Characterisation: Why it matters
Characterisation is arguably the most important aspect of novel writing. Your reader is going to invest hours of their time in the company of your characters, so you need to make sure that is an attractive prospect. When I worked as a literary agent, I would read through piles and piles of manuscripts. Poor characterisation was a very common reason that we rejected manuscripts; we just did not care enough about the characters, despite the set-up we were indifferent to them (or worse annoyed by them, or even worse didn’t find them believable).
It is vital that the reader feels a strong connection with your main characters (sufficient to make them care what happens to the characters next). However, that doesn’t mean your character has to be perfection personified. There needs to be a bit of light and shade. A very good writer can make you connect with and like a character that is presented as “bad” e.g. a murderer (Dexter) or a mother who has dark feelings towards her son (We Need to Talk About Kevin). Complexity is key. Can you name one long-running detective series where the lead detective doesn’t have some kind of dark past/skeleton in the closet?
Characterisation: 3 top tips
1. Know their history.
We are all shaped by our past. Make sure you know what your character has been through and how this has affected them. Even if this backstory will not make it into your novel, it’s important YOU have a strong handle on this.
2. Know how they will change.
What does your character learn by the time you reach the end of your novel? How have they developed? Make sure there is an element of an inner journey – think of your story arc (every story has a story arc – get a piece of paper and plot out the highs and lows of your character’s journey through the book. Think about where were they at the beginning of your story, what they went through and how that changed them.
3. Know them like the back of your hand.
Your characters have to be living, breathing entities – you need to know everything about them from how they like their coffee to how they answer the phone. In order to really get into their heads, and think like they think, speak like they speak, plan like they plan etc. you need to know them inside out. I’m talking forensic detail. It is useful to have all of your information about a character in one place, so you can refer back to it. This is particularly important when it comes to rewriting a section as you probably won’t remember everything exactly and will need to be consistent e.g. if your character is left-handed but strikes a fatal blow with their right fist, the reader might start asking questions. Little things matter and readers are very observant. The best place to start is our free downloadable character checklist, which will help you flesh out your characters (as well as set you up for writing great dialogue and strong descriptions) by asking you in-depth questions about your characters. Putting all the information about your characters together before you start (or as you are just beginning with) your writing will make the writing process quicker and easier as you will have a firmer understanding of who you are writing about, what motivates them, how they contribute to the overall plot etc.
Now you have nailed characterisation you are ready to go forth and write. Good luck with NaNoWriMo. Don’t forget to tweet us to let us know how you are getting on at @iamselfpub. To make sure you write 50,000 words this month, check out our blog post on 5 Best Productivity Apps for NaNoWriMo.