Character and characterisation in novels: techniques, examples and exercises

Characterisation and character development in writing aren’t easy.

If you’re struggling to create characters with real life, or a strong character arc for your protagonist, just apply the characterisation examples here on our ultimate character creator page.

If you follow these correctly, your characterisation should be just fine.

Decide the protagonist your story needs

Before you plan a character profile, note there are roughly two types of protagonist personality in fiction.

The first protagonist type is an ordinary character plunged into the extraordinary. And, by this process, they become a little more extraordinary themselves. Harry Potter seems ordinary, albeit he is a wizard. Jon Snow of A Song of Ice and Fire seems ordinary, yet there’s more in store for him than Westeros expects.

These characters are often reluctant or hidden heroes.

The second type of protagonist is more obviously out-of-the-ordinary. They’ll cause a stir by their nature, i.e. Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These people could make things happen in an empty room. Characters like this may be anti-heroes like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, anti-heroines like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl.

And either type of protagonist is fine.

Whichever you choose, do not struggle to equip your protagonist with a whole lot of amazing skills to dazzle us. It will not feel authentic. Nor should you always soften your anti-hero by way of their character arc. (An anti-hero like Heathcliff shocks and rivets because his character arc grows progressively darker.)

The secret of being a gifted character creator is to know your character well.

Understand them from the inside, as though you were that person, then make sure the book is as true to that person as you can make it.

Create a character or protagonist profile

Strong characterisation is based on knowledge. The best way to write a really strong protagonist is to know them inside out. If you have this knowledge, you will find yourself using it. If you don’t have it, you can’t.

So the problem of writing character is a problem of knowing your protagonist. And we’ve got a brilliant technique to help with just that.

If you haven’t yet started your book, then work on the character creator exercise below before you start. If you have started, but think that maybe you started prematurely, then back up. Do the exercise and look back over your existing character development work.

Begin with a blank sheet (or screen). And begin to write down everything you know about your central character. Don’t be too concerned to edit yourself at this stage. Just let rip: this will be your character profile. It helps to group your comments a bit under certain themes, but if that inhibits your flow then just write. Group your notes up later.

You should cover all kinds of topics, including:

Your character’s backstory

Where did your protagonist come from? What was their childhood like? Happy or sad? What were relations like with their parents? Or brothers or sisters? If their father was (say) extravagant, what impact did this have? If their mother was (say) easily tearful, how did this affect them?

And what about now, where relations with others are concerned? Were there key incidents in childhood that shaped this person in a way relevant to your book’s story?

Write how your protagonist’s backstory has shaped their drives, their character arc, and will shape your plot. It helps if examples are concrete, showing your protagonist via actions and choices in specific situations.

Your character’s personality

You’ll have ideas about personalities already – these may have more depth and subtlety when the structure of a back story is already in place.

Start to answer as many questions as you can think of.

Is your character sunny and carefree, like Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice? Or hardened, unforgiving, like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

What impression would they make on a casual observer? High school freshman Charlie Kelmeckis is shy, self-conscious, told in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a Wallflower: (“You see things and you understand. You’re a wallflower.”) There’s more than meets the eye, though. Charlie is gentle but has hidden anger issues. In this sense, you can create flaws and subvert archetypes, making your character human, not clichéd.

And are they screwed up in any way? Are they conflict-avoiders or conflict-seekers? Are they sensitive or selfish lovers? How emotionally involved would they get? Will any of this feed into their character arc?

And if you answered a Myers-Briggs personality test in character, what would your character’s results be?

Be sure, most essentially, you know your characters’ deeper goals and motivations.

What’s their deepest wish? What’s the goal, the thing they most desire? (Does it change?) What’s their motivation for wanting it, and what does it say about their nature?

Creating this core motive means you write human, not clichéd, characters. Knowing your protagonist’s goals and motivations – with awareness of how things may shift – is your key to a great plot.

Ask these questions to know your characters.

Your character’s relationships

Be sure any relationship is deeply sewn into your study of character arc and action, romantic or otherwise. For example, perhaps your central character seeks to avoid a certain painful truth, and this is the challenge around which your story revolves.

In that case, a character’s key romance could perhaps be with a person who challenges him to face up to that truth, i.e. Lou and Will in Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You. (Lou must convince Will life is worth living after his paralysis.) Or perhaps the characters collude to avoid such truth. (Lou and Will arguably do this, too.)

