Ten Tenets of Novel Writing: Characters
Every great book has a set of building blocks that allowed the writer to turn their idea into what we see on the page. Throughout this series, I’m going to be covering these different blocks—what I call the ten tenets of novel writing. This essay is going to be looking at my second tenet: characters.
Characters are an incredibly important part of the novel and yet they’re one of the more common things that writers get wrong. Your characters are what guide the reader through the story—we, as readers, experience what everyone in the book is experiencing. We feel what they feel, which is why, if they’re not done very well, people don’t resonate with them, or with the story. They’re also the driving force for the plot. Would things have been different if Katniss hadn’t volunteered as tribute, if Jack Torrance hadn’t taken the job at the haunted hotel, or if Hercule Poirot hadn’t been on the Orient Express?
A well-written character will have their own personality; their own hopes, fears, and desires, and therefore their own lives. They are as real as real people are, just on a page instead of out here with us. I know that sounds odd, but that’s how you need to approach writing characters in order to have readers care about what happens to them. It’s this level of realism within the characters that drives the plot forward. They react in a certain way based on their past experiences, their current state of mind, and what they want. Not everyone would return from the dead to track down their husband, but Laura Moon does. Just like her, the characters you create should be the ones who decide what happens in your book—all you’re doing is chronicling it.
It’s also important to note that the reader doesn’t necessarily have to like your main characters. It’s not about liking, it’s about resonating—and that can come in different forms. We’re not particularly meant to like Louis de Pointe du Lac from Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles—he is a vampire, after all—but we can empathise with him. All you need is something for the reader to connect to in your characters, which, if you’ve created real people on the page, there will be things there that will allow that connection to happen.
One of the main things that your character needs in order to be a character that comes alive on the page is a goal. It can be tangible—like the magic chalice—or not—like finding a place that they call home—but in truth it really doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s there and informing their decisions. Characters make decisions based on their attempts to achieve their goals. That, essentially, is what drives the plot forward.
Characters are a vital part of your novel and are something that you have to get right. Nothing else can make up for badly-written characters. Once you know your characters, and you listen to what they want, it’s much easier to make characters that resonate with your readers.
© 2020 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.