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How to Create Unforgettable Characters for Your Novel

Updated on December 3, 2010

Breathe Life into Your Characters

Great characters make great novels. Even if your story and plot are thin, if you have fantastic, fully fleshed out characters with unique and interesting perspectives, you can fashion an entire book that readers will have a hard time putting down. This is true because in real life often times there are no plots or intricate story lines, but if you just look all around you and you are fairly perceptive, you will find no shortage of wonderful characters.

This is the great "secret" that the most heralded writers of our time have discovered. Great characters are all around us. The better your observation skills the easier it will be to piece together your cast of characters from the very real people that populate your life.

The best authors are great listeners and even better snoops. They will listen, unobserved, to the conversations of strangers. They will make mental notes or even jot down tidbits into their notebooks. Some go so far as to record the conversations of others in order to make their dialogue more realistic. Quentin Tarantino once told me that he would actually sit behind couples on the bus and record their conversations on a hand held tape recorder. We all know how realistic and crackling his dialogue scenes are, especially in films like "Reservoir Dogs" or the incomparable "Pulp Fiction". If you want to learn to write dialogue, watching these films is a great way to start.

Great characters can take on many forms. They can be the derelict on the corner or the president of the university. You need to be fearless sometimes and perhaps strike up a conversation with that homeless man you see every day. Find out what makes him tick and why he ended up the way he did.

Interview skills are very important in gaining access to people's deeper thoughts, emotions, and personalities. You need to get past their defense mechanisms and probe past the stock answers.

Remember, every insight you get from interviewing a stranger or listening to a conversation you should memorialize in writing, on video, or on some sort of recording, otherwise you could end up forgetting it.

Use What You Learn

Sometimes we are afraid to put some stranger's actual words into the mouths of our heroes and villains. But that is what will bring them to life. This is what will give them the realistic feeling that you want the reader to come away with. If the reader cannot believe the character, then it does not matter how great your story is. Wilbur Smith is a very popular writer and has sold millions of copies around the world, but his dialogue is always stilted and false sounding, in my humble opinion. His stories are grand and the plots are tight, but the characters could use some work.

No matter how great the characters sound, however, they still need to have a history, a back story. In order to get deep, multi-layered characters you need to create extensive, well written and heavily researched character studies. Character studies can and should be long and extensive. You need to know all about the people that you are going to put into your book, and that includes where they were born, how they grew up, what incidents shaped their early formative years, the people who grew up around them, etc.

The more you know about your character and the more you discover about them and what their wants, desires, habits, worries, fears, etc., are then the more that your character will pop off the page and enter the hearts and minds of your readers. Your fans will clamor for more when you give them realistic characters with wants and needs that they can relate to and more importantly, that they can believe.

Building truly believable characters is the single most important thing you can do for your book. Even if you have the best and most intriguing plot in the world, if your characters are thin, trite, or predictable, then your story will fall flat.

We have all seen movies like this. They have great cinematography, locations, sets, and explosions, but the dialogue is fake and forced or the characters are phony. We all know that movies like this are disappointing for that very same reason and it is because audiences everywhere want to care for the heroes and sometimes even the villains, but they must believe that the characters are real before they will suspend their disbelief and dive into your story.

Give Your Characters a Unique Voice

One of the best ways to build believable, unforgettable characters is to do some extensive writing exercises where you craft long dialogue scenes between several of them. This needs to be done after the research and after the character studies are done. You cannot put your characters into situations where they need to speak to each other without knowing all about them. What they are, who they are, how they were raised, what they do for a living, how they have been mistreated or spoiled in their lives, these things and much, much more will determine how each individual character will react and speak, and of course, how they will ACT in any given circumstance.

Start by putting two of your main characters together in a simple room or perhaps in a cafe having coffee. A mundane, ordinary, everyday situation works best. Have them begin as two strangers meeting for the first time. How will they get to know each other? What language will they use? If your character is naturally shy, how will the other one break the ice? If your character is naturally crafty then perhaps they will be using their dialogue to extract information from the other. There are millions of variations that you can use, but your characters need to be true to themselves and to their natures. To do this you have to know your character inside and out, and you can only know these things by doing extensive character studies.

Once you have worked on these studies and dialogue exercises, you will have the beginnings of great, unforgettable characters. Their voices will ring true to most experienced and avid readers. Most of them are savvy and very jaded and they can sniff out phony characters, especially on the stark black and white landscape of the printed page. It is hard to hide flimsy characters inside an elaborate story.

One of the most wonderful stories ever written is "The Lord of The Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien and although the world he creates is incredibly massive and awe inspiring, it is all of the wonderful characters he creates that breathe real life into the yarn.

Please do not skimp on time spent with your creations. These characters are your wards and your children and you must treat them with care, respect, and the attention that they deserve if you want them to flourish and become the well-formed characters that will bring joy, fear, sorrow, happiness, and a myriad of other emotions to your deserving readers.


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    • noirepiphany profile image

      Anirban Mukherjee 4 years ago from South East Asia

      I have to say that this hub stands out a lot from the other similar ones I have read. It has an almost methodical and motherly approach to the concept of character drafting.

      Voted up and intresting.

      Will help those a lot who are just stepping into the quicksand of imagination.

    • AhalitaMoonfire profile image

      AhalitaMoonfire 4 years ago from Ohio

      Great information, I plan to use what you have written in my first working novel

    • Fictioneer profile image

      Scott Cooper 4 years ago from Orlando, Florida

      Great information, I plan to use what you have written in my next novel.

    • bludstream profile image

      bludstream 5 years ago

      Thanks jainismus!

    • jainismus profile image

      Mahaveer Sanglikar 5 years ago from Pune, India

      Useful for fiction writers.