Elaborate on relationship(s), including your character’s romantic interest(s). Why has your character chosen this partner? Is he or she like the partners your character normally goes for?

Try and explore their intimate dialogue. Do they go in for cutesy baby-talk? Or hard-edged flippancy? Or reflectiveness? What are their pet names for each other? Do they encourage maturity in the other or bring out the less mature side?

What are their disagreements about? Do they row, and if so, how? How do they mend rows? What does one love most about the other? What do they most dislike? What is your predicted future for the relationship beyond the end of the novel?

Do spend real time and thought on this exercise and technique, especially if your novel revolves around romance or relationship. If your answers feel good and true, you will start to develop real chemistry between your lovers.

Romance mustn’t just be thrown in for the sake of it. It should feed back into character arc.

Your character’s looks

What does your character look like? You can note down build, hair, eye hue, but don’t stop there. Find the distinctive things about your character’s physiognomy. Please don’t (unless this is central) just give your character some obvious distinguishing feature for the sake of it. Be subtle.

Think of an actor or actress who could play your character. If you need a visual image to work from, then look through magazines until you’ve got something you can use. Pin it up close to where you work, and work from that. Or create an inspiration board, either a real one or using a site like Pinterest, to pin images of your characters, of story aesthetic, etc.

Just don’t forget to keep things grounded. Combine objective with subjective. Not everyone will swoon over your beautiful person, nor will everyone believe a plain character looks unappealing.

Jane of Jane Eyre is told by most she is plain, though some tell her she is pretty. Rochester changes his mind as he falls for Jane, describing her face as ‘delicate’, but Jane’s words are ‘puny and insignificant’ (telling us Jane is self-conscious of her looks).

Your character’s life (i.e. all the rest)

And don’t just write about all the important things. Write about the trivial, too. So what food does your character like? It’s relevant in a book like Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire what ‘food’ protagonist Louis likes, as he struggles with his new identity.

What skills do they have, i.e. can they speak other languages? Languages help Daenerys in A Song of Ice and Fire. Have they ever used a weapon? Katniss in The Hunger Games uses a bow not just to eat, but deliberately to show strength.

Describe their hands. Jo March’s hands in Little Women are ‘stiff’ from writing. Does your character drink or take drugs, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange? Do they drink for fun, or perhaps to forget something? What is it about them that takes them to these places? What makes your character laugh, and what does their laugh sound like? What animal would they be and why?

And so on and so on.

Many of these questions will have no direct relevance to your book, but the more questions you ask and answer, the better you will know your character.

And you should aim to cover at least five pages or so with this exercise. Maybe more.

Don’t do it all on one day, as you won’t get everything you need in a single go. Give yourself several days for this. Repeat the exercise for other main characters. Keep your notes available as you start to work on other things, so you can enrich your notes as you go.

The less central a character is to your book, the less you need to know him or her, but don’t skimp. If in doubt, do more.

And this exercise does work. You’ll end up with more knowledge than you ever had before, and this knowledge will transmit itself into your writing. Your characterisation improves. Your characters being more lifelike, your book will be better.

Create empathy using character motivation

Empathy for characters is key to gripping readers. What’s important is that characters illicit a response.

Just not indifference.

Novels like Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and American Psycho feature vile protagonists, but these protagonists are forces of nature, keeping us hooked in their stories.

‘Good’ or ‘bad’, we want compelling, complex characters with strong motivations to create empathy – because if we care, we’ll want to read on. Be sure to get this right when developing characters. It means no clichés, having inner worlds rich and developed.

It matters that the story you’re writing forces that character to encounter big risks, mounting jeopardy, that the stakes are personal via a plot moutain. It matters that you’re telling the story in the right way, too, i.e. in first- or third-person narration.

Check and revise your character profile

Once you’re into character development writing (say 5 to 10,000 words), look back at your work. Is your character emerging? Do you describe in cliché? Does your character come across as human, or as implausible movie character?

Be tough on yourself to be rid of cliché. If necessary, go back to this exercise and hammer away at your character profile.

Talent helps, but drive and effort take you further.

And if you need editorial help with your finished manuscript, or your novel-in-progress, then of course we’re happy to offer you that feedback, too.

Happy writing – and we’re rooting for you.