Characters are the building blocks of any good book. The events of a story, no matter how dramatic, won’t touch us in a major way unless we care about the characters, and the feelings for those people will hang around long after the clever plot twists fade from memory. How do you make your characters rounded and interesting, though? The first step is to get to know them as intimately as possible.
Before I start writing a book, I create detailed notes on each character. That includes their physical attributes, but more importantly it also covers their sociological and psychological traits. Where did character X grow up, and what is his social class? What was character Y’s relationship with her parents like? The first step towards understanding a character’s motivations is to understand their upbringing and development.
There are also a few special elements I look for in creating a character biography. Since I write fantasy books, I’ll ask whether a character has a particular ability or aptitude (magical or otherwise) that makes them stand out from the crowd. In addition, I’ll ask whether a character has a secret. Secrets are great for springing surprises on the reader. They also create suspense, because the more a character tries to keep a secret hidden, the more a reader wants to learn what it is. In my debut, When the Heavens Fall, one of the four point-of-view characters, Parolla, begins the book as an enigma. We know that she has “tainted” blood, but we don’t know how she got it, or what powers it gives her. The answers are revealed during the course of the story.
Next, when I’m creating characters, I search for an inner demon to torment them with! I like my protagonists to have to struggle against themselves, and that means finding some source of internal conflict. Ideally that conflict will make life particularly difficult for the character as they experience the story. In WtHF, for example, one of the POV characters, Ebon, is a prince struggling to reconcile his duties to his people with his duty to the woman he loves. So obviously the book is going to put him in a position where he is forced to choose between them.
Finally, I’ll check to ensure that none of my characters are stereotypes. Stereotypes are created when all of a reader’s expectations for a character are fulfilled. I try to guard against them by combining traits that a reader doesn’t expect to find in the same character. So, the dutiful prince that I mentioned above? I have him battling against spirit-possession, following an ill-advised journey into a haunted forest a few years ago. Another of my POV characters, Romany, is high priestess to a goddess called the Spider. Unlike most priestesses, though, Romany has a weak spot for the finer things in life, and is utterly irreverent to the goddess she’s supposed to serve.
At the end of the character-creation process, I’ll have a detailed biography that will include information about the handful of events in a character’s life that have most shaped them. Of course, not all of that information will work its way into the book – in fact the greater part won’t. I’m a firm believer that the adage “show don’t tell” applies as much to my characters as it does to any other aspect of my writing. That’s why you won’t find any long character histories or flashbacks in my books. Instead, you’ll have to read between the lines and make your own mind up as to what sort of person each character is.
There’s one final step to creating my characters, and it’s by far the most enjoyable: the interview. Yes, it’s time to strap my characters to the psychologist’s couch and give them a good grilling. I can learn a lot about my characters through hearing them “talk”. Take Romany, for instance. Romany is a mixture of ruthlessness and entitled haughtiness, so I should probably be concerned at how easily her voice came to me. Here are a couple of (abridged) excerpts from our “shrink session”:
Me: You’re in a prickly mood today.
Romany: Of course I am! My goddess just paid me a visit.
Me: You don’t like having her around?
Romany: It’s not the fact that she’s here exactly, it’s the way she drops by unannounced. Why can’t she knock at the door and present herself like other visitors, instead of treating the temple as if she owns it?
Me: You don’t care what people think of you?
Romany: People think very little, in my experience. And before they can think of me, they first have to know that I exist.
Me: And what about your goddess? You don’t worry she might expect a little more reverence from one of her priestesses?
Romany: I hope not. Any person that wants to be worshipped is the very last person deserving of the honour. Now, can we hurry this up, please? That bottle of Corinian white won’t drink itself, you know.
Some of the lines from my character interviews even find their way into my books.
It isn’t always easy to establish a character’s voice. Each character should experience the world around them in a unique and interesting way, and it can take a while to learn how they think and feel. Sometimes it’s only at the end of a first draft that I understand what makes them tick. Sometimes their personality emerges slowly during the course of my writing, and my first task in editing the manuscript is to add the same personality to the opening sections that exists in the latter sections.
Of course, some characters will always be more challenging to write than others. A while after WtHF was “finished”, I wrote a short story that features the final POV character, Luker. (You can read it – or listen to a free narration by Emma Newman – here.) In it, I wrote Luker the way I’d remembered him from the book, but when I went back to look at When the Heavens Fall, I found he was different in a number of respects. I preferred the “short-story Luker” to the “novel Luker”, so I did another edit of the book to make him how I wanted him to be. I like him much more now with his black sense of humour, and I hope you like him too.
Just don’t expect him to like you back.
Marc Turner is the author of the epic fantasy series The Chronicles of the Exile. The first book, When the Heavens Fall, was acclaimed as “Truly epic” by some guy called Brian Staveley – whoever he is. The latest installment, Dragon Hunters, features Chameleon priests, dimension-hopping assassins, and sea dragons being hunted for sport. It is available now in the US from Tor Books and in the UK from Titan. You can find Marc at his website and on Twitter (@MarcJTurner).