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How to write great characters which jump off the page of your novel

Posted by Kerry McDuling (Publicious Book Publishing) on 2 November 2016

When creating your novel, there is an abundance of information to be found online about book cover designs, manuscript assessments/copy editing/proofreading, as well as practical tools such as book typesetting services and essential topics such as book marketing/publicity. But the practical parts of publishing, like print on demand and Ebook distribution, are just part of the puzzle to creating and publishing your first novel.  Most of the real blood, sweat and tears takes place at the start, when drafting and writing your novel and a lot of it comes down to character.

When you've spent months, or indeed years, slaving over your novel, there is nothing worse than a reader saying that your characters were 'thin', soulless or otherwise unbelievable.  Writers could learn a lot from actors, who use tools such as 'Method Acting' or the 'Michael Chekhov Acting Technique' to achieve robust, deep and authentic characters. Several world class actors are famous for Method Acting and similar techniques, staying in character for several months of an entire feature film shoot; and their aim is just like yours bringing characters to life.

An actor makes a character unique by thinking about the inner values or core truths which motivate a character's movements and desires. A novelist would do this to avoid overdone clichés such as 'old woman' or 'angry young man'. So while you need to talk about physical traits like hair and eye colour, height, weight, etc, the real value comes from knowing your characters from deep inside.

What past events coloured them, much like yours have shaped you? Were they starved as a child which makes them foam at the mouth at the sight of food? Did they grow up in a wealthy household and move around the room with the grace of an entitled prince or princess? Are they stressed about their financial situation or suffering from an awful home life? Do they have tics, special mannerisms or old injuries? Spend the time to create a backstory for your characters which you may never mention in the text, but it will personalise them and make them feel more realistic.

Actors decide scene by scene what his characters want to do. Similarly, to make each chapter or scene believable, you must decide each character's objective in the scene. Would it make sense for a character to immediately start shouting or slamming doors at the slightest hint of an argument, or is there some long, festering sore of conflict which drives them to overreact?

In this way, we move on from who a character IS to what they want to accomplish. What is their goal? Everyone has goals in life, even if they're seemingly silly or shallow ones. Your character will have an overall goal which applies to the whole book, but within each scene, they may have smaller goals that propel them towards their ultimate one.

If you expand your character profiles to include their goals, it will make their actions come alive on the page, and your reader won't be left confused about actions which are out of character. The same applies to dialogue. Actors are terribly afraid of sounding like they're just reciting lines, so they always seek to understand the character's motivation for saying something.

This is where subtext comes in. Subtext is the underlying meaning of the words being spoken, often used in our own day to day speech. "What's wrong?" asked Frederick. "Nothing," spat Pauline, and looked out the window. It's not a very elegant example, but it's pretty obvious that Pauline is not happy at all! This is subtext and, when used sparingly through adjectives, is a very effective writing tool for communicating the feelings and relationships of your characters. Just make sure to keep the dialogue natural.

These are just a few of the tools available in your writing, to make your novel come alive with characters who appear real, natural and authentic. There are many books available that cover this topic in more depth, and I encourage you to find one if you want to take your writing to the next level.

Kerry McDuling Publicious Book Publishing

Author:Kerry McDuling (Publicious Book Publishing)
Tags:Andy McDermott / Director

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