How to develop a character

People often ask me how a writer develops a character for a novel. I usually answer:

“It’s easy. You simply make up his or her life.”

This answer is not always helpful, because the most frequent reply is:

“Oh, make it up – but I don’t know how to do that.”

This post is dedicated to all persons who feel fobbed off by my aloof advice. Today, I will explain the development of a character properly. To give you an insight into the creative process, I will use a “real life” example.

The example is about creating a character appearing at a historical ball. I will lead you through the stages of preparation and explain how you can follow the same steps when creating a character for your novel.

Last year, I attended a historical ball that was set in Brighton in 1820. There were two requirements for participants:

  • Wear a costume fitting the period.
  • Make up a role to go with the costume.

The purpose of wearing a costume and creating a role is to intensify the historical touch of the event and make it more authentic and thus more enjoyable for the participants.

Necessity vs. artistic license

If you haven’t visited my exhibition “How to assemble a ball gown” at the Museum of Creativity, please do so now. The exhibition shows how you can create a credibly looking gown for a ball set around 1820 without a large budget and much sewing.

The general idea is to check which clothes in your closet can easily be adopted as components of a Regency costume. When I checked my closet, I found many black clothes. So obviously, I was to play the role of a widow.

The content of my closet had set the role I was to play. But I had to define what kind of widow I wanted to be.

Apply it to your novel

When you write a Regency novel, it’s the same basic position: You need a hero and a heroine to meet the minimum requirement of the genre – but it is up to you to decide what kind of hero and what kind a heroine they will be.

Setting the frame

At the historical ball, I wanted to get into contact with the other participants. Accordingly, I could not be a widow that hides herself under a black veil. I had to be a lively widow, a comparatively young widow maybe, in any case a widow that had overcome her grief. Since it would not come at any extra cost, I decided that I would be a famously rich and eccentric widow!

Apply it to your novel

What does this mean for your novel? It means that you can have any character you want, if it is good for your story-line and your plot. Some characters will have to be introduced because they are required by the genre. Or can you imagine a detective novel without a detective? He can be self-employed or a monk, but when you write a detective novel you have to have someone you will walk around and ask questions. Other characters you will need to move the story along. Still others you can introduce just because you want them in your novel

Going into detail

Now let’s go back to the rich and eccentric widow. So far, we have only the very basics of our exemplary character, a certain Mrs Thane. At the end of this post, her life shall be an open book for us.

To get there, we will have to answer three questions:

I. What is her social background?

II. What are her eccentricities?

III. Where does her fortune come from?

Apply it to your novel

When you create the character of your heroine, it’s only the beginning to set her up as a lively and charming hoyden, heiress of an enormous fortune. You need to know in what way she behaves hoydenish, why her parents did not manage (or care) to educate her properly and what her charms are about. You also should now where her fortune comes from: Is it from trade? Is it from owning land? Did she inherit it?

I. Social background

A Regency character can be of the nobility, from trade, or from the servants’ class. What you choose for your heroine depends partly on the plot of your novel and partly of your personal preferences. As Mrs Thane would attend a subscription ball that is open to any person able to pay the subscription fee, I chose a mixture of trade and gentry as her background. Her own family had always been landed gentry, and her husband should be from trade. Thus, she could show traits of behaviour of both classes, providing me with a lot of flexibility when slipping in her role.

Apply it to your novel

When you define the social background of your heroine, make sure that it fits the plot and enables her to be active. An inactive character will never achieve anything in a novel, least of all winning the hero’s heart.

II. Charm, mannerism and eccentricities

While the social background defines values, moral and mindset of a character, it is charm, mannerism and eccentricities that bring him or her to life.

Apply it to your novel

You can nearly use everything to develop an entertaining heroine: Does she enjoy flirting to a degree of impropriety? Has she a hell of a temper? Is she bookish and constantly quotes Ovid and Homer? Make a list of all virtues, vices and quirks you can think of, mix them and assign them to your heroine according to the requirements of your plot.

For Mrs. Thane, I chose some very uncommon characteristics for a woman in the Regency period. I wanted her to have a fondness for foreign travel and ancient cultures. At the ball, she would try to win travelling companions for her expeditions. This would allow me to actively get in contact with the other participants and discuss travel plans with them. Though Mrs Thane has a thorough knowledge of antiquity, she is not bookish or shy. She is open, occasionally flashy and knows want she wants and how to get it. She uses her charm to win male travel companions for her expedition, and to convince the ladies to join her, she appeals to the superiority of the female mind when it comes to understanding culture as well as practical travel management.

