get to know your characters

Thanks to Lewis Jorstad of the Novel Smithy for this guest post. Be sure to head over to his blog to read my post on 5 Line Editing Tips for Polishing Your Prose. 

When most writers sit down to outline their characters, their first order of business is creating a character profile. These profiles are a lot like dossiers from spy movies. Just like 007’s file might contain details about his appearance, skills, and relationships, so too will your character’s profile.

However, when writing a novel, appearances and relationships aren’t enough.

Unlike the baddies in spy movies, you aren’t just out to kill your characters—at least not right away! Instead, you’re trying to create a vibrant, realistic person for your readers to latch on to, meaning you need to delve deep into what makes them who they are. From their goals and desires, to their darkest fears, history, and inner struggle, these are the elements that will truly bring your characters to life.

With that in mind, let me walk you through six things you should know before writing your novel’s cast!

6 Things to Know for Every Character You Write

#1 – Their Role in Your Novel:

First things first—you need to know what role your character plays in your story.

Are they your protagonist, or are they a villain? Are they a mentor, shadow, shapeshifter, or herald? Regardless of what their role is, knowing it ahead of time will help you better understand who this character is in the context of your story.

This distinction is important. Knowing your character as a person is great, but you also need to understand how they’ll shape your novel itself. After all, your novel’s hero will be very different than a sidekick or minor antagonist—and thus will require a different level of detail.

Example: Luke Skywalker is the protagonist of Star Wars: A New Hope, while Ilsa Lund is an ally and shapeshifter in the movie Casablanca.

#2 – Their Story Goal:

Next, your character’s story goal is the personal goal or motivation that defines their adventure. This is what will push them to get involved in your plot, and it’ll stick with them for the majority of your novel, shaping every decision they make along the way.

Because of this, story goals are a critical piece of the character development puzzle. Conflicting story goals often cause characters to fight, get into trouble, and generally spark the kinds of interesting, complex situations that make for a good story!

Luckily, finding your character’s story goal is fairly simple.

Ask yourself—what do they want to achieve throughout your novel? Why do they get involved with your plot in the first place? What motivates them to take action? Once you answer these questions, you should have a solid idea of what story goal your character is pursuing.

Example: Luke Skywalker’s story goal in Star Wars: A New Hope is to prove himself capable of becoming a Jedi, while Ilsa’s goal is to escape the Nazis with her husband.

#3 – Their Inner Struggle:

Of course, your characters can’t achieve their goals too easily. Alongside plot-related hurdles, they’ll also need to face a major internal challenge or obstacle in order to earn their success. This obstacle is their inner struggle. Also called their lie or wound, this is a harmful belief or inner conflict that holds your character back throughout their journey—meaning overcoming it is the real point of their quest.

Fortunately, much like the story goal, the easiest way to find a character’s inner struggle is by asking a few targeted questions. What does your character believe about themselves or their world? How does this prevent them from achieving their goals? What lesson will they need to learn throughout their journey? Are they successful?

Once you’re considered these questions, you should be able to sum up your character’s inner struggle in a sentence or two.

Example: Luke Skywalker’s inner struggle is the belief that he’s a simple farm boy who’s incapable of greatness. Meanwhile, Ilsa’s inner struggle is her belief that she can ignore her love for Rick.

#4 – Their Backstory:

Moving on, we come to backstory.

Backstory is a tricky subject, because it’s easy to fill whole books with nothing but your character’s history. After all, we all have a list of life experiences that shape who we are, and the same is true for our characters. Every character you write will have some kind of past, and that past will influence their actions.

The question is, do you really need to write pages and pages of backstory?

Well, the short answer is no. Believe it or not, you only need to know one or two key events to understand your characters’ histories. These events are the most impactful experiences of their lives and are often the source of their inner struggle. So, think about the major events that define your characters! While you’re welcome to explore more of their backstory if you choose, these should be more than enough to provide context for who your characters are.

Example: Luke Skywalker was left with his aunt and uncle as a baby, meaning he spent his whole childhood daydreaming about his father’s life as a Jedi. As a result, he desperately wants to live up to his father’s legacy. Likewise, Ilsa’s backstory centers on her time in Paris with Rick, and the difficult decision she made to abandon Rick and return to save her husband when the Nazis invaded.

#5 – Their Character Arc:

Character arcs are a big topic in the writing world, and for good reason. Not only do arcs shape our characters’ personal journeys, but they often determine the kind of story we end up telling, too.

If you aren’t familiar with what a “character arc” is, this is the inner journey your character goes on throughout your novel. This arc can take one of three shapes:

  • A Positive Arc: Here your character learns to overcome their inner struggle and grow as a person, thus triumphing over the main conflict of their story.
  • A Negative Arc: Here your character ends up overwhelmed by their inner struggles, ultimately becoming a worse version of themselves and failing in their quest.
  • A Flat Arc: Here your character isn’t concerned with their own growth, but with guiding and teaching their world. To succeed in their arc, they must heal the inner struggle of the people around them.

Regardless of which arc your character follows, this arc will determine the path they take throughout your story—as well as how the other elements we’ve discussed play out. Do they learn and grow, wither and decay, or teach and heal?

Of course, not every character warrants an arc. Character arcs require a lot of time to develop, meaning they’re usually reserved for major characters like your protagonist, key allies, and your antagonist. Whether other character in your story warrant an arc is ultimately up to you!

Example: Luke Skywalker follows a positive arc, as does Ilsa. Both manage to overcome their inner struggle and succeed during the finale of their stories.

#6 – Their Beginning and End:

Finally, we come to your character’s “plot arc.”

You see, even characters without a character arc will still begin and end your story in different places. For instance, someone who starts your story a coward might eventually gain the courage to chart their own path—or they may fade into obscurity, unable to stand up for themselves. Likewise, a character who begins your novel as the school bully might end it isolated from their peers.

Whatever this journey looks like, identifying both its beginning and end (before you begin writing) will help ensure your characters remain dynamic. Even if their plot arc is subtle, it’ll still lend a sense of impact to your novel. After all, seeing characters change on the page is the best way to show your reader just how much your plot matters!

Example: Luke begins his story unsatisfied with his life as a farm boy and ends it as a hero of the rebellion. Ilsa begins her story running from the Nazis and lying to herself about her loyalties. She ends it having accepted that she can love Rick, while still standing by her husband.

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In the end, these six elements should go a long way in helping you better understand your cast, and eventually turn that cast into a vibrant part of your novel.

Best of all, this information doesn’t have to take weeks and months to create! Grab a sheet of paper, jot down your character’s name, and then write a single paragraph for each of the components we discussed. By the time you’re done, I’m confident you’ll see your character with a fresh set of eyes.

More About Lewis

know your charactersLewis Jorstad is an author and developmental editor who helps up-and-coming writers hone their writing their craft over at The Novel Smithy. When he isn’t working on the next book in his Writer’s Craft series, you can find him playing old Gameboy games and sailing somewhere around the eastern half of the US. You can also check out his free ebook, The Character Creation Workbook, and grab a copy for yourself.

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