The Write Way to Novel: Step 3, Design Characters

Pick names for your protagonist, antagonist, love interest and best friend and any important family members. I always pick names that have meaning for the story in an unobvious way. Baby name websites are good for this — like if you want to have a reporter character, whose name means truth, you’d name her Alice—the name of the reporter character in my Periphery series.

Caution: Unique names are tricky. If they don’t sound like real names, readers will get distracted while reading. So unless there’s a story reason for a strange name, or you’re writing in a genre where weird names are the most normal thing about it, stick to names you’d hear in everyday life.

A note about character questionnaires: Do them if they help you; skip them if you don’t. They don’t help me. Unless there’s a story reason for it, it doesn’t matter what your character’s favorite color is.

What matters are the answers to the big three questions:

  1. What does your character want? They have to one big, clear goal to move the story forward, even if it changes every act. (And it can.)
  2. What does your character need? What do they need to grow, whether they know it or not? (And they probably don’t.)
  3. What is their flaw or misbelief? If it’s a flaw, they need to overcome it to get what they need. If it’s a lie they believe, they need to learn the truth to get what they need. This idea of misbelief is from Lisa Cron. Both her books Wired for Story and Story Genius are worth reading and keeping by your computer.

Bonus: What’s unique about your character’s personality and appearance? Are they unusually blunt? Do they have a scar above one eye? This helps your readers remember who’s who. It’s not a must but a good idea when possible. 

Pick character types. A great book to help you pick character types and see how they’d interact is The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines, but these are the types I use the most:

Character Types

Male

Chief
Strengths: Goal-oriented, decisive and responsible
Weaknesses: Stubborn, unsympathetic, dominating
Style: Born leader

Lost Soul
Strengths: Devoted, vulnerable and a great judge of character
Weaknesses: Depressed, unforgiving, expects the worst
Style: Wanderer

Bad Boy
Strengths:
Charismatic, street smart and intuitive
Weaknesses: Pessimistic, bitter and volatile
Style: From the wrong side of the tracks

Female

Boss
Strengths: Confident, dynamic, Competitive
Weaknesses: Blunt, workaholic, arrogant
Style: Trailblazer

Crusader
Strengths: Courageous, determined, persuasive
Weaknesses: Obstinate, rash, opinionated
Style: On a mission

Librarian
Strengths: Efficient, serious, dependable
Weaknesses: Rigid, repressed, perfectionist
Style: Know-it-all

Enneagram types can also be helpful for character-building.

So make some characters that make sense, whether you base them on character types or people you know. (Because if you can let reality do the work for you, why not?)

Then plan an arc. K.M. Weiland has great advice for how to make all types of character arcs.

Okay get started. Next week we’ll talk about brainstorming, title and purpose.

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