How to Build Fictional Characters in Novels – The Writers Blog
How to Build Fictional Characters in Novels
Reading Time: 7 minutes

If your characters in a novel aren’t interesting, you won’t be able to keep readers. That’s why it is vital to carefully consider how you will want to present them to your audience. The more developed a character is with traits and an engrossing background, the more likely you will be able to breach ideas from the page to the readers. Here are some steps on how you can build fictional characters in novels. 

What types of characters can you create?

While the main character may be the focal point of the story, embellishing your novel with a variety of beings will help materialize the fictional world into reality for the reader. 

As you flesh out your story, you may want to add different types of characters, such as protagonists, antagonists, deuteragonists, foils, characters that are dynamic, that are static, round, stock, or flat. 

What is the difference between main characters, protagonists, antagonists?

Main characters are often the “protagonists”. Originally a Greek word, if you break down its roots, you will see that “protos” refers to “first or chief” while “agonsites” refers to “actors”; combined, they form the title of “the chief actor in a story”. While there is usually only one, it is possible to have multiple protagonists in a novel (like in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

While the words “main character” and “protagonist” seem very similar in meaning, they are not synonymous. Your main characters are ones that are heavily focused upon but who don’t necessarily drive the story forward in any way. The characters that are the prime focus of your story, whose actions are closely followed and compel events forward, are the protagonists. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum of protagonists are antagonists. While the former literally means “the chief actor in a story”, broken down, “anta (i)” means “against or opposite”, so antagonists are “the enemy or opposite of the chief actor in a story.” They are typically the villains, whose goals and actions counter those of the protagonists. 

What are deutagaonists and foil characters?

There are quite a variety of characters that you can add to expand your novel’s world. 

One of the most common ones are deuteragonists, which are the secondary characters of the story. They aren’t necessarily in the limelight and they don’t have to support either the protagonist or antagonist’s side. While some of their actions may have influence in the story, their overall contribution isn’t as prominent in the focus. Examples of deutagaonists include love interests and sidekicks. 

Deutagaonists, as well as main characters and antagonists, may even be foil characters. These are the beings in a story whose traits are exploited to contrast that of another. One of the most famous examples of a foil character is the creation/monster in Frankenstein, whose traits are used to compare and highlight those of Victor Frankenstein. 

What does it mean for a character to be dynamic or static?

Characters can either be dynamic or static. To be static means that you lack movement, action or change. Hence, a character that is labeled “static” means that they don’t change throughout the story. Although this may seem like a negative thing, as change and character development can be quite gripping, many novels succeed with static main characters. To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch hardly changes throughout the story, but nonetheless, his contributions are still captivating. 

On the other hand, dynamic characters are very effective in showing a character’s growth. These are the beings that go through a change somewhere along the story. A common example of this is the titular character of the Harry Potter Series, who both physically and mentally adapts throughout the books.

What are flat and round characters?

Flat characters are those whose traits don’t extend deeper. In other words, they lack depth and don’t really show another side to their personality, causing them to often be referred to as “stock” characters, the unrealistic foreground characters. As a result, they are typically envisioned as being “two-dimensional.”

Opposite flat characters are round characters. These are “multidimensional” characters that are layered, may have a background, and have a deeper personality. Overall, they are simply more realistic. 

Begin creating a general profile for your main characters first.

After you have generated an idea of your story and what may occur, you will probably want to dive into writing up the work. However, it is important to first come up with a “skeleton” of your protagonists and main characters. In other words, you’ll want to come up with a plan of the basic and most essential elements of your most significant characters. 

Perhaps you have an idea for a murder-mystery novel and can envision a detective being your protagonist. Before you start putting them into scenes, you may want to note their basic features: log their gender, sex, race, health condition, temperament, what is the main goal, what drives this goal, and what will happen to them by the end of the story. While you don’t need to have an idea for who will be the other characters, you may want to figure out what makes your main characters crucial enough to be in the focus of the story, as compared to the others in the background.

