When writing your novel, it’s important to get to know all your characters, even the bad ones. Developing your character profiles and investing the time to understand them more intimately. Doing so will enable you to write with more authenticity. Flesh them out and imagine how they would act in the real world.
Take a piece of paper and write out the basic details. On your computer, key in the information in a separate document and save the file for reference. Many writing programs also have areas for you to put in a detailed character profile. These work well. However, try not to overthink.
Here are steps to help you get started.
Types of Characters
Each character you create is important and has a job to do. Your job is to specify exactly what their role is. Are they the main character or a side character?
Protagonist. The protagonist is the main or central character in your story. They are the focus of the story. A protagonist is often called the “hero” of the story. Elizabeth Bennet is the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice. You can have more than one central character. For example, both Elinor and Marianne are the protagonists of Sense and Sensibility.
Anti-hero. The anti-hero is a major character who lacks the typical characteristics of a hero. However, they may still be the main character or one of the main ones. For example, Prince Hamlet is considered an anti-hero. He isn’t exactly someone who we want to look up to (or become) but he is the central figure in the story.
Antagonist. The antagonist is the principle character or group of characters, institution or concept that stands in opposition to the protagonist. Mr. Wickham is the most consistent antagonist of Pride and Prejudice. You can also have multiple antagonists or even those that change throughout the story. For example, Mr. Darcy was an antagonist at first but then evolved. The antagonist doesn’t always have to be a person either. Here are a few examples.
1) An individual character who acts in opposition to the protagonist
2) Groups of people and institutions who act in opposition to the protagonist (for example, maybe the protagonist is escaping an abusive church or cult).
3) Character flaws/traits within the protagonist that prevent them from achieving their end goal. For example, maybe a journalist who is extremely agoraphobic.
4) An external force (such as natural disasters or societal norms) that work to prevent the hero from reaching their goal.
Confidante. The confidante is someone, or something, that the main character reveals their main personality, thoughts, intentions. It could be a person, such as a best friend, or even an object, such as a journal. For example, Albus Dumbledore is one of Harry Potter’s confidants.
Foil. The foil is one whose personality qualities conflict or contrast with the main characters, usually the hero. It can sometimes be the antagonist or another important character. This contrast usually serves to highlight the attributes of the hero or another character. They don’t even have to be an enemy of the protagonist; for example, Mercutio is Romeo’s foil. Mercutio is not at all romantic and provides a sense of reality and skepticism about Romeo’s all-encompassing love. The court jester is another example of a foil.
Any of the above main characters can fit into one of these literary types. For example, the hero is usually around a character with depth and an antagonist can undergo change during a novel. Conversely, you may have an antagonist who never learns, never evolves, and stays the same throughout the entire book.
Dynamic character. A dynamic character is one who changes over a period of time, usually because of the central conflict or situations in your story. This character can be any of the main characters or even a temporary character. For example, Mr. Darcy evolved from the antagonist of Pride and Prejudice to more of a hero figure.
Flat character. A flat character, unlike the dynamic, has a personality and belief system that stays constant throughout the entire story. Elizabeth’s mother Mrs. Bennett is an example of a flat character in that she stays consistent in her personality throughout the entire novel. She does not grow or learn anything based on the events in the book.
Round characters. A round character is one who is complex by nature and undergo massive change throughout the content of the book. They have multiple layers of personality; the term “still waters run deep” apply to these characters. Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, for example, evolves into a new woman throughout the novel and learns to understand her true feelings.
Stock. Stock characters are generic characters that don’t have a main role in the story and are just there. They don’t change much at all and don’t really contribute much to the character. They include the stereotypical dumb jock who throws out a condescending aside or the flight attendant who calms down the main hero during a rough flight. Unless they play a pivotal role in the story (does the flight attendant become the hero’s love interest?), there is no need to flush out a detailed character analysis.
Questions to Ask
You’ll want to ask yourselves a variety of questions to get a better idea of who they are. You don’t have to go in depth for all your characters. However, it is important to do it at least for the main characters. Think of your characters as three-dimensional people. Having an idea of how they walk, talk, look, and take up space can help you write out their dialogue and personality. Their background will also impact the story; how they grew up and how their life has helped to shape them. Don’t worry about irrelevant details such as their favorite color or food, unless it has relevance to the story.
In answering these questions, you’ll analyze four key elements: primary identity, background, personality, and appearance.
Who are they?
- What is your character’s name? Is there a nickname? (For example, Angus MacGyver goes by “Mac.”)
- What is their ethnic background? Hair color? Eye color?
- Where were they born? Where have they lived since then (and why)?
- Does your character have any distinguishing facial features? What about birthmarks or scars?
- Who are your character’s friends and family? What is their relationship?
- Who does the character surround themselves with (the confidante)?
- Who do they want to be close to?
Develop their Backstory
- What are some of the highlights and most important events in their life prior to the point where the story begins?
- What is their biggest fear? Who have they told it to? Who do they want to prevent from knowing it? Why?
- Does the character have a secret?
- What is their relationship history? Has the character been in love? Married, divorced, or widowed?
- Do they have any physiological disorder or conditions?
Character Building Activities
Take your basic profile from above and take that information to develop your character even further. When writing out these answers, you want to limit it to one character at a time. You should have already written out what the main conflict of the story itself is. Here you are trying to work out what the individual conflicts are for each character.
- What is their central motivation? Why do they want to get out of bed in the morning?
- What is their main conflict?
- How do they deal with conflict? (Are they stoic or are they explosive by nature?)
- How would they deal with the main conflict of this novel? Keep it short; like the length of a Tweet. You’ll get into that when you are writing your novel, but it helps to have an idea of how they will handle it down the road. If you know that one character, who is normally super sweet and obedient, is going to snap down the road, you may need to put up a few hints or road signs. This helps you understand where they are coming from.
- Continuing with step #4, create a short character journal where you write in a few short entries about your book’s central conflict in their words. What is the hero thinking? The foil? What about the antagonist?
You don’t have to use all these questions. Many of them are a silly way for you to get inside of your characters head. As you write, they should feel like real people that you talk about, dream about, and can argue with. You may find the story taking a different direction when one formerly flat character suddenly begins evolving. Writers often jokingly state that their character took over the story. As for extras, such as the flight attendant who calmed down the protagonist? Unless they have an ongoing role in the story, don’t worry about writing their profile. Trying to flesh out every character in your fictional world in detail will tire both you and your readers, out.
If you’re truly stuck, get out and go to a nearby coffee shop or somewhere where you might find someone like your character. Maybe strike up a conversation. Take mental, or written, notes about what you see and hear. Use these details to help you answer the above questions and write a character profile. You can also think about someone interesting you’ve met before and try to answer the above questions using their profile.
Above all, have fun. Don’t worry if the narrative or character changes as you write your story. Some of the best stories have had an interesting character twist that happened in the author’s mind as they were writing the story.
Stories used in this post
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
Other Writer’s Guide Tips