She is radical in her political views and an early feminist. She admires Alexander von Humboldt’s work and wants to follow into Mr Humboldt’s footsteps by travelling to the Amazon region. Her interest in the ancient Mithras Cult directs her attention to the Ottoman Empire and Italy, and she would like very much to travel via Persia to the Mughal Empire.

Apply it to your novel

When you develop eccentricities or other characteristics for your heroine, let yourself be inspired by history and any experience you have made yourself. Don’t be afraid you might be too colourful. A heroine should be a strong character in order to captivate not only the hero, but also the reader.

III. Making a fortune

To complete the background of my character, I needed to explain what had happened in Mrs. Thane’s past and especially – as it is the leitmotiv for the ball – how she became fabulously rich, so she could indulge even in her most extraordinary travel plans. A character’s history is a wonderful playground for the author.

I have decided that Mrs Thane’s fortune is based on two sources:

1. Her father, fifth son of an esquire, made his way in the army. He was an able commander and general, who made his fortune in the many wars he fought. He took part at the battle of Seringapatam under Colonel Arthur Wellesley. He brought diamonds with him from India. They became the famous Thane Diamonds that Mrs Thane wears around her neck whenever she is attending a ball.

This sounds realistic, doesn’t it? Well, it should, because to create the General’s biography, I let myself be inspired by the lives of Sir David Baird (1757 –1829) and George Harris (1746 –1829).

The Thane Diamonds needed some research, too, as I had no idea where diamonds came from in the 18th century. It turned out that India was the main supplier, with Brazil being hard on its heels since the discovery of several mines in the first half of the 18th century.

Apply it to your novel

Keep in mind that inspiration is often a question of knowing history or good access to Google and Wikipedia.

2. The second source of Mrs Thane’s fortune was a rich husband: John Thane. His name is John, because this is the only male name I would remember when playing her role at a ball. John Thane made a great career at the East-Indian Company; he even rose to serve as a Director of the Company later in life. He was intelligent, efficient and reliable. Anna’s father, the General met him during one of his trips to another battle field. He liked the serious-minded young man and furthered John’s acquaintanceship with his daughter Anna.

Anna liked John Thane quite well, and as she was fond of travelling, she believed it to be a good idea to marry a man of the East-Indian Company. She already pictured herself sailing to the Mughal Empire at his side. Little did she know that John Thane hated adventures, travelling and spending money on studies of ancient cultures. As he always became sea-sick even when driving in a carriage, John took his new role as a husband as an excuse to never set foot on a ship again.

He passed away unexpectedly from a chill that had turned into an inflammation of the lungs. He left his wife and a huge fortune. Mrs Thane bemoaned his death as was proper – and then set out to fulfil her dreams of travelling.

For John Thane, I read about the East-Indian Company and found out how typical careers at the Company looked like. I painted John as being a bit boring, but with a good heart. He would never have made his fortune in the West Indies (meaning sugar plantations and slavery). This, too, endeared him to Mrs. Thane.

Apply it to your novel

Developing a character basically means to answer questions about his or her background. Write down what you want to know about the character, as you would do if you were a private investigator trying to find out as much as possible about a suspect. You can also interview your character as described here. To answer all questions, some historical knowledge is useful, but it can be substituted by using Google or Wikipedia.

“Making up” does not only mean using your imagination. It means using tools such as books or the internet – and even your personal experiences.

4 thoughts on “How to develop a character

  1. Anna, I also use a dice-guided path for deciding crimes if I need a short story in a hurry to fill up a book of stories that wrote themselves… I might adapt it for Regency mishaps and post on my blog, and make a decision path for major characters…

    • Splendid idea! It reminds me of my Story Generator on this blog. Incorporating chance into the creative process and regarding it as a (strategy) board game works really well, doesn’t it?

  2. For secondary characters I have a 10×10 table in which are 100 basic character traits. Using 2x 10-sided dice I roll 3 traits, and then see how to reconcile them to each other, and build on that skeleton for the character… writing main characters is never hard, I just make them up…. in much the same sort of way, regarding the sort of hero and heroine I want. Sometimes in the course of writing they decide to surprise me with something I didn’t know about them, but that’s not a problem. Secondary characters are always more feisty and almost always surprise me with things about themselves. And sometimes they barge in and demand to exist without me having planned them at all.

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