The amazing contributions from our guests Sarah Perry, Michael Donkor and Joe Dunthorne for this month’s Early Career Writers’ Resources pack make one thing very clear: every writer has their own way of creating and developing characters. As with so many things to do with writing, there’s no exact right or wrong way – but it is worth trying a few approaches to find out what works for you. Simon K Jones shares some quick ways to get started…
I’ve pulled together some techniques to help you further develop your characters. Remember that none of these are compulsory and you may find that some don’t work for you at all. Use only what you find useful!
If there’s an especially young writer in your family, don’t miss our Neverending Stories pack, which is designed to help parents explore storytelling with their children (it’s really good).
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Physical description template
Even if you don’t include much physical description of your characters in your book it can still prove helpful to have an internal image of the people you’re writing about. After all, a character’s physical appearance can tell the reader a lot about who they are, whether it’s clothing choices, a scar on the side of their face or a nervous habit. Seemingly inconsequential details can hold the key to their motivations.
The trick here is to get the balance right: put too much time into a character’s appearance and you’ll start to feel restricted instead of assisted. You don’t want to feel pressured into remembering all the details you’ve formulated, or have it become a slog simply to fill out your character profiles. Ultimately a character needs to be more than what they look like if they’re to be interesting, and it’s often a good idea to let the reader fill in some of the gaps.
We’ve prepared a downloadable template to help you start thinking about your character’s appearance and how those physical attributes can contribute to their personality – click the image to grab it.
Character backstory template
Going a step beyond surface appearances, it can also prove useful to dive into a character’s past. Understanding where they came from can inform what they do in the present. Again, you don’t have to reveal all – or any! – of this information explicitly to the reader, but having it in the back of your mind can add layers and depth that would otherwise be missing.
Here’s an example backstory template you can download to get started.
I used to write detailed profiles on my characters but have gradually moved away from that approach over the years. I find it more useful these days to use a kind of shorthand for getting into the brain of a character, taking a technique from traditional tabletop roleplaying and adapting it to the needs of a novel.
You may already be familiar with the classic Dungeons & Dragons alignment matrix, which looks something like this and expects every character to fit into one of the boxes:
The issue I take with this is that it is far too moralistic, pre-judging characters before you’ve even had a chance to write them. Far more useful is a twist on the matrix which was introduced to me by a friend, Michael Miller. It presents itself as a simpler, two-column series of binary choices:
The idea is that for each row you pick from one of the columns. This defines your character based on attitude and response and avoids injecting any kind of ethical commentary. These attributes are not inherently good or bad and, when combined, form a surprisingly nuanced sense of who the person is and how they might react to any given situation. Even better, this behaviour matrix also allows for and actively encourages contradictions, which are the foundation of any interesting character.
Simon is a science fiction and fantasy writer who also happens to work at the National Centre for Writing as the Digital Marketing Manager.