All About Character - Writers Write

Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 21: All About Character


Writers Write is a comprehensive writing resource. This post is all about character. We discuss your character’s actions, backstory, and relationships.

Welcome to week 21 of Anthony’s series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week’s post here.

Goal setting

  1. Continue writing the scenes of your novel.
  2. List and define your characters’ actions.
  3. Building backstory for each major character.
  4. Connecting relationships between characters.

Breaking it down

What does your character do – the good, the stupid, the irrational?

We all know that no one likes a passive character. Your main characters, especially your protagonist and antagonist, need to be doing things – in other words, making decisions and then acting on those decisions.

Here’s a great exercise to try. Watch a movie or read a book and then make separate lists for each of the three or four main characters. Under each character name, list in bullet form, each action this character takes. For example, if Joe is a main character in a story, you could list:  Joe shoots the intruder in his daughter’s bedroom. If Cassie, his daughter, is the loved one in the story, you could list: Cassie sneaks her boyfriend into her bedroom one weekend. Obviously, Cassie sneaking her boyfriend into her room leads to her father shooting him – but both characters took separate actions to lead to that moment – so isolate their actions in separate lists.

Once you’ve listed all the actions your characters take, count these up. What you’ll find is that either the antagonist or the protagonist have the most actions overall.  This is a good checklist to use on your own story.

Even though I have a couple as my main characters in my novel, Jenna is really my lead protagonist — so it’s important that she is making more decisions and acting on these decisions more than her boyfriend, Matt.

Remember that the character doesn’t have to make great decisions – sometimes those impulsive, trapped, or irrational decisions will add more conflict to your plot and another dimension to your character. Back to Joe, another point on his list could be: Joe decides to bury the body in the woods instead of reporting it to the police.  

Back to the back story

How much or how little of your characters’ back stories you bring into the novel is up to you – you should decide how much of it will serve the story and if it will show an important aspect of the character.

However, you still need to have this backstory on paper or in your head as the author – otherwise you’re writing a cipher or a new-born. Everyone has a history and your characters are no different.

Take some time out this week to explore the pasts of your characters. (Fill in a questionnaire.)What happened to them before the story started? Sometimes you have to go back to the day they were born – or even before they were born. Other times you can just have a general understanding of their background. For example: comes from happy middle-class family, grew up in suburbs, close to her sisters.

In my novel, I know I have to have strong understanding of my antagonist’s background. How did he turn into who is today? When did the ‘glitch’ in his psychology happen – and how did it come about? Of course, it would be tempting to reveal all of this a neatly wrapped explanation of his behaviour. But it’s better to leave some of the mystery for the reader.

Relationships – exploring connections

How are your characters connected to each other? Some relationships in a novel are easy to understand – others need a little more thought. Another great exercise to try is this. Write your main character’s name in a bubble in the middle of a blank page. Create a spider chart of the characters ‘connected’ to that main character. Who mentors them? Who could tempt them away from their goal? Who do they go to for logical advice? Who is the person who’d run away with them for a crazy weekend?

When you look at your chart, is there any character that already exists in your story? How could you make their role in the story stronger? Do you need to create another character?

We use a similar approach in Writers Write 2. You can do this exercise on all your main characters – it will help you explore your characters better and may even suggest plot ideas. For example, in my novel, a minor character is someone who knew Matt in the past is now connected to Monty, my antagonist, in the present. This gave me a great idea for a way to add another plot twist – something I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t done this exercise. 

Timelock — 2.5 to 5 hours

Write for a half hour or an hour a day on your scenes.

5 Quick Hacks

  1. Write about your character’s first day at high school, first day at work, or first date.
  2. Have the two most unlikely characters in your novel get stuck in an elevator. What would they say to each other?
  3. If your character was on Facebook, who would Facebook suggest as ‘People You May Know’? What groups would it suggest? What ads would pop up on your antagonist’s page?
  4. Look at the mentors and teachers in your own life and career. Would they make interesting characters? Why?
  5. Create a ‘Wanted’ poster for your antagonist. What would it say? What would the reward be? 

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘A rich back story helps you to write, but the reader may never need to see it.’ — Roz Morris

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Anthony Ehlers

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 20: Getting To The Heart Of The Story
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 19: Turning The Screw
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 18: Shading A Scene