Creating Complex and Believable Characters

When I write a novel, there’s a lot of work that happens before I begin writing the story.  I do an outline first. The outline details what is in each chapter, what’s revealed, how the story advances, and any important notes I need to remember about the storyline.  This is how the story unfolds. At this point, it’s a rough outline.

Knowing who the characters are before I write is imperative. I need who they are before I can tell their story. 

With Camino Wandering, I began with an outline from three points of view – Aubrey’s, Pam’s and Georgina’s. But, as I developed the characters, Aubrey was the standout, the more mysterious of the three, her storyline a little cloudier. It was then I realised the story needed to be from her point of view only.

Had I written the book before I knew that fact, I would still be in the editing stage!

 

 

I create a character summary – for every character.

Before I even start writing, I create a detailed character summary for the main character plus a summary for every other character in the story. I’ve discovered that not all writers do this. They do a cursory character summary, sure, but I go deep. I want to know who these people are, before I add their elements to their story because I’ve found, without these secondary characters, the story falls flat.

On a high level, I want to know this about each of the characters:
  • What do they look like? I want to know what nationality they are. What colour is their skin? Do they have long hair? Short? What colour? Do they cut their hair regularly? What colour are their eyes and do those eye colours change at all? Do they have dimples, laugh lines, a cleft chin?
  • How do they speak? Do they have an accent? Do they have a speech impediment? What about when they are nervous? Do they speak loudly or softly?
  • What strengths do they have? Are they tenacious? Are they creative? Do they have a strong personality? Do they know the strengths they possess?
  • What quirks do they have? Do they bite their nails? Play with their hair? Do they have OCD? Do they do a jig when they’re happy? Do they laugh loudly or snort when they laugh? Do they always have cash in their wallet, ‘just in case’?
  • What are they afraid of? Have they been abused in some way? Are they afraid of the dark or going to sleep? Are they afraid of being alone? Are they afraid of being broke?
  • What are they proud of?  What have they accomplished in their life so far? What have they overcome? What do they boast about?
  • What is their daily routine like?  Do they go to school or work? Do they shower in the morning or at night? Do they brush their teeth in the morning as well as at night? Do they iron their clothes? Do they eat a robust breakfast or eat on the go? Do they make dinner at home most nights or eat take out? Are they tidy or a mess?

What does the character look like?   

To be honest, this is the fun part. I love researching this part. It can take me anywhere from a few hours to a number of weeks.

I start with Pinterest. I have a board on Pinterest called Character Inspiration. To begin, I search on faces. I might have an idea in my head, but it may change, based on something I find. I might search on ‘50-year-old women’ or ‘50-year-old women with red hair’ and go down the rabbit hole from there.   

But that may lead to something else. Like whether their hair is straight or curly. It may change the colour of the character’s eyes from what I first imagined. I keep adding images to this Character Inspiration folder until I get a clearer idea of the character. Sometimes I save a picture only for the eyes, or the hair, or the lips. Maybe it’s something about their smile that inspires me.

What if I can’t find the image in my head? 

If I don’t find what I’m looking for on Pinterest, or I find only parts of what I want, I go a bit off script …. I go to an app called Morphthing.com and start playing. I take images I’ve found, faces that are close to what I imagine, and then morph! 

My character Grace (the main character in my new novel, Beneath The Surface, releasing in late 2021) came from Morphthing, after a lot of manipulation.  

What about their personality?  

Here, I pull out a list of questions.  There’s nothing like getting to know someone by asking them a bunch of questions. Kind of like Aubrey and her 200 Questions in Camino Wandering.  

NaNoWriMo shares a great course called NaNo Prep 101, which provides, in Section Two, a questionnaire to develop complex characters.  

The questionnaire asks detailed questions, so you can understand who your characters are on a deeper basis. It’s like sitting down over a cup of coffee with a new friend. The questionnaire asks everything from the character’s name, to their fondest memories, to their insecurities. It even questions how they speak, like whether they have a stutter or a lisp. 

The questionnaire suggests filling out this section for your major character, but I prefer to do it for every character. 

Then I look at a list I’ve created called 30 Character Questions which goes even deeper. After answering all of these questions, I add it to the character’s file.   

By this stage, I know who the character is. I know what they’re thinking, what they eat for breakfast, even what they think about the guy or girl next door. These characters are now in my head.

I let them (the characters) all mull in my head for a while because it’s usually here where they come alive and start chatting with me in my dreams, in the shower, etc… (I warned you my ideas are a little bit crackpot.)  It’s then, and only then, will I return to my outline and add anything additional about each character that may twist the chapter or add depth to the storyline. 

Then I am ready to write

 

 

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