Sunday, 2 August 2009


It’s a good idea to populate your novel with a few characters. You know, those people that things happen to. Them what carry the story. Here are some rules, then:

  • Nobody is wholly good or bad, happy or sad. Create multi-faceted, complex characters: unpredictable, inconsistent, confused and flawed - just like you and me.

  • People change, develop, grow. Your characters should too.

  • First novels tend to have an autobiographical character; check you’ve not just written yourself into the book.

  • Make them distinguishable from each other. Guard against peripheral characters that merge into one.

  • Nobody is average height with normal hair and ordinary looking. And if they are, they don’t belong in a novel.

  • The reader must care what happens to them. So must you.

  • Don’t just weave people in as bland extras, there as mirrors to others’ behaviour.

  • Reveal character slowly. And do this by showing us what they think, feel, believe, not by telling us.

  • Not every behaviour relates back to a childhood incident; we’ve moved on from Freud.

  • Clichéd characters are lazy. Those stereotypes that tabloid hacks, not novelists, portray. The grumpy, misunderstood teenager who stays in his room, hates the world, plays his records backwards. The camp hairdresser. The drunken old man, boring folk as he topples from his barstool. The serial killer who tortured animals as a child and can’t relate to women. The abusive priest. The feminist, man-hating lesbian. The prudish spinster and her cat. The New Age vegetable grower who knits her own yoghurt. Yes, these people exist, but dig deeper and you will find other qualities, hypocritical ones, nuances, idiosyncrasies, quirks, qualities nobody else sees. It’s your job to reveal the essence that makes people unique. Think about someone who doesn't cry at a parent's funeral. Someone who buys the same novel from every bookshop she enters, but never reads it. A man who only opens his post with gloves on. Something more interesting begins to emerge. (Read some John Irving for the antithesis to hackneyed characters.)

  • Know as much detail about your characters as you can. More than their likes and dislikes. How do they vote? What would they kill for? Die for? What is their last thought at night? The thing that frightens them the most? The secret they’ve carried forever? The sound they make when they...well, you get the idea.


Natalie said...


Just wanted to say that your handy bullet points are read and appreciated. I'm trying to write my first novel so all advice from experienced folk is indispensible.

(BTW: Came across your blog via Stella Duffy to Stroppy Author to you. Thought you might like to know - I always wonder the same for mine :-) )

TOM J VOWLER said...

You're very welcome Natalie. Thanks for stopping by.

Barb said...

Great post, Tom - thanks for this insight.

Why would someone want to write about someone who looks average?

Stroppy Author said...

Hi Natalie - glad you found your way here through me :-)

I'd just like to add an extra tip to your really useful list. Try filling in quizzes and questionnaires 'for' your character. You know, the type of quiz you find in magazines and online that tell you what type of person (car/goat/Disney character) you are. It really makes you think about aspects of their personality you might have ignored. You may not need to put all the info you discover into your book, but it really helps you flesh them out.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Good point, Barb. I think we probably have an idea what average-looking might be, but it's unlikely that person would regard themselves this way.

Good advice, SA.