When I began research on my debut novel, the second thing to come to me were the characters. After having drawn a map of my virtual world, characters started to pop up in my mind’s eye to fill that world. At first they were only shadows, vague sketches and impressions. Then they slowly started to take form and shape, until finally they were fully born. At this point they began to have a mind of their own, willpower, and the capacity to do the unpredicted.
I have since gone back and spent a great deal of time doing character outlines for each of them. I found a fantastic downloadable form online at epiguide.com. This is an incredibly detailed questionnaire about your character. I made the decision early on to use it for all my characters, no matter how important, as it would be helpful in understanding the smallest facial expression, and the mildest comment or appearance. Plus I intend for my book to be the first in a series, so this would be an invaluable reference for me later on.
Having created these outlines, as I write my novel, if my character does anything significant or reveals anything more about themselves, I add it to their outline. This helps me to stay consistent, and hopefully means my characters appear more authentic.
But creating the character outlines was only the beginning of my character work. The next thing I needed to do was figure out how important each character was. A friend of mine once gave a brilliant talk on the phenomenon of Facebook, and how we spread ourselves too thin by trying to have too many friends at too deep a level. He suggested that it was healthy to have no more than three close friends, twelve more casual friends, and 150 acquaintances at any one time. I decided to adapt this slightly for my novel, and have no more than three main characters, twelve supporting characters, and no more than 60 extras (everything from a taxi driver to a lady walking her dog down the street).
This may sound like a lot, but I have picked up a few tips of what to do with those characters along the way that helps the reader follow the story:
- Only reveal the thoughts of your main characters
- Only follow a main character out of a room, never a support or extra
- Don’t have more than three characters speaking at one time
- Don’t tell the life story of every character you introduce
- Back story is back story – it doesn’t always have to become THE story
These tips and tricks have really helped me keep my writing clean and easy to follow. I have found it easier to keep up with the plot as I write, and it’s helped me stay on course. Besides, I need to save some juicy bits for future books! Hope this inspires your characters to come to life, and helps you sort out the leading lady from the humble extra. Happy writing!