Characterisation in the novel

Techniques, examples and exercises

Characterisation - the task of building characters - isn't easy. But if you're struggling to build characters with real life and vigour, just apply the techniques and examples on this page. If you do follow them correctly, we can pretty much guarantee that your characterisation will be just fine!


Know what kind of character you are writing

There are roughly two types of protagonist in fiction. One is the everyman or everywoman character, plunged into an extraordinary situation. Harry Potter, for example, comes across as a fairly ordinary boy, albeit that he's a wizard. Likewise, Bella Swan (in Twilight) always thought she was ordinary, until she started to fall for this slightly strange guy ...

The second type of character (rather less common, in fact) is the genuinely extraordinary character who would make things happen in an empty room. Bridget Jones is such an example of such a character. So too is James Bond or Patrick O'Brien's Captain Aubrey.

Either type of character is fine - don't struggle to equip your ordinary character with a whole lot of amazing skills, or try to 'humanise' your James Bond character by making him nice to old ladies and interested in baking. Indeed, the real secret of good characterisation is to understand your character well (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.


Empathy is about story and good writing

Likewise, don't worry too much if your character is likeable. Lisbeth Salander is fairly hostile. Sherlock Holmes is weird. Easton Ellis's American Psycho is actually loathsome. Likeability doesn't matter. What does matter is the technique with which you create your character. In particular, it matters that:

A) you write well enough that your reader is drawn in to your protagonist's world, whether they like it or not; and

B) the story you're writing forces that character to encounter big risks and mounting jeopardy. (see more on plotting here and here).

If you do those things right, your character will grab and hold the reader's interest.

Give your character plenty of inner life

Novels (unlike films) aren't just about what characters say and do; they're also about what characters think and feel.

So don't forget to go inside your character's head frequently. Even a high-action thriller needs the reader to feel what it's like to be in the burning building / under fire / in the eye of the storm, or whatever. Yes, part of that comes from external descriptions, but much more of it comes from the novelist's ability to disclose inner worlds. Get more info on inner worlds here.


Exercise: How to know your character inside out and back to front

If you haven't yet started your book, then work on the characterisation exercise below before you start. If you have started, but think that maybe you started prematurely, then back up, do the exercise and then look back over your existing work.

Strong characterisation is based on knowledge. The best way to write really strong characters is to know them inside out - at least as well as your best friend, let's say. 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 essentially a problem of knowing character. And we've got a brilliant technique to help with just that ...

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. It helps to group your comments a bit under certain themes, but if that inhibits your flow then just write and group your notes up later. You should cover all kinds of themes, for example ...



Where did your character come from? What was his childhood like? Happy or sad? What were his relations like with his parents? His brothers / sisters? If his father was (say) extravagant, what impact did this have on your character? if his mother was (say) easily tearful, how did this affect him then? And what about now, in particular where his relations with women are concerned?

Were there key incidents in childhood that shaped him in a way relevant to your book's story? Think these through and note them down. It really helps if your examples are concrete and show your character via their actions and choices in specific situations. (Need help on story? Get it here.)



What does your character look like? You can note down build, hair and eye colour by all means. But don't stop there. Find the distinctive things about your character's physiognomy. Please don't (unless matter is central to your conception) just give your character some obvious distinguishing feature - a scar, a stutter, a wooden leg. Be subtle. Think of an actor who could play your character. How would you describe their face? If you end up with words like 'craggy', 'granite-jawed' etc for a man - or 'classical', 'grey-eyed' for a woman - then that's OK, but stay with the image and try to do better yet. 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. Don't forget to keep your character's look referenced through your novel.



All your key characters MUST have a well-defined character arc through a novel. This is true even of all-action adventure stories, if you want them to be any good. The standard arc might be something like (1) Susan has a fear of commitment, (2) she encounters a situation in which that fear is put to the test in the most (for her) dramatic and challenging way, (3) she either passes or fails the challenge. Either way, she's different at the end of the book than she was at the start. So put this arc into writing. Link it to the challenges of your story; to their back story; and to their personality. In relation to this central issue, you should aim to understand your character as well as a therapist might. It's critical you get this part right!




It's usually a good idea to come to this issue a bit later than other things, as your ideas will have more depth and subtlety when some of the structure is already in place. But start to answer as many questions as you can think of. For instance: Does your character laugh easily? Are they sociable? What impression would they make on a casual observer? What about if they spent an hour talking to someone in a bar? Do they get angry easily? Cry easily? Are they self-conscious? What political party would they vote for and why? Are they conflict avoiders or conflict seekers? Do they drink, smoke, take drugs, drink too much coffee, eat junk food? If so why? What is it about them that takes them to these places? What are their feelings about sex? Are they screwed up in any way? Are they sensitive or selfish lovers? How involved do they get emotionally?




Your central character will almost certainly have a key romantic / sexual relationship in your book. Good. But make sure this relationship is deeply sewn into your study of character arc and action. 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, that character's key relationship should perhaps be with a person who challenges him to face up to that truth - or perhaps colludes with him to avoid it. If you handle it like that, then the romantic element in your novel will be as core as everything else. It won't just be thrown in for the sake of it.

But don't stop there. Elaborate. Why has your character chosen this particular partner? Is he / she like the partners your character normally goes for? Try and explore their intimate dialogue? Do they go in for cutsie 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/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. (Tip: read your favourite authors and see how they handle these things. You can read Harry Bingham's analysis of a number of well known novels in his How To Write.)




And don't just write about all the important things. Write about the unimportant things too. What food does your character like? What clothes do they choose? How do they wear them (ie: sloppily, stylishly, fussily, self-consciously, etc)? What makes them laugh? What does their laugh sound like? If your character were an animal, what sort of animal would they be? What films do they like? What books? Are they creative? Do they fart? Can they speak French? Are they good with money? Are they absent-minded? Do they like oranges? Have they ever used a gun? What is their favourite pub game? How do they fidget? Describe their hands.

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.

You should aim to cover at least five pages with this exercise. Don't do it all on one day, as you won't get everything you need in a single go. Give yourself at least 3-4 days for this. Repeat the exercise for your 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/her. But don't skimp. If in doubt, do more.

And the exercise will work. You will end up with more knowledge than you ever had before, and this knowledge will transmit itself into your writing. Your characterisation will improve. Your characters will grow more life-like. Your book has just got better!


Checking your work

Once you've got a fair way into your writing (say 5 to 10,000 words), then look back at it. Is your character really emerging? Do you describe him / her in cliched terms? Does your character comes over more as a real life human being, or an implausible movie character? Be tough on yourself. If necessary go back to this exercise and hammer away at it. (Tip: good writing and good characterisation are intimately connected. Take a look at our advice on prose style here, and on building a sense of place here.)

Even genre fiction needs swiftly drawn, believable characters. If you don't succeed on this aspect of your writing, you won't succeed, period.

That's the bad news. The good news is that you can get where you need to get by appyling yourself seriously to the kind of exercise presented here. Talent helps - but sheer craft & application takes you an awful long way. (And if you need help with your writing, then of course we're happy to offer you the best advice in town.)