How To Write a Novel Step by Step: Develop Fictional Characters

Part 1 in a Series of 5

I heard that Ellery Queen sat on his porch in Florida and wrote out his novel by hand in a notebook. Off it went to the publisher. I heard that Earl Stanley Gardner simply dictated his novel, and that was that. And then there was Hemingway who was after one perfect page each day and he didn't care how many times he had to rewrite that page.

You can sit down and grind out a novel without doing any preliminary analysis about your story, the characters, the time frame in which the action takes place, the location or place where the action appears, and the articles or things that are important in the story (such as a sword, a ship, a horse, etc).

You can simply decide on how many chapters, typically 20 chapters for a genre novel (detective, western, romance, etc.) you desire and write a synopsis of each chapter before you start.

Or, you can just start writing.

In this series of articles I do not want to cut-short your native creativity but I believe that if you decide where, when, who, what, which, etc., and such before you start, your novel writing will move more smoothly. If you don't, you may end up with much rewriting and editing.

When you first get the bug to write a novel, you will probably think of characters, time and place. That is good. Until these elements are defined, the events can not take place. But let's stay out of trouble by doing one thing at a time. We'll focus on character first.

  1. Give your character a name. Don't use names of famous people. Think of a name that suits your character. Don't call a cowboy Francis or a model Mildred.
  2. State the role of the character.
    • The character is called the protagonist. He or she is the hero.
    • The villain or antihero is called the antagonist.
    • The protagonist's friends help the hero accomplish his or her goals.
    • The antagonist's henchman does the same for the villain.
    • Other characters fill in the blanks in the scene, like the kid that shines the boot for both hero and villain.
  3. Describe the physical appearance of your character. Can you sketch your character? If not can you root around for a picture of such a character that you can hang on the wall? That is one way to start. What hair, eye, skin color does your character have? How old is he? How tall is she? Is he overweight? Any tattoos or other distinguishing marks? Freckles? Pock marks? Mustache? Glasses? Keep going! How does he walk? How does she walk? Clumsy? Ugly? Pretty? Agile? Handicapped? Nimble?
  4. Describe your character's likes/dislikes and general character. A boy might be too young to like girls, but likes frogs and dogs, and likes to chases cows. A girl might be too young to like boys, likes flowers and clouds, chases butterflies. Does your character have any taboos? Is he or she afraid of his or her shadow? Do you get the idea?
  5. Describe the type of personality of your character. Is she always happy? Is he outgoing or reclusive? Is she kind of dumb? Is he very aggressive? When you run into this character, do you want to stay and talk or do you want to run?
  6. Write a short or long description or history of your character. A short description is adequate for a minor role player. The main characters deserve more attention.

    The stunning model is the anti-heroine—the antagonist. She is tall, slender, vivacious, and a gold digger. Her mother ran a house of ill repute and her father was a loan shark. She plasters herself with perfume and wears fake jewelry unless she can get the real stuff. She is a shop lifter even though she earns good money. She often walks off with clothing that she should leave at the modeling job. Men love her, women hate her, even her grandmother hates her. She carries a gun in her purse. On the street, she is known as the Looker Hooker even though she shuns men in general.

    That cowpoke (who’s picture is hanging on the wall) is the hero— the protagonist. He is new in town. He smells "horsey" and he chews gum a pack at a time. Before he came into the city, he chewed tobacco, but when he spit some tobacco juice and it landed on the shoe of a policeman, he decided to give it up, at least while he was in town. He hangs out at the pool hall and looks funny standing over the other men. In his hands, the pool stick looks like an arrow. He always wins and he bets every penny he has. He likes to play poker and he wins at that too. Only once did a city slicker take a swing at him. He’s still in the county hospital. He has decided that city life is much more profitable than poking cows. He still wears his cowboy boots but he is metamorphosing into a city dweller. In fact, some folks, at first site, think he is just a weirdo playing like he is a cowboy until he opens his mouth and says, "Howdy, Mister! Nice day, ain’t it?" Then he is known as the real thing. He works part time for a bail bond outfit. That’s how he met that stunning model. She jumped bail and he caught her. He decided not to turn her in. They are living together and guess who is corrupting whom? She says, "Just because we are messing around, Chad, doesn’t mean that I love you or even like you." He replies, "Bulls don’t favor one heifer over another, Madge. You are just another cow to me."

    Can you tell from the last two descriptions when these two characters lived? It could be now or one hundred years ago, right?

    The above is preliminary to writing your novel. You should make sketches in writing (better than those above) before you write the novel. The more of this preliminary work you do, the easier it will be to write your novel.

  7. Reveal your characters through action and dialogue. Never use descriptions like those above in your novel. Your readers will mosey off to the television set. Instead, feed them this information slowly, often through dialogue:

    Madge pushed a strand of blond hair out of her eye and said, "Chad, pass the milk."

    "You can reach it. I’m not your slave." He went back to polishing his boots.

  8. Watch for stereotypical characters. Here is a definition you should remember. Stereotype: a person or thing that conforms to a fixed idea or type or to attribute over-generalized and preconceived characteristics to someone or something.

    Don’t use movie heroes or heroines as models for you characters. Use real people developed in your mind. A screen writer may get away with certain things that you will not be able to get away as a fiction writer. Have you ever met a real cowboy that talks like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood did in their movie roles? What? You have!

    I haven’t and I only know about a zillion cowboys.

What’s next?

Well, I’ll be a moseying on out of hear. I’ll meet you at the arranged time and place in Part II.


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thanks, Dr. Jones for the guidance on characters. I am really struggling to give my characters depth; they always end up sounding schmaltzy or one-sided when I read my descriptions.

By Marilisa Sachteleben