How to Create Great Characters for Your Novel

Beautiful young black woman writing notes at cafe

There are several humorous scenes in the movie Adaptation in which the lead character, Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage), struggles with the screenplay he is attempting to write. Well over his deadline, he attends a seminar by the famed Brian McKee. During the seminar, Kaufman asks a hypothetical question about a writer who wants to write a screenplay in which there are no major character arcs and that they continue on, frustrated. Kaufman adds that he sees this as a reflection of the real world.

The response from McKee, played by Brian Cox, is crushing. McKee, in front of an auditorium full of people, tells Kaufman that he’s out of his mind. That is the start of the rant, which ends with McKee screaming at Kaufman that he doesn’t know anything about life. McKee then lists all the things that happen in the real world: murder, genocide, breaking someone’s heart… and the list goes on.

The point is, that in order to create great characters for your novel (or screenplay for that matter!), your main character — at a minimum — must evolve and change.

Your Character Needs a Dilemma

man on bench with head down

From Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel, I learned that my hero (or heroine) needs a problem that cannot be solved. In other words, the problem is bigger than the character. It’s a David and Goliath situation. The point of having a dilemma is to give your hero an impossible situation to fight against for the length of your novel.

Your hero must want something so badly that he is willing to die for it. It could be anything: love, a job he wants to hang onto, saving a dying child, etc. The possibilities of what a person could want, after all, are endless.

A life coach once asked me, “what are you willing to crawl over broken glass to achieve?” The answer to this question for your character is the dilemma he finds himself in that he cannot easily escape or resolve.

A notable exception is romance novels, which readers expect to end with the hero and heroine falling in love and ending up together. Even so, in a good romance novel, there is plenty of tension leading up to the resolution, in which a number of false starts and misunderstandings occur.

Give Your Hero a Worthy Antagonist

angry woman with blonde hair

In addition, your hero needs an antagonist who is as strong as he is and who wants to stop your hero from achieving his desired outcome at all costs. Stopping the hero in his tracks must be the one thing that your antagonist is willing to crawl over broken glass to achieve.

Now, why would an antagonist want to stop your hero? Because the one thing he or she wants is the opposite of what your hero wants. Let’s say, for example, that we have a novel in which a couple is getting divorced, and both want sole custody of their only daughter. You can bet that they are going to fight each other — to the death or almost to the death — to each get what they want. If one parent wins, the other one loses.

While we may try to create win-win situations in our personal and professional lives, win-lose scenarios are the stuff of great fiction.

Put Your Hero and Antagonist Together and Let the Sparks Fly

man and woman fighting

When I am not sure of the best way to allow the drama in my novels to play out, I brainstorm situations and settings in which I can put my hero and my antagonist, and then I let them duke it out. Continuing with our example of the divorcing couple, they could easily have a big, drawn-out fight in court in which even their cut-throat attorneys struggle to get them under control.

Not every scene, of course, needs to be so dramatic. Nor should it, since you’ll need to give your readers some breathing room. So, once you have an idea of one of the big scenes that could play out, you can think of more subtle ways in which your antagonist could mess with your hero. If our hero is a father who wants to hold onto his daughter, for example, his soon-to-be-ex-wife could attempt to sabotage a corporate deal he is trying to close. Perhaps this is a deal that he has been working on for years, and his livelihood depends on it. If his situation at work is precarious and he can’t close the deal, he will lose his job and he will not be financially fit to care for his daughter. He is not about to let that happen, though, because he loves his daughter more than anything, which just makes him fight harder.

At this point, we’ve really raised the stakes for our hero and have given him a worthy opponent who is attempting to sabotage his efforts! In this way, we are allowing our characters to drive the plot of the novel and move it forward.

How is Your Hero Transformed at the End?

calm man looking at pond with mountain in background

You get to decide if your hero achieves his goal or not, and you also get to decide what he might lose in the process. Perhaps, to continue our example, the hero loses his job but his soon-to-be-ex-wife is exposed as a saboteur, and the judge decides that she is unfit as a mother. The hero loses his job but gets sole custody of his daughter. In order to get what he wanted, though, he had to grow, change, and evolve.

Perhaps he was an emotionally distant father at the beginning of the novel, but when struck with the prospect of losing his daughter, he realized how much he loved her. Throughout the novel, we see him evolve, and because we see how much he is willing to ethically fight to keep his daughter, we are rooting for him to get what he wants, rather than his antagonist.

Tips for Starting Your Novel

I hope this post has given you some ideas for how you can create great characters for you novel. When you start writing, one thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to have everything figured out. You just need a vague sense of who your character is and what he or she wants. Then you provide him with a worthy opponent, and you’d be surprised how much of your plot can take care of itself if you continue to pit your antagonist against your hero and keep raising the stakes as your novel progresses.

I wish you the best of luck as you get started! If you have any questions or insights to share, please feel free to leave a comment below.

6 Replies to “How to Create Great Characters for Your Novel”

  1. I don’t know why this movie in particular comes to mind, but I was thinking about Fatal Attraction. Talk about growing tensions! It apparently was a formula that worked, having been nominated Best Picture.

  2. What a fantastic well written article. Your article alone had me sitting on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen next.
    When you were sharing about the character and the antagonist and using divorce as the scenario and sabotaging I thought of war of the roses.
    This very informative article is a must read for all wanting or who write novels. Thank you so much for this great read.

    1. Thanks, David! I’m so glad you enjoyed the article and found it useful. It was one that came together for me easily, and it was so much fun to write.

      Funny you should mention War of the Roses. My parents saw that one year together on their anniversary of all days! I’ll tell you, though, it was a little too much for me. After the first five minutes, I turned it off!

      Thanks again for the kind words, and please feel free to contact me if you need any more tips.

  3. I love writing. Books have always been dear friends of mine. When I was younger, it used to bug me that in order to create a good story, you had to create conflict. As a kid, I just wanted to write stories about how everyone had candy and ice cream and lived happily ever after. But after I wrote a few stories like that, I thought, gosh that’s kind of boring. Nothing happened! 😀

    I really liked this article and all your tips. 

    1. Thanks, Nikki! Oh, I can’t tell you how many stories I wrote like that when I was young. I think that’s the point of the movie that the esteemed screenwriter made in Adaptation, too: something has to happen for people to be interested. That’s why I’m such a proponent of creating great characters. If you give them their own minds and hearts, complete with problems, strong options and a burning desire to accomplish something, then the plot will take care of itself (with some tweaks of course). Good luck with your writing, and thanks for stopping by.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *