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How To Develop Character

Karen Osman with her novel The Perfect Lie

Whether you’re writing a novel or non-fiction, character is arguably one of the most important elements of your book. Characterisation is defined by what the characters think, say, and do and as an author, it’s your job to develop their personalities to make them compelling for your reader. Think about the time you last abandoned a book halfway through – the cause was most likely because you simply didn’t connect with the character.

If we think of some of the most prolific characters, you’ll realise just how important it is. Jo March in Little Women will always be remembered as being the outspoken tomboy with a passion for writing. Gone With The Wind just wouldn’t be the same without Scarlett O’ Hara’s spoiled and cunning personality and we can’t think of James Bond without seeing him as the suave, smart spy that he is. If you’re writing non-fiction, character has a different take on it as the character is often the writer, for example Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming. If you’re writing non-fiction, thing about how your authorial voice is coming through.

Character is so critical to get right because it’s what drives the story - it's how readers will experience your book through how they view and interact with the world. If you put Jo March, Scarlett O’Hara, and James Bond in one plot they would each react differently to the same set of circumstances, therefore you would end up with three different stories.

Character also creates conflict and tension. Tension is where we see a character try to overcome a problem or challenge and it’s the character’s response that creates that conflict for the reader – the story cannot do that alone.

Finally, you may think that it’s the story that a reader engages with, but it’s really the relationship with your character. Readers must feel connected through empathy and emotion. They must buy in to your character and care about what happens to them. There’s a reason why memoirs have become so popular – we love reading about people’s lives and how they navigate the highs and lows.

Spending the time to develop and understand your character will pay back tenfold, helping you create a unique story. Let’s take a look at the four areas you need to think about to create a main character that is compelling and engaging.

1. Physical.

It’s not just about what your character looks like but thinking about the extent his or her physical appearance plays a role in the story. For example, it’s pretty hard to imagine Captain America as a short, skinny man – these physical attributes don’t lend themselves to the hero narrative. Also, consider how your character feels about their physical appearance. As human beings, we all have an opinion on how we look (anyone else wish they were a couple of inches taller?) so be sure to go beyond just the aesthetics.

2. Emotional

What is the emotional baseline for your character? Are they happy most of the time or do they have a tendency towards a darker outlook? Do they usually wake up in a bad mood or spring out of bed joyfully? Understanding the emotional side of your character will help you decide how he or she reacts to events in your narrative.

3. Intellectual

Similar to the physical traits, make sure you understand not only the intelligence of your character but to what extent it impacts the story. For example, in my latest novel, The Perfect Lie, there is a character called Paul who is an incredibly smart teenager and his goal is to become a doctor. Yet, throughout the novel, the reader discovers many things that threaten his dream. This is a good example of a book where a character’s intellect plays a central role to the story. Another piece of advice is to also consider emotional intelligence when putting together your character profile.

4. Philosophical

What does your character believe about life and how did he or she come to believe this? This area is important because it often makes up the backstory of your book, in other words the motivations for what your character does. So even if your character’s childhood is not part of the actual narrative, you’ll need to have a solid understanding of their history.

To finish, I should add here that you probably won’t know all of this information about your character in advance. It’s an organic process and much of it may come as you’re writing. One writing exercise to try is to take your main character out to dinner. Which restaurant would you choose? What would you talk about? What would your main character be wearing? It's a fun way to get to know your character and the more you know your character the better your book will be.

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I'm Karen, a best-selling novelist who left her corporate life to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. Since then, I've written everything from travel articles to web copy before winning a novel writing competition which led to a 3-book deal. 


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