2. How To Create Characters

Welcome to my How To Write A Novel series (the title of which is rather self-explanatory). I’m taking you through the key components and most common questions I get asked about novel writing – from the very first idea to how to know when you’re done – in a way that aims to provide real, practical, and not-so-generic advice, so you can write a novel you’re proud of, as painlessly as possible (but let’s be honest, you’re birthing something here – there’s going to be at least some pain involved).


Once you have an idea for a novel (maybe even before you have an idea for a novel), the next thing that matters is your characters. Some writing advice might tell you to jump into plot or structure next, but for me, characters should always come first.

Think about it – if you have a plot where any character can be dumped in and everything will play out exactly the same, then the stakes are not personal enough. No one is going to connect or care about the story (or what happens to the people in it).

Each scene should be affected by what your characters do; how your character(s) react to what happens in one scene should determine what happens in the next one. That means you can’t create a plot without knowing your characters. Ergo – you need characters first.

Start with the basics
You need to know EVERYTHING
Take them for a test drive (to find their soul)
Yes, you will seem crazy
Practice looking at the world from different points of view
Key takeaways

Start with the basics

We’re talking name. Gender (or identity). Age. I’m not saying any of these things ever need to be mentioned within the story, but you should know them. Someone’s age will often affect how they act (maturity level aside), as well as what they know and what they’ve been around for (think the rise of rock and roll, 9/11, technology skills). What gender someone identifies with affects their experiences and viewpoint. And, maybe more importantly, all this stuff will affect how others will treat them.

I’m not saying you need to stick with cliches and cookie cutter expectations here – go as original as you want. But that in itself will say a lot about the story you’re trying to tell. After all, an elderly feminist man in the 1700s will be treated vastly different to a teen one in 2025 – just saying. We haven’t gotten into setting and where or when your story is going to be set, but your novel idea should have given you a very initial, rough idea. Is this character likely to be existing in the real, current world, where someone’s reaction to mansplaining is likely to reveal a lot about them? Or are they going to be dropped in the past, when husbands owned their wives? Or will they be millennium in the future, where gender has ceased to even be a thing and people live for hundreds of years? Even if these things are never mentioned, it will affect your story.

You do need to know EVERYTHING

Maybe when you’ve got several novels behind you, you’ll be able to get away with only knowing the bare bones of your characters (creepy kind of pun intended…) and fleshing out as you go, but, until then, the only way to ensure authenticity is to know absolutely everything about your character. They need to be so well-developed they could actually be real. Because if you believe they could be real, you stand a chance of convincing your reader they could be too.

This means working out a lot of little details. Grab an empty sheet and fill it with all the categories you’d list for yourself. Start with the obvious: physical details, like eye colour, hair colour, height, etc. Then move onto simple metrics like likes and dislike: favourite food, favourite colour, pet peeves, etc. Write about relationships – did they have a good childhood, are their parents still alive, do they have siblings, roommates, children, anyone who depends on them? Then about their current life – what do they do for a living? Are they still at school? What do they like to do at weekends? How do they spend their money? What kind of place do they live in?

Then move onto deeper stuff, like what they believe, their moral code, whether they’re religious, etc. Then get even deeper – what do they want, what do they fear, what key memories define them? What insecurities do they have, does anything keep them up at night, do they believe they’re god’s gift to man? Are they someone who believes in ghosts, or love at first sight, or destiny, do they think humans really landed on the moon in ’69, accept Darwin’s theory of evolution, acknowledge climate change and global warming?

When I say you need to know everything, you need to know everything. Half of this will probably never make it onto the pages of your novel, but it will define who your character is and therefore how they act (which is what you always need to know). Who we are changes what motivates us – literally how we think.


Remember – you are CREATING here. You’re starting with a blank canvas and you can put absolutely anything you want on it. Don’t be contained by the thousands of characters who’ve come before. Be bold. Let your imagination run free, and mould something completely brand new with your wedge of plasticine. You’re going to be spending a lot (A LOT) of time with this character – make them someone you’re not going to get bored being around. I’m not saying you need to like them, but they should be interesting (sometimes the most interesting characters are ones we hate).

Take them for a test drive (to find their soul)

All this information you’ve come up with is useful, but facts on a page do not make someone. Would you seem like you just from a page of your key info? Maybe a little, but not quite. There’s an essence that humans have that can’t be defined in traits – and you need to make sure your characters have it. A soul, if you will.

The best way to find or get to know someone’s soul is to spend time with them. Like you would in real life – actually get to know them. Write a random scene with your character, one that has absolutely nothing to do with your novel or idea (and one that absolutely will not ever see the light of day – this is just for you and research purposes).

It could be a really generic scene, like your character’s commute to work, or it could be something completely out of the ordinary (and one they would never normally find themselves in anyway), like the middle of a bank heist where the building is about to explode. You need to see what it’s like working with this character. How they react to things. Whether you understand them and can anticipate what they’re going to say or do, and whether you actually enjoy being around them. If you’re finding them stilted or you don’t get what they’re about, and writing this scene is like trying to cut the back of your own hair, an entire novel is not going to work. You and your protagonist need to have some kind of partnership, and you need to be their biggest advocate. Even if they’re a villain you’re meant to hate, you need to care for them, at least a little, and accept who they are and why they do what they do – because even villains are human (unless they’re not).

Yes, you will seem crazy

Writers often like to get up in a huff and complain that they’re stuck because their characters aren’t doing what they’re meant to be doing. Characters are like that. If you’ve made them real enough to have their own motivations and beliefs, you will sometimes realise that things you planned or wanted them to do just don’t fit with what your character would actually do. I can’t tell you the number of times I rewrote a particular scene for something because my characters were supposed to get together in it, and yet, every single time, they ended up arguing. (This also reinforces why I think you need characters before you start any kind of planning.)

If you’ve done your job correctly, your characters could essentially be real people (at least in your head). So they won’t think like you, so they won’t always do what you would do. Just because you think one character’s intentions were good deep down, another character might think it was too huge of a betrayal and never be able to forgive them. You don’t want your characters to always think like you, so you shouldn’t force them to. Let them be organic – imagine what they would think or say or do and go with it.

And yes, sometimes it seems like you have many people and therefore voices in your head, but that just means you’re doing something right (trust me on this). There will be times you get frustrated with them, there will be times you curse them, there will be times you need to change points in your story because your characters just won’t do what you need them to. But there will also be times when they completely surprise you and amaze you and do things you never even thought of (even though, technically, you are the thought process behind it all – just trust me and go with me on this).

To write, you need to be a little crazy. You need to be able to think from multiple points of view at any one time and be able to accept that every single person (just as in real life) has different experiences and beliefs and therefore thinks differently to you. Real people can often be unpredictable. If you want your writing to be real, you need to create as close to real people as possible.

And that means having to share your brain a little bit.

Practice looking at the world from different points of view

They say good debaters are ones that can argue either side – because they can anticipate the response. This means being able to stand in a position opposite to your own and seeing what it looks like and why someone could believe it’s right.

I think all good writers should be able to do this. Practice with stories in the news – imagine being all the different people within one news report (what they think, how they feel, why they feel that way, and what you think they’re going to do next). Practice it with people you know – try and see the world from their perspective, with the history and circumstances about them you know. It’s even better if you can do this with people or scenarios you completely disagree with, as it trains your brain to not only see there can be a justifiable alternative (even if you’re adamant your viewpoint is right), but to accept the reasoning and understanding someone has behind it. This is what makes us human.

Key takeaways

  1. The key traits of your character will affect not just how they view the world or act in it, but how other people view or treat them.
  2. You need to know how your character thinks and therefore acts – this means you need to know absolutely everything about them (their true desires and darkest fears, memories and experiences, beliefs and moral code, etc) and what has led to them being who they are when your story takes place.
  3. Make them interesting. Real people are unique, so don’t be afraid to break moulds and move away from cliches.
  4. Write a random scene (that has nothing to do with your novel) with your character to see how they act on the page. This will help tell you who they really are, if you’ve developed them enough, and whether you’re going to be able to spend an entire novel with them.
  5. Accept you’re going to have a few different voices competing for attention in your head for a while; characters, like real people, should all think differently, so writers need to honour their characters’ own thought process and not force it to follow theirs.
  6. Learn to see the world from multiple points of view – it will help you create realistically individual characters, and keep them from all thinking and acting the same.

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