“Character drives story.” It’s one of those writerly maxims you hear over and over, and something I teach regularly to writers of all ages. But to make it work, you need to create a character your readers will care about enough to go along for the ride.
For me, compelling characters are three-dimensional beings with strengths, weaknesses, quirks and voices all of their own. They’re always going to include a bit of you, a bit of people you know, and a larger bit that’s just all them. They want something that’s important to them (and clearly understood by the reader) and they have a clear and valid reason for pushing through every problem and hurdle that stands between them and whatever it is they want.
In other words, they feel as real as possible to the reader.
So how do you create them?
To help you, I’ve pulled together tips from recent interviews I’ve conducted with three of Australia’s most popular authors. Two are plotters, one is most definitely not, but all three create the kind of vivid characters who linger in your mind long after you reach The End.
Here’s how they do it.
Compelling characters speak to you
Kate Forsyth, award-winning novelist, author and poet, latest novel The Crimson Thread says: “I always conceive of my characters very early on in my creative process, because that’s how my imagination works and because plot is character in motion, so I need to build character before I can build plot.”
She teaches her creative process to students at the Australian Writers' Centre. Kate continues: “Some characters are easy and others are hard. Some come fully alive in your imagination and all you have to do is to follow them around and write down what they do and say, and other characters take a long time to quicken into life. With Alenka (from The Crimson Thread) I had a very strong idea from the beginning of who I wanted her to be.”
For New York Times bestselling author Natasha Lester, the first part is the hardest. She says: “There’s nothing I find more difficult than the first 20,000 words. I have to bribe myself to do it because I don’t plan upfront so I don’t know what the story is. For me, the first 20,000 words are the most frightening of all because I don’t know anything – I’ve got to write a bit to know what the next bit is. If I can sit down and smash out 20,000 words, that gets me into the voice of the character and gets me past the hurdle of starting. I need to get the voice happening to get the story happening.”
Compelling characters feel
Natasha also says it’s important to tap into your character’s emotions. “It’s your character’s emotions that drive the plot. So every scene should be about a character taking some kind of action, but the key thing is ‘how does that character feel about that action, and what does that feeling make them do next?’ They’re the two things that drive the plot because if they feel something they’re going to do something and if they do something you’ve got your next scene.
“That’s the nuts and bolts of commercial fiction – when the character’s emotional response is there on the page in such a way that we see why it is (motivation) they’re going to do the thing they do next and we see how that then drives the next scene.”
Compelling characters can take planning
Some authors have a far more systematic approach to creating characters. Sophie Green's, internationally published bestselling author, latest novel The Bellbird Community Choir, refers to Francesca Lia Block twelve questions outlined in her book The Thorn Necklace: Healing Through Writing and the Creative Process.
“In her book The Thorn Necklace, YA novelist Francesca Lia Block shares the twelve questions she uses to outline her novels – and I use that process to create all of my initial character profiles. So once I’ve settled on a place and a time and then the characters start turning up, I will write answers to these twelve questions for each character.
“I work out what year they were born, any characters who might be related to them and give them all names so that I know what they’re all called before I begin. From that point, once I have the character profiles, I’ll do a separate document for each of those characters of the major points in their timeline. What’s the crisis? What’s the climax? What’s the resolution? It gives me a feel for their whole story.”
Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al’s next middle-grade novel will be out in July 2023. Find out more about her at allisontait.com.