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Character Development in Your Novel

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 12 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Novel Novel Writing Development

Character Development in Your Novel

When thinking of writing a novel, most people think first about the story. But if you want to write compelling books with stories readers will really care about, it's essential to devote some serious time and attention to character development. It's identification with characters that makes novels interesting to most readers, and poorly drawn characters can quickly become annoying. Also, whilst any half decent writer can chance upon a good story, character development is an area of novel writing where you really have the chance to demonstrate your skill. But how should the process begin?

Establish your Characters

In the very earliest stages of setting out your plot, you should be thinking about the characters you're going to need. Generally it's a good idea to keep the number of main characters small so that you have room to develop them all properly, but that doesn't mean that there won't sometimes be minor characters with important roles, or that minor characters aren't worth paying attention to. Try to make a list of all the different people in your novel - all the speaking parts or significant walk-on roles, as it were. This may need to be added to as you write. Make notes, beside each one, of their important actions, of their necessary character traits and of the things the story tells you about them, such as how old they are and where they live.

Get to Know your Characters

Once you have established the essential information about each character in your novel, spend some time getting to know them, one by one. If the plot tells you, for instance, that Albert is 56 years old and works in a grocer's shop, ask yourself what he's done with the rest of his life, whether his father fought in the war and how that affected his upbringing, how he came to work in the grocery trade, how it's affected his attitude to the food he eats at home, etc. Even if the novel doesn't take a direct look at his home life, think about what that's like, as it will affect his attitudes and behaviour. Does he have marital troubles? Is he excited about his son's success at college? The better you get to know him, the more easily you'll be able to write about his actions, because you'll know instantly what he'd do in a given situation, just as you'd know it about a friend. You can also take this opportunity to expand on the broader themes of your novel by finding the small points of similarity between different characters' lives.

Do your Research

One of the most important aspects of novel writing is research, and this is equally important when it comes to creating fictional people. Take the time to find out about your different characters' occupations so that you can anticipate their interests, frustrations, and ways of making small talk. Try visiting similar workplaces and chatting to people there. Decide where your characters live and find out about those areas - if possible, spend some time walking round them yourself. Of course, existing experience can also constitute a sort of research. If you've lived abroad, for instance, you might develop a character whose background you can fill in by drawing on that experience. The important thing is to remember that each character is an individual - don't reduce them to mere aspects of yourself, or they'll all start to seem too similar. As an exercise, try creating characters you don't like and writing about them in a non-hostile way. Try to consume points of view, such as newspaper editorials, which you don't personally agree with, and think about what life might be like for someone who did.

Trace the Character Journey

As well having a main plot, every novel consists of a series of smaller plots - the individual journeys of the characters moving through it. Think about these carefully before you begin to write and return to them after you've completed your first draft to make sure they've remained coherent. Consider how that person, without a wider awareness of everything that's going on in the novel, experiences their own journey.

If you use a first person narrator, remember that your narrator is also a character and don't be lulled into the sensation that you're speaking with your own voice. Narrators don't have to be one hundred percent reliable and they may often pass on information they don't fully understand, or reveal things about themselves unintentionally. These possibilities give the author room to develop them like any other character and, through them, to tell a bigger story.

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