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On Character In Novels: Part 3, by Robyn Bavati

I’ll begin this month’s post by once again recapping the five principles that are useful in creating characters:

1. There is a difference between character and characterisation; both are required.

2. Character is best revealed through action.

3. You don’t need to know everything about your character, but only those details that provide insight, advance the plot or in some way enhance your story.

4. Character does not exist in a vacuum but is inextricably linked to plot – character motivation drives the story.

5. In a novel (as opposed to, say, TV sitcom), characters must be allowed to change over time.

In this post I’ll address the fourth and fifth principles, beginning with the integration of plot and character, and the idea that character motivation drives the story.

While you don’t need to know everything about your character, there is one thing you must know: your character’s motivation. Knowing what your character wants is the single most important thing you need to know. Without that, you won’t have a story.

When asked for story writing tips, Ray Bradbury said: “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”

Is it really that simple? Not quite. Once you know what he wants, you must also ask yourself what is preventing him from getting it and how far he will he go to achieve it. When you are able to answer these questions, you’ll have the backbone for your story.

The obstacles preventing your main character from achieving her greatest desires should be internal as well as external, and the flip side of what she wants is what she fears. It is only through confronting and overcoming her greatest fear that she is able to gain her deepest desire.

Aristotle famously said that character is revealed in the way a person acts when under pressure. In order to put your hero under pressure, thwart her desires (by placing obstacles, both internal and external, in her path) and place her in a situation where she is forced to confront her greatest fears.

Allow your main character to change over time. Change is the essence of character development and is what distinguishes novels from other art forms such as TV sitcoms. In a typical sitcom, the main character never changes. He might appear to change, but the change is short-lived and he invariably reverts to type. In fact, the sitcom depends on this. If the main character truly changed, the series would end. The sitcom relies on a long-standing dilemma that is never resolved. It is the very lack of resolution that allows it to continue episode after episode, year after year.

The novel, however, demands resolution. Unless it is part of a series (in which case the main character wins the battle but not the war), it is complete in itself, not just one in a series of ongoing episodes.

Aspiring novelists often confuse character consistency for character development. In the interests of consistency, they show the same character trait over and over, in different ways, so that the story becomes repetitive and the character is denied a chance to grow. They mistake repetition for development.

Heroes may (indeed should) be flawed but they must be inspiring. They must be allowed to rise to the challenge, to develop the courage they need to defeat the (preferably both internal and external) antagonists.

Of course, your story might demand a minor character who doesn’t change. The unchanging nature of a minor character might even make your hero seem all the more heroic by contrast. Also, you might decide to write about an anti-hero rather than a hero. However, if you make this choice, you might find yourself with a story that not many people want to read. Most readers want uplifting stories about a character who is finally able to overcome his demons. They want to identify with the hero to experience the struggle, the fear and the ultimate triumph.

In a satisfying story, the main character usually gains a deeper understanding of his own psyche. This generally manifests in a deeper understanding of what, exactly, it is that he wants. At the start of the novel, the main character (and sometimes the writer) is aware only of his external goal. He knows what he wants – but only on the surface – and might or might not be aware of his deep-seated fears.

For example, in Dancing in the Dark, the main character, Ditty, knows early on that she wants to dance, while Simone in Pirouette knows that she doesn’t. In both cases, it takes them some time to realise that what they really want is personal freedom. In other words, they begin with a surface goal or desire, and grow to understand something more about themselves and their deeper desire.

Stories that don’t look beyond the surface desire generally won’t get published, and if they do, they’ll fail to satisfy. It’s the deeper desire that will provide your themes and give your story substance and meaning.

Often, it is only when the deeper desire is understood by the character that the surface desire can be realised (though in some cases the surface goal becomes unimportant and is therefore abandoned).

As you write your novel, you’ll need to develop an understanding of the inner workings of your main character’s psyche. Only then will you have a character that readers can relate to.

Here’s an exercise you might like to try: Think of one of your favourite novels and ask yourself: What is the main character’s surface desire? What is the main character’s deeper desire? What must the main character learn or achieve in order to grow? Now think of the novel you are writing and ask yourself the same three questions.


There is an opportunity to attend a novel writing retreat in Tasmania with Robyn in October. For details, see Applications are due by midnight on Friday, June 12th.


Robyn Bavati’s bio page

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Robyn Bavati - Pirouette book cover     Moonshadow - The Wrath of the Wolf by Simon Higgins - cover

Writing Novels in Australia

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