How to write awesome characters

One of the things I love most about writing, is creating the characters. There’s few things that are more fun (or more procrastinating-making) than dreaming up a tribe of people and figuring out everything from what they look like to what they love to eat. I’ve always been super clear on wanting to write characters that readers would never forget. Life isn’t boring, and books and their characters shouldn’t be either – life is much too short for that!

My favourite books have characters who have stayed with me long after finishing the story. Richard from The Beach, Framboise Dartigen from Five Quarters of the Orange and Kya from Where the crawdads sing all had something that made me sympathise with and root for them, regardless of what they did. For me, the thing that makes me want to keep reading a book are the characters, not the plot. 

Writing What Goes Down was a fun way to get into the shared traits of family members, as it centres around Seph and her mum, Laurel. If you’re an aspiring writer, then after deciding whether your potential plot has legs, sketching out the characters would be the next thing I’d recommend. Here are three things that helped me to create rounded, believable and (I’m told) identifiable characters:

1. Don’t base your lead character too closely on yourself or family/friends

The old adage says that we should write what we know, and who else do we know better than ourselves, friends and family? Looking back on old stories I wrote, the characters were versions of myself, and the same goes for fellow writer friends of mine. Every one of them felt unnatural and just didn’t seem to work. It’s often unintentional, but when you write something so close to home, it can be hard to make them a fully rounded character with the flaws and complexities needed to hook a reader in. By putting some distance between yourself as the writer and the personality of the character, you can put them in any situation conceivable. 

2. Choose their names wisely

I’m not a parent, but I imagine it’s not much different to naming your newborn. After all, our books are our babies, right? I can spend hours searching for the right name for my characters, and rightly so, because it’s important. A reader might expect different things from a character named Beatrice than one named Stacey and while that’s not necessarily fair, it’s also true. Try to make the character name fit the character and remember, it can always be changed if you don’t like it later. While I was writing What Goes Down, I knew that Rose wasn’t the right name for my lead character. It was only after writing more and understanding who she was, what she did and whet she’d go through, that I changed it to Seph (Persephone).

3. Make them Real

Okay, so we don’t base them on ourselves and we need to give them a good name. What next? By making your character real in your mind, everything else will follow. A great tool I found was to fill in a character questionnaire. There are loads of them online, varying from a few basic questions to pages of ever more complex and seemingly random ones. They all have the same aim: getting to know your characters. Answering questions about the character’s name, age, astrology sign,  what they carry in their bag/pockets, what their earliest memory was or what they’d do with a million pounds helps you to make them real. Soon, I was asking myself what Seph, Laurel or Nico might do in situations I was facing in real life. It might not all go into your book but once you know and believe in your characters, chances are your readers will, too.

I read somewhere that writers live in an imaginary world for 90% of the time. Why not fill it with awesome characters?

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I’ll be posting updates on progress, so stick around for that by dropping your email address below and signing up to my mailing list (and you’ll get a free copy of my short story, Pull).

Natalie Martin is a bestselling Women’s Fiction author with a passion for empowering women through story. She writes about love, life and the tricky parts inbetween. All We Left Unsaid is her fourth novel and will be released in November 2021.

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