By doing this, you may find yourself writing scenes that are more suitable to your character as you already have established generally who they are. Later, you won’t have to worry about inconsistencies along the way since you already have this planned out.

Flesh-out their qualities.

Not every character needs to have each detail of their existence mapped out, although thoroughly listing out at least one’s qualities can really help bring the reader closer to the story as they understand more about who they are reading. For characters that are round, this is especially helpful. If you created a general profile of some characters, start to add even more details about them, like hair color, eye color, quirks, height, race, background, interests, dislikes, and whatever else you believe is important for the reader to understand and visualize for the story or their experience. 

Determine if you want a character to be the speaker. 

A great way to display the personality of a character is to have them be the speaker of the story. One of the most paramount elements of a novel is the voice or narrator. If you want the audience to hear the story directly from a character’s head, you may want to consider writing the story in first-person. In this perspective, the speaker addresses themselves in the story with pronouns like “I” or “we”. While it isn’t necessary to have this type of speaker, it is great if you are having trouble conveying your character’s mind fully for the audience.

Introduce your characters effectively.

“A first impression leaves a lasting impression” is a helpful saying to remember when you are thinking about how you are going to present your characters to the audience. It may be overwhelming to introduce them all at once, and it won’t be a pleasant experience for the reader to have a full-length character profile thrown at them. 

Instead, carefully place your characters in the story in a way that is natural, maybe beginning with only a brief description of their most outstanding qualities and physical characteristics. Later, you can build up their profile that is subtle. 

Have your characters interact with the world.

You won’t be able to keep your reader’s attention if you try to explain every thought process for your characters. Instead, try to imply their thoughts by having them interact with their world. For instance, rather than explaining that a character is angry because she didn’t like a grade on her test, I might infer anger by saying “Her eyes stared at the large scarlet letter planted on her test, her face burning into the same color.” Or, perhaps you can express their character more by their actions, like “The young boy made eye-contact with the begging woman, before laughing and walking away.” Remember, don’t treat your audience as if they need everything spelled out; allow them to make connections for themselves. 

Have your characters interact with each other. 

Dialogue is also an effective method for building your characters. Any time you write dialogue, make sure that it drives the story forward or could reveal something more about the characters. Make these spoken interactions impactful. They are best written if they sound like a natural conversation or fit with the dialect of the world you create. 

To really understand a character’s social stance, having them interact with others is critical, especially in regards to the protagonists and antagonists! Insight into their relationship can serve as a catalyst for events throughout the story.

Give your characters obstacles.

The obstacles you create for your characters will not only show more of what they are like by their actions but will create some needed tension and entertainment for your readers. If a character easily accomplishes their goal in your novel, there isn’t much suspense to keep an audience sticking around for the end. However, these challenges will help show off their characterization and possible development in it. 

Encourage the audience to feel a certain way about the characters. 

Not every character will be likable, but most should be compelling. Getting the audience to emotionally connect with the characters can ensure that readers will want to continue reading to see how they will pull through. Essentially, making them “human” with faults and susceptible to drastic changes can encourage the audience to sympathize with them. Or, if they cannot sympathize with a character, like a morally-corrupt villain, then make them mysterious entities that will keep the audience pondering about why they are this way or willing to wait around to see if they have a much-needed demise.  

Give them a fitting ending. 

The ending of a story will be one of the most defining moments of the novel and your characters. At this point, the characters should have some type of resolve for the goals or desires. While endings don’t always have to be happy nor sad, they should be natural with the progression of the novel and focus on the events connected directly to the characters. 

Get inspired.

Boring and inconsistent characters will deter any future readers from continuing your novel. By keeping track of your characters and their characteristics, creating different types of characters, having them interact with the world and each other, encouraging the audience to feel a certain way towards them, and providing them a fitting ending, you will be able to better evolve your fictional world and keep your audience’s interests. 

If you don’t have any idea on what a character should look or act like, try reading other novels ( or even watching TV or movies) to get some ideas for your own. Even search up images of people to see if you can at least get a physical vision for how they may appear. By being exposed to a range of qualities in others, you can start to get an idea of how your characters will be.

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