Have you ever wondered what makes a book a bestseller?
A 2018 study analysed that the type of books most likely to reach bestseller status were works of fiction or biographies/memoirs.
Why? Well, if I had to take a guess I would say it’s because they are character led. People like people and as human beings, we’re designed to be curious about others, real or imagined!
You may think that it’s the story that a reader engages with, but it’s really that relationship with your character. A reader must buy in to your character and care about what happens to them.
It’s also the character that drives the story. For example, if you put Jo from Little Women, Scarlett O’ Hara, and James Bond in one plot they would all react differently to the same set of circumstances, therefore you would end up with three different stories.
It’s also your character that creates that all important tension and conflict. Every book is based on a narrative arc – a rise in tension where a character tries to overcome a problem or challenge and it’s the character’s response that creates that tension and conflict for the reader – the story can not do that alone.
Ultimately, a well-done character will help you create a unique story and because I believe character is SO important, in this guide I’m going to take you through the steps that will help you go beyond the surface level to create multi-dimensional characters that your reader connects with through empathy and emotion.
I’ve also included a FREE character profile template sheet for you to use so you don’t have to create your own. This template will help you:
Remember the small details of your character. (I once read a manuscript where the main character’s eye colour changed from brown to blue halfway through.)
Develop the backstory of your character. While the complete backstory won’t necessarily make it into the book, as a writer you need to know this to determine your character’s motivations and consequent actions.
Start writing on those days when the brain isn’t working or you’re not feeling creative.
One thing to note is that a character profile document is not set in stone. It will change as you write - simply update your document to stay organised.
So here are the 5 steps to creating memorable characters:
STEP 1: CREATE A VISUAL
A visual of your main character is a fantastic way to bring your character to life. There are so many images online to choose from. It doesn’t have to be exact (I know authors who use celebrity photos as the visual for their character) but having an image that is similar can really help. For example, in my novel The Perfect Lie, one of the main characters was a guy called Paul. Because my novel included a dual timeline, I needed two versions of him - one as a teenager and one as a grown man. I envisioned the younger Paul easily but the grown man only really came to life once I found the below image.
STEP 2: WRITE DOWN THE PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES
Brainstorm a list of what your character looks like. Once you have these in place, answer the following questions:
How important are your character’s physical attributes to the story? For example, it’s impossible to think of Captain America as small and skinny. For his role, he needs to be strong and healthy to play his role of hero and rescuer.
What does your character feel about their attributes? In real life, we all have an opinion on what we look like, whether that’s positive or negative. For example, I’m only 5’2” and I feel I’m too short. On the other hand, I do like my eyes.
Which attribute on your list would make your character memorable? For example, do they have a stutter or a limp? A dimple in their cheek or a nervous tick?
STEP 3: WRITE DOWN THE EMOTIONAL BASELINE
When I say baseline, I mean your character’s disposition most of the time. Are they generally happy or do they have a tendency towards a darker outlook? Once you understand this, you can then move on to identifying triggers for the big emotions and how your character responds. For example:
What makes your character angry?
How does your character show their anger?
How do they react?
STEP 4: WRITE DOWN THE INTELLECTUAL ATTRIBUTES
It’s not enough to say your character is smart, it’s about how the intellectual level impacts the story. I’ll use Paul the teenager again, as an example. Paul is very intelligent and his goal is to become a doctor. His teachers believe he is capable, yet, throughout the story, the reader discovers many things that threaten his dream. His home life, which is poor, his parents which look down on ambition, and so on. In this instance, the character’s intellect plays a central role in the story. Another tip is to think beyond academic intelligence to emotional intelligence as well. A third element is to consider what the character learns during the story. You may not know this so early on but do keep it in mind as you write - it’s important that the reader understands how your character has changed during the narrative.
STEP 5: WRITE DOWN THE PHILOSOPHICAL ATTRIBUTES
Finally, brainstorm and list down what your character believes about life AND how they came to believe this. This is where your backstory of your character comes in. I know authors who write pages and pages of backstory or you could just do a few paragraphs. My advice is that whatever you know at the moment, write it down. It may change as you write the book and that’s fine - again, nothing is set in stone.
And that’s it! Hopefully, after spending the time brainstorming around these pillars, you should end up with a fairly good understanding of your character or at least have the foundations in place. Again, don’t worry if you don’t know all the information at once, your character will develop as you write.
You can go through this process as many times as you like but I would suggest doing it for all your main characters and any key secondary characters.
Don’t forget to download your free character profile template and if you know of any writers who would find this information useful, then please feel free to share using the icons below.
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