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On Character In Novels: Part 2, by Robyn Bavati

As outlined in last month’s post, when developing your characters there are five principles worth bearing in mind:

1. There is a difference between character and characterisation and 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 my last post I wrote primarily about the first of these principles, and explained that characterisation deals with outward characteristics and physical attributes, while character expresses personality and the inner workings of the heart and mind.

Once you have established who your character is (eg. a mischievous eight-year old girl, a blind ten year-old boy, a middle aged woman with a limp), you’ll probably want to convey a few significant details about your character’s personality. It’s at this point you’ll want to make use of the second principle – that character is best revealed through action. But what does this mean? Here are some examples:

1. Gerald is an extremely frugal old man, but instead of “Gerald was frugal”, try “Gerald searched the attic for his box of used matches – there was no point throwing them out when he could use them again”, or “Gerald folded the piece of toilet paper over again and again; it would be a waste to flush it away after just one wipe.”

2. Ten-year-old Beth has a big heart, but instead of “Beth was kind”, try “Ignoring the rumble in her stomach, Beth gave her only sandwich to the beggar. He did look hungry.”

By describing Gerald as frugal or Beth as generous, you’re telling your readers what to think about these characters. By showing them in action and allowing the reader insight into the inner workings of their minds, you’re allowing readers to reach their own conclusions, which is much more satisfying.

Of course, if your characters are ruminating on their own frugality or kindness, that too can be a way of allowing the reader into their minds, and is not the same as the author telling the reader what to think. Likewise, other characters in the story may share their opinions about the main character, which is also acceptable, as it will then be up to readers to form their own opinions based on the way a character acts.

How much information do readers actually need in order to form their own opinions? And how much do you, the writer, need to know?

Writers are often told they must know everything about their characters. In some writing courses, students are encouraged to write extensive character profiles, several pages long. Such lengthy profiles are not only time-consuming, they are often unhelpful. Do you really need to know what school your character went to, what childhood diseases he had, whether he prefers chocolate or vanilla ice cream, how many first cousins he has and whether he broke his leg at the age of three?

This brings us to the third principle: 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.

You probably don’t need to know what your character ate for breakfast, unless she is suffering from an eating disorder, in which case it might be highly relevant. Likewise, you may not need to know that she has researched the properties of the plants in her garden, unless one of them is toxic and she uses it to poison someone later in the story.

You do need to know what she is doing in a particular scene, and it can be helpful to know what she was doing just before the scene began and what she is planning to do next.

Always remember that you are telling a story. The information you reveal about your character is relevant only insofar as it serves the story. It is this idea of serving the story that is the backbone of character development, to be continued in next month’s post…

In the meantime, here are a couple of exercises you might like to try:

  1. Choose a couple of character descriptors from the following list (or come up with your own): mean, shy, extroverted, happy, miserable, frustrated, guilty, grumpy, ecstatic, loving, rude. Now write a sentence or two for each that reveals that attribute through action (as in the Gerald and Beth examples, above).
  2. Write a list of 5-10 things you need to know about your main character, and another list of 5-10 things that are irrelevant to the story you want to tell.


*There is an opportunity to attend a novel writing retreat in Tasmania with Robyn in October. For details, see


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Writing Novels in Australia


On Character In Novels: Part 1, by Robyn Bavati

The first book I ever wrote was a fast-paced, plot-based fantasy novel that was rejected primarily because the hero had no personality. Aware of this deficiency, I rationalised that I had deliberately made him an ‘everyboy’. I thought that if he lacked any distinguishing features, then anyone who read the story would be able to relate to him. I clung to this rationalisation because the truth was, I didn’t know how to develop his character.

Now, more than twenty-five years later, what I know about character and character development may be summed up in five basic principles:

1)      There is a difference between character and characterisation, and 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.

This post will address the first of these principles.

In any novel, there is a need for both character and characterisation, and novice writers sometimes confuse the two, thinking that characterisation alone will suffice.

Characterisation is the character’s outward appearance – physical attributes such as height, build, hair colour or complexion and approximate age, as well as obvious idiosyncrasies such as a lisp or twitch. Character, on the other hand, deals with the inner workings of the heart and mind, and encompasses thoughts and feelings, attitudes and beliefs, sensations and moods, as well as personal attributes – shy or confident, modest or boastful, friendly or distant, mean or kind.

