Fiction,  How To Write A Novel: Step by Step,  The Writing Life,  writing tips



I write Young Adult fiction, so my main character will be around High School age. If you are writing an adult book, you won’t need to worry about the ages of your characters.

Who Are These People?

Perhaps a better question is, “How Do You Find These People?” The first, most obvious answer is, YOU. I often find myself thinking about who I was in high school. What did I think about? What was important to me? I also draw on other experiences in my memory to evoke emotions, even though the situations are totally different. For example, in my current contemporary novel, Lily’s mother has recently died in a car accident. This has not happened to me. But, I have had other experiences with death and grief, and despair which help me put myself in Lily’s situation.

I wouldn’t recommend basing the protagonist completely on yourself. It’s better if you create composite characters. This means that they will have some of you in them, but also characteristics from other people you know or have observed. Which brings us to the next place to find people. People you know. I often include speech or personality traits of people I know in my characters. I wanted to have an older straight-shooter-type character in Winds of L’Acadie, so dug into my memory of sayings from my dad, which helped define Maggie. She had a like it or lump it, kind of attitude, just like my dad. Borrow other character traits from other people. Maggie isn’t exactly like my dad. She’s a little like my grandma. And a little like me.

Strangers can also provide inspiration for your characters. It’s probably not an acceptable practice to photograph strangers because there is something you want to remember about their appearance. I would not want to be photographed by some random person on the sidewalk. However, I do try to sneak a few peeks at the person without being obvious, commit the desirable quality to memory and write it in my notebook as soon as possible. Sometimes a person in the coffee shop has just the right profile. Or really quirky clothes. Or an intense, intimidating scowl . You will want to collect as much information as you can whenever, you see or hear a trait that you just can’t pass up.

Between the categories of people you know and strangers, is the group of people you don’t know, but you feel as though you know because you have read a great detail about them or seen them in the media. Celebrities, famous authors, artists etc. Perhaps they have a particular gesture you’ve noticed or a verbal tic you’d like to borrow.

And lastly, you could create a character strictly from your imagination. Experience is what fuels our imagination, so most likely these would be composite characters, based on a compilation of characters we know and have met. I wouldn’t completely rule out imaginary characters, because, well, the imagination is a powerful tool. Sometimes the smallest spark will ignite the imagination and a character is born.

Now it is time to start creating!


  1. In your writer’s notebook, make a section for characters. Brainstorm a list of all the characters in your story. You don’t have to include the delivery man if he shows up once in one scene to deliver a parcel. But include every who has a significant part. This won’t be a complete list yet.
  2. Choose two characters from the above list and put each of their names at the top of a separate page. Write a short bio for each. Or, if you prefer, make a chart of characteristics. Personally, I find the character trait charts and personality charts to be rather daunting. I haven’t figured out all that information about my character yet. Do whatever works for you. Include a little background about your character. In my YA characters, I need to know about their parents and family life. This will be huge with respect to how the character reacts and responds to the action. Whenever I have not done this, I have had to stop and revisit her background. What do her parents do for a living? What is her home like? Siblings? Birth order? appearance? An important note about the protagonist. You must write a story from an authentic point of view. What this means is that, it is no longer acceptable for me to write from the point of view of a bi-racial character, as I did in The Journal (Kami is Caucasian/Japanese). I am not bi-racial and therefore cannot authentically write from this point of view. Keep this in mind as you choose your main character. Add to this list every time you think of new information about those characters. Do this for as many characters in the story as you like.
  3. Now, go back to the character from #2 who you are thinking of as your protagonist. What does that character want? What is his driving need? Is there an obvious contradiction in his personality that may create interest? Linda Sue Park talks about the character’s want vs. the character’s need. For example, In my WIP Anywhere But Here, what Lily wants is to have her mother back. To have everything go back to the way it was before the accident. That obviously isn’t happening. What Lily needs, is to develop her own strengths, talents, and confidence, separate from what her mother wanted for her, so that she can move forward and become independent. The want is the surface, obvious situation we see when the story opens. The need is the underlying emotional growth of the character that must take place.

Each day from Tuesday to Friday there will be an inspirational quote and perhaps a writing prompt in case you’re stuck and just want to do some random writing.

Next Monday, there will be another post delving deeper into characterization.

Until then…

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