character building in fiction novels

10 simple tips to make your book characters meatier


Are you in the process of writing a novel / work of fiction? If that is the case, many of you, like me, will find yourself getting stuck at the character building stage of the book.

You may have a very clear plot in mind, you may also know how to begin and end your story, and the places to picture, but sometimes, characterization can pose as a very serious challenge.

I personally know of so many writer or new writer friends who come to me to ask how I worked out my characters, or what made me make them so, and most importantly how did I bring myself to detail them the way I have.

And the truth is, your characters make your book. You cannot win a best seller or even a decently selling book, if your characters are weak, or unpalatable to your readers. There are so many books you love, just for their characters, you may not even remember the exact story but you will remember, and identify with, the characters for the rest of your life, won’t you?

So today, we will talk about some basic hacks that can be used to build good, sturdy characters that have, well a character!

1. Ask questions to yourself. What do you want to be the age of your character? Does he/she sound better a little older? Or is he/she a rogue, a black sheep, in that case a little younger and carefree identity will work better. Always ask yourself questions. Picture your character in multiple identities until you feel your way to the one that is just right for your book.

2. Start simple. Get the basic details first. Age, race, color, build, and attitude. Once these are clear you can start on the finer details. I find it easier to choose these based on where I am, or what I am. It is always easier to work around your own kind, than getting into unknown waters with a different cultural background since it increases your chances of making mistakes or wrong statements.

3. Got the basic details sorted? Then it is time to start on the description of your character. What color are their eyes? How are they dressed most of the times? It is always good to add some typicality to your character. A character that has a very particular type of dressing or habit will stand out, always. A characteristic bodily detail also works wonders. A fidget, a limp, a lisp, a way of walking. Get the drift?

4. Now you can work on some bodily typicality. A mole on their neck, their obsession with nail paint, a certain hair color they almost always wear, a perfume that signifies them, a finger ring, or any other piece of jewelry. I find these to be useful props that can be used in mystery or crime or thrillers to just give a little hint to your readers on who the person maybe who just walked into the room, or killed someone, or is hiding.

5. Conflict is almost always central to any character. Internal or external, a conflict helps you build the depth to your character. He is rich but isn’t happy because he has no love in his life. She was born to a poor farmer but is now in love with a very rich man. Her face was burnt when she was very young and she has now a very deep rooted inferiority complex about her looks. She wants to be popular but is very shy and cannot overcome her own introvert behavior. These add a lot more depth and also help your readers identify with the character more.

6. Adding a certain type of educational background is also very essential to ensure that your character has enough meat to it. If you are working on a crime thriller, you have to work towards building a psyche for your murderer. A murderer can be a low life rogue with no educational background whatsoever, or he/she can be a very sharp, highly intellectual individual with typical fetishes or reasons for his/her criminal behavior. I have found it easier to get away with certain behavior of my characters, based on their educational backgrounds and the consequent behavioral absences or additions.

7. One of the easiest ways of building a character, I think, is to build a family or a group to which the character will be set in, or belong to. Social constructs add to a lot of probabilities for a character to be a certain way and then becomes very feasible to the readers. Since he comes from a very secure, family-oriented background, he must be a gentle, well-mannered man. An individual who is born to a single mother, can have some liberties to his/her behavior, mannerism because of the deprivation of a complete family life. And so on. There are really no limits here, the more you can imagine, the more you can create.

8. Adjectives can be your best ally when working on characterization. Beautiful, jealous, kind, open, shy, stubborn, angry, calm, obsessed…all these add to the overall development of the personality or the psyche of your character and can also help you mold them into a certain shape or persona and also justify it. You can certainly imagine a jealous individual to be overcome with his jealousy and murder an opponent, or a strong willed person to lead a group of underdogs on to rebellion. This is one of the easiest ways to determine your main character.

9. Your story can also build your character. What is your plot about? Is it a story based on an accident, or a natural catastrophe or a love triangle? Now match each of these with an adjective. Accident can be angry or hurt or sad, catastrophe can be fear or phobia, love triangle can be jealousy, anger and obsession. Easy? Now take these two and figure out how and when your character does what he/she does and voila, you have a power packed story!

10. What’s in a name? Everything, when it comes to characterization. You cannot have a Gauri as a rebel woman leader of the story. Well you can if you want to, but a Kali or a Shakti makes more sense doesn’t it? I find it easier to start with names some times. Especially when you have a social meaning or a certain expectation attached to your character, a certain name will bring with it a certain identity.

So this is how I create my central characters. You do not always need very high profile tools, or complicated theories. Sometimes starting simple is much easier, and efficient.

Try out these simple hacks and do let us know if they worked for you, or if you have any suggestion to make them better! We would love to hear from you!

Happy writing!

Arthur Conan Doyle Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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