Essential writing skills: ways to build a real character for your novel

One of the ways to transform a ‘character’ in your story into someone ‘real’ is to start with a good foundation. What makes people tick?

At this level, people are simpler than you might think. One powerful motive is self-validation – feeling worthy and valued, even to themselves. This can produce all manner of outcomes, because there are so many different things people identify with – and so many different ways they validate themselves.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...
Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Let’s take one example – imagine a university Professor who, for better or worse, validates his self-worth by the status he imagines he has in his field of employment. What does that produce? He will see others – who ‘compete’ for the same status – as taking away his self-worth. This sounds ridiculous but it’s actually fairly common in the field – this is why academics end up fighting over what, to those of us in the real world, appears to be nothing. Would such a character have the confidence to confront someone they viewed as a threat? Perhaps, but let’s suppose they mix this with a fundamental underlying insecurity.

That opens up story narrative. When affronted by someone who they imagine has taken away their self-worth they respond not by confronting their supposed assailant, but sneakily through back-channels, a cowardly back-stab that means this Professor character doesn’t have to actually introduce himself to his targets. And if confronted; why, he is a Professor – how dare anybody question his status or authority?

What else can we add, to make a point of difference in character? Laziness? A sense of entitlement? And so we begin to build up a picture of a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist. A Professor, perhaps – someone, perhaps, who feels entitled to position and status, who does not work particularly hard but who draws validation from the little they achieve, presenting as ‘puffed up’ to any they work with.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdStereotypically, one might also imagine a character of this nature to be physically lazy and over-weight. Of course, all this is purely to show the thought processes that might go into a character. I’ve deliberately portrayed a cliche – a classic bully. Such a character, you have to admit, is at best a pathetic one-dimensional caricature. Not compelling for readers – but by going to the extreme I have, I hope, given something of the basic mechanics of how characters might be developed.

The trick is to be a lot more subtle – to build from a strong skeleton, mixing and matching the surface elements to produce that most elusive of literary creations, Hemingway’s ‘real’ person. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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12 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: ways to build a real character for your novel

  1. Hi Matthew. I’m creating my newest MC, actually I reading your blog instead of that. So your thoughts were interesting. I get tired of people asking for character interview checklists. I prefer to start inside and work out.

    I start with Myers Briggs Types. I tried using just that, until I came upon Ackerman / Puglisi and their wonderful Character Trait Thesauruses. Now, my next step is to fill in their Moral Core, Achievement and Interactive Layers, and Identity Shell, using one trait in each level which is consistent with my MBT. Then I pluck out flaws to round them out.

    After that, I can fill in those stupid questionnaires, which really aren’t so stupid anymore.


    1. Sounds like a good approach. Going beyond Myers-Briggs is definitely an advantage – I have my doubts about the validity of that model, which was based on superseded Jungian ideas about persona. All the best for your writing!

        1. Absolutely – and it’s a good way to do it. I’ve also heard of people who use the Dungeons and Dragons character generators to do the same thing – I’m not sure if that’s quite so ‘realistic’ though… 🙂

  2. Great advice! I’m filling my notebook with characterizations for Nanowrimo! I plan to write book 2 in the series while I wait for queried agents….tick tock…

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