl wants to fit in but fears the demands of popularity.
- Emphasis: The young girl’s fear of rejection thwarts her desire to fit in.
Outline the most important characters in your book using the categories and the tools I’ve illustrated. I suggest you use a spreadsheet or keep a notebook with notes for each character. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself hunting back through your manuscript for these details.
Taking the time to think these things through beforehand will strengthen your novel, however your characters will probably change and grow as your story unfolds. Sometimes they start down different paths than you planned for them to travel. Knowing the difference between a subplot and a bunny trail will help you decide whether to follow them or pull them back on course.
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