Know Your Novel’s Characters: 3 EZ Strategies

Portrait of the Artist as a Dead Cat

It’s often said that story is character and character is story. This all important piece of your novel becomes the anchor for your entire book. This fact alone should get you motivated to produce the best, most unforgettable characters possible.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are 3 easy ways to understand and “know” that main character:

Make a Character Chart.

This is much more than height, weight or eye color. You can include these things, but try to go far beyond outer appearances. Know your character’s education, childhood hurts, present and past problems and habits. Take time to observe people–both strangers and your immediate friends & family. You can often mix different people’s real life troubles and strengths to create your own unique character. This technique can also keep you from getting into hot water with friends or relatives! As you fill in your chart, have fun with it too. Imagine which famous celebrity will play your character when the movie version comes out. Give your character a sense of humor–it will help your reader care, especially if your novel has dark elements. Some writers do all this very formally, with notebooks or a program called Scrivener (available for purchase online at, which gives you a virtual bulletin board on which you can post character development. Or you can simply understand all these things–but don’t forget that you said your main character has blue eyes and the next day write them as brown. 🙂

Write a Letter.

Channel your inner character by allowing that person to dictate a letter to you. In it, you’ll want the character to answer some questions: What does this character want? What’s standing in her way? What is he willing to do in order to overcome the obstacles and win the goal? I think it’s good to put this letter in first person, as if the character is sitting next to you. When you begin don’t necessarily require the answers to the above questions right away. Instead, tap into your subconscious by letting the character loose. Just write whatever the character is telling you to. Later, go back and analyze the letter and then add the questions back in. If you have trouble with the goal, obstacles or other details, you may need to raise the stakes. Is the goal worthy? Why is Main Character desperate to attain it? Your reader can’t care if the stakes are low or your character doesn’t want the goal desperately.

Give Unforgettable Qualities.

Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) advises that readers esteem certain qualities in a character over all others: an inner conflict, self-regard and wit or spontaneity. A character who is willing to forgive (at least by the end) and someone who will sacrifice himself for the good of others is a character who will be unforgettable. This requires a more complex view of any character, but these qualities can make or break your readers’ ability to care. Don’t just make your character strong, make her endure. Don’t leave your character at simply wanting something, give him a goal that benefits others (or even the world) too. When you imagine a character, you must find the extraordinary in the ordinary person. Do this and your character will be larger-than-life.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *