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Character Design Basics

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

It’s that time of year again, and odds are if you’re writing a novel you’ve probably got at least one character involved.

Narrative and dramatic action is driven by characters and their actions. Unsurprisingly, it’s crucial to ensure that your characters are well developed before you even hit ink to paper. Unless you create characters as required because as ever the only rule of writing is that the rules are guidelines at best.

Regardless of when you design a character, what ideas should be considered?

Characters can be roughly organised into three categories based on their importance to the narrative, Primary, Secondary and (wait for it), Tertiary.

Tertiary characters lie on the periphery of your plot; they serve the detective their coffee or run into your protagonist on the apartment stairs. Their purpose is to add character and flavour to the world you build – rarely anything more. They’re a part of your setting as buildings and nature. The takeaway of this is not to invest too much time or thought into them; they don't need a twenty-page backstory if they occupy a paragraph.

That said, should over the course of drafting/redrafting, Tertiary characters may grow into Secondary characters. These are characters that impact the plot in a minor way, whether through providing information or plot devices to primary characters, along with taking actions that further or influence the plot in any way.

Though secondary by name, these characters are as important as Primary characters by offering them a manner to interact with the world and plot. Opposed to Tertiary characters, Secondary characters inhabit the foreground of your novel, occupying many pages and chapters. As such, they must each have a carefully thought out purpose and journey that blends with that of your Primary characters.

So, who are your Primary Characters? These will be your protagonist and their confidents, along with your villain and their equivalents depending on the amount of page space you give them. These will be the characters that act as POV’s, as well as driving almost all dramatic actions with the tools and traits offered by your secondary characters.

Therefore, your Primary characters must be the most well developed, but where to start?

Assuming you have an idea of a beginning and a rough end of your novel, think of what each and every character wants, both consciously and unconsciously. These can conflict, compliment or parallel one another. Determine whether your character is Primary, Secondary or Tertiary, then consider their character traits and desires.

When choosing character traits, it's important to remember that none are objectively good or bad, but that extremes and situations make them so. As a result, select traits that will allow you to generate dramatic action and tension within your novel. If your character can be described as calm, think of situations where this can be portrayed in positive and negative manners.

On the same line of thought, define (at least), your Primary characters with a flaw as a foil – a trait that has been turned up to elven and will act against their best interests as much if not more so than the actions of an antagonist. This can synergise with their unconscious desire, creating both internal and external conflicts for your characters to overcome.

Think how your character’s traits will lead them to interact with one another, in particular your protagonist and antagonist. Traits can be used to show contrast between the two, while showing similarities between heroes and villains can allow for complex discourse within your novel along with further conflict.

The same can be said for your protagonist and their entourage. Friction between protagonists offers a fantastic source of drama, whether a spat of bickering, or more serious conflict that jeopardises your hero’s quest. The more complex and developed the characters, the more engaging and diverse their relationships can be.

Of course, this is all easier said than done.

There are plenty of exercises that can help you flesh out potential/existing characters. My personal go-to is to write an average day in the life of a prospective character. Put yourself in their shoes on a day free of adventure and conflict, how do they react and interact to the world around them? While not particularly interesting, this can be incredibly insightful into how your characters function.

For the ‘lite’ version of this exercise, try writing the half hour of a character’s life before they are introduced into the novel. This is particularly useful when they are introduced in medias res, as it can help you decide whether you wish to stick with that style of introduction if they are a less action orientated character.

All strong plots are character driven, and this is vital to remember when planning and executing your novel. Your novel will only be as well rounded as your characters are, so its important to develop them as well as possible.

When creating them, it’s vital to think about the narrative role of each character. Do they move the plot forward with their actions? Could your novel happen without them? If the answer is no for either of these questions, you should consider rethinking your character. The solutions could range from taking them back to the drawing board or combining them with other characters for a tighter plot.

This is all advice. Some of these methods and ideas may or may not help you, but its worth trying them out, have a play around and see what works for you – its your story, tell it your way! Happy writing!

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