On Building A Central Character Within Novel Writing

When we are building a central character protagonist in our novel writing, we probably have already imagined the core of them, particular characteristics which we know they must have in order to drive the particular plot we have in mind. For me, it’s the characters in a particular situation which comes first, with some sort of inner conflict within them which I want to travel with and develop through the story. If it is a short story, then there’s limited information about them on a practical level which we need, but if the character is to be sustained through a form as lengthy as a novel, we must make our character fully rounded and dynamic (as opposed to minor, flat and more static characters) really complex and three dimensional, and weave in realistic details on many levels, so that the character comes alive with a past, a present, and a future, and so that they are right there for the reader in the first few lines of Chapter 1.

During my time writing, I’ve come across a few different methods, but the one which works best for me, is a kind of CV/personal record file of the main protagonists, let’s call it a character development questionnaire, where you decide in advance as many details about them as you can stand, so that you can set off in chapter 1 with a pretty fully fleshed out character, who lives and works in as real a world as possible. This record is always there to refer to when you need reminding of a few points, and very importantly, to keep inconsistencies to the minimum, which understandably readers hate. Sometimes the details you have recorded are completely superfluous to the novel – just because you have them, doesn’t mean you necessarily use them all, but sometimes a particular detail in itself can give you an idea for a subplot, or an interesting bit of backstory about their past (for example, the marks of a scar on their body, how did it get there?) and this is how it can become a fascinating process. I really feel it’s worth the time to cover this, especially if your novels are more character driven than plot driven. I like to have these records, together with a mind map of the whole structure, very roughly plotted, before I begin. I also like to have a list of characters, which I add to every time I create a new, more minor character, as I’m writing. And if you make any changes, record them straight away, for that essential continuity.

Here are the points I like to record for primary characters which have worked best for me. I print out a list of these questions about them, with plenty of space between each question (for later expanding upon), then fill it out by hand, and have them by me as I write. For example, in the novel I’m writing at the moment, I have by me a record for the dark embittered Janet, my main character, and Marian, her flighty flirty protagonist, to enable me to go deeper into them when the moment arises. Initially the questions can feel very cold and clinical, but if you persevere, it’s astonishing what starts to happen, the character begins to live and breathe and when you begin to write your novel you feel more assertive and convincing in your approach.

Character Development Questionnaire

Full name – and do/did they have a nick name?
Does the name reflect when they were born? Is it symbolic in any way?
Date of birth? Star sign?
Place of birth?
Present address?
Previous address?
Where is home to them?
What car do they drive?
Or is it a bike or don’t they drive? And Why?
Where did they spend their childhood?
Features of schooldays?
What is the main decade of their teenage years? (Develop this if useful)
Intelligence level/education?
Sexual history?
Significant other in their life currently?
Other significant family members?

Physical appearance: Think of the body as a storehouse for their identity
Facial features?
Eyes, shape, colour?
Hair – natural or coloured? Style?
Do they wear glasses/contacts/need reading glasses? Style?
Height – how do they feel about their height?
Body shape?
Any distinguishing marks eg scars?
Any disabilities?
Other signs of personal history? Eg teeth condition, frown lines, laughter lines
What are their hands like?
How do they walk? (Eg dawdling or marching)
How do they eat? (Eg nibbling or gobbling)
How do they stand?
How do they shake hands?
Clothes they like to wear best and why?
What kind of voice do they have? Breathy reedy, or gravelly, or clear. Tone of voice?
Any regional accent?
Does their voice change according to where they are, or what mood they are in?
Do they have any personal idioms? (Eg for crying out loud!)
Any personal catchphrase?
How do they say hello, goodbye, thank you, yes, no…?
Are they proud of any of their physical attributes?
Do they draw attention to what they are proud of in any way?
Do they conceal what they embarrassed about physically?
Do they have any health problems?
Do they have any characteristic idiosyncratic gestures? (Eg rubbing their nose)
Do they have any personal politics?
Family history and particular relationships?
Notable events in life story/personal history?
Any traumas?
Any personal successes?

General temperament?
How comfortable are they in their own skin?
How aware of themselves are they? (degree of self-knowledge)
And unconscious aspects? (links to above)
What will they just not talk about?

What do they do for a living?
Are they happy in their work?
If working, where exactly is their workplace?
If they are not working, then why?
How do they feel about it?

Lifestyle? – affluent, middling, or poor?
Do they have any particular goals, aspirations, or dreams?
Any significant worries/ fears? (this is where inner conflict come in)
Any obsessions? If so, where do they come from?
Types of friends? Who? And what is it about them that our character values? Why?
Work colleagues?
Is there anyone they really dislike/hate?

Best memories?
Worst memories?
What kind of childhood did they have?
What about their moral beliefs?
Religious beliefs/personal philosophy?
Any particular prejudices?
Do they have any habitual reactions to other people or events?
Do they have any irritating habits?
Drinking habits?
What are their good points/strengths?
What are their bad points/weaknesses?
Do they have an overriding character flaw?
What type of sense of humour have they got?
What is their attitude to love/romance?
Do they have any current/potential romance going on?

What are their hobbies?
What do they love?
What do they hate?
Typical holiday?
Favourite foods?
Favourite films/TV programs?
Favoured/beloved possessions and what they reveal?
If they won the lottery, what would they do?

Do they have an overriding hidden agenda? If so, what is it and why?

And finally, the essential matter of:


Here is a quote I found on building a character:

If(…) you want to write a character from the ground up, a character who is as real as any person living, yet wholly your own creation, then there are three aspects you need to know in depth: the physical, sociological and psychological. (by Mooderino)

And here is a link to his/her very useful blog post on this topic.

So, whether your main characters are ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’, they should be multidimensional, idiosyncratic, complex and nuanced. And remember, everyone has the seeds of cruelty, envy, rage, greed, murderousness within them, as well as the capacity for love, compassion, generosity, care, affection. So show your good guy’s shadow side now and again, and  vice versa for your mean characters, and have some fun playing around with the physical, the sociological, and the psychological, and the natural blending of these features which makes us all too human, because that is exactly what we want for the characters we create.

(image courtesy of pixabay)








About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: lynnefisher.wordpress.com Art: lynnehenderson.co.uk Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnefisherheadtoheadhearttoheart/ Artists page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnehendersonartist/
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2 Responses to On Building A Central Character Within Novel Writing

  1. lisakunk says:

    Thanks for sharing this list. I plan to work with it and see what emerges.


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