An old, grey-haired man with a limp; a young blonde woman wearing glasses; a skinny boy with a prominent scar on his cheek; a plump girl with curly red hair, pale skin and freckles – all these are examples of characterisation. They paint a picture but provide no real insight.

While distinctive characteristics and idiosyncrasies (characterisation) make characters more relatable and allow the reader to form a mental picture of the character, it’s the character’s deep and recognisable emotions that enable readers to identify and experience their journey.

Common mistakes in characterisation generally include:
1) describing the character in too much detail, or
2) describing the character too late in the novel.

Since readers often like to form a picture of the character in their heads, it’s best to provide just a few salient details. Paradoxically, too lengthy and detailed a description can actually confuse readers and interfere with the process of forming their own vision of the character.

Similarly, characterisation should occur when the character is first introduced – or very soon after. If a character is introduced on page 3, it won’t do to reveal only on page 53 that she’s a blonde – the reader may have imagined her a brunette for the past 50 pages.

While characterisation remains constant (the sixty-year-old man with a limp doesn’t change into a ten-year-old girl), characters change over time – the cowardly boy becomes courageous, the miserly old man learns to be generous, the shy but lonely widow overcomes her inhibitions and makes some friends. But more about that in later posts…

In the meantime, to fully internalise the difference between character and characterisation, here’s an exercise you might like to try: Divide a page into two columns. In one, list all the physical attributes and characteristics you could include under the heading Characterisation. In the other, list all the qualities, sensations, moods and emotions you could list under Character.


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Writing Novels in Australia

The Importance Of Secondary Characters In Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti

Secondary characters in a novel are as important as the primary characters. Like the vegetables accompanying a piece of grilled steak, they provide colour, fibre, nutrition, variety, contrast, visual interest and complete the meal. Without them it would just be a lump of steak on your plate. So unless you’re writing something like Waiting for Godot, it’s imperative your other cast members get the full treatment.

By full treatment I mean they must be developed, in your mind and in your background notes primarily, and portrayed in the story in a more subtle way. In other words, not as much back story as the main players. The reader doesn’t need to know but, as their creator, you most certainly do. This gives them a wholeness and sense of authenticity in all their actions and words. Otherwise they can be seen as simple plot devices which help drive the main action. Which they are, you just don’t want them to appear as if they are.

As with the main cast, you need a sense of their physical appearance and their driving motivations but they must never overshadow the main characters and not descend into caricature. Caricature is an easy trap to fall into. Wikipedia says, ‘In literature, a caricature is a description of a person using exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others.’ A character like this tends to be unbelievable and sounds a false note in the overall story. They can be enormous fun to write, think of Mr Collins and Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, but getting the essence of their humanity beneath the quirkiness is vital.

Once you know who they are you can set them to work. There are the secondary characters who support the main character’s storyline, then there are extras. Have a bit of comic fun with the extras but pare it back the more central the characters are to the story. They may be central to a subplot which echoes the themes of the central plot or they may provide an opportunity for conflict which helps strengthen a major character. Whatever their function, they must be as believable and human as the main cast. To return to Mr Collins, the snobbish clergyman set to inherit the Bennett’s home thus depriving the four Bennett girls of their only fortune. He is insufferable in his snobbery, his obsequious attitude to Lady de Bourgh is nauseating, yet he sincerely wishes to help the Bennett girls. His impulse is generous, although comical and repellant to others. It’s that subtle quality which leavens his pompousness and quietly rounds him out to full humanity. I mean, if Charlotte Lucas is prepared to marry him he can’t be the complete fool he sometimes presents as.

Every character is vital to the ultimate fabric of the story. You can’t skimp on development because they aren’t the stars of the show. Give them a subtle depth and they’ll reward you by carrying story, plot and theme to the last page.


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Writing Novels in Australia

Writing Natural Dialogue In Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti

Writing convincing, natural dialogue can be a challenge for novelists. Personally, I love writing dialogue. It’s partly where characters come to life. I have mine blathering on at great length in my first drafts. In the subsequent drafts I pare back, delete, fuss and fiddle, trying to get the dialogue to seem as natural as possible.

Most conversations take place while someone is doing something else: driving, walking or whatever. To sit down and have a coherent one-to