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Creating Great Novel Characters, by Helene Young

The heart of a story is the cast of characters that people it. You can have a plot that twists, turns and surprises, but without memorable characters it will not linger with your readers. Characters need to resonate. To do that they must have traits we can relate to or empathise with and we need to be able to appreciate that, given their circumstances, we too may make the same choices.  So how do we do that?

A character is the sum total of the life they have already lived before they take front and center in our stories.

A young child is a pristine canvas with room to grow.

A teenager may have splashes of colour from the angst of puberty or from their impulsive anger and joy.

A woman in her early twenties may have experienced loss and love, disappointment and triumph.  She may be growing into a confident adult with the world before her.

A man in his forties may remember the partners he has loved and those he has left. He may measure the career he dreamed of having against the one he’s achieved. He will have have formed ideas based on his prior experiences. He will judge based on what’s gone before.

A man in his seventies  may remember the peak of his career, his conquests, his children and his prowess as a twenty-five year old.

A woman in her nineties may be closer to her childhood than her current age of decline. She may recall the smell of the earth when the rain fell as she walked to school with no shoes. She may remember the sadness of her first love with tears in her eyes and the joy with a trembling mouth. She may tell you of her family, long dead, and the things that made them special.

It’s our job as writers to coax our characters into revealing these memories, these fragments of their lives. Since I don’t plot my stories, I build a character map as I write.  Sometimes I interview them, but when I do I’m interested in things like: What was their earliest memory? What was their first kiss like? When was the first time they cried as an adult? What is the experience of swimming in the ocean like for them?

The answers surprise me at times. Sometimes they send me off on tangents but often they provide the missing link, the final piece in the mosaic. Those answers are the colour, the texture, the scent and the voice of my characters.

So do whatever it takes, channel Andrew Denton, think like Richard Fidler or Michael Parkinson and take no prisoners. These are your characters and it’s your job to dig deep, even if you make them cry.


Helene Young’s author website:

Helene Young’s bio page


Wings of FearShattered SkyBurning LiesHalf Moon Bay     Rotten GodsHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeod

Writing Novels in Australia

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. kerriepaterson #

    Wow, some great ideas there, Helene. I heard John Marsden talk recently and he said that his stories are made up of hundreds of little stories – meaning the memories that the characters have and share. Remembering to add those in really makes the writing richer and the characters fuller.

    June 1, 2013
  2. Thanks for sharing that great advice, Kerrie. John’s exactly right and it was part of the process I went through with the first edit. My wonderful publisher simply asked for more memories and they gave the story an additional richness.

    June 1, 2013
  3. Thanks so much Helene, a wonderful summing up and some great ideas for getting in touch with our characters!

    June 4, 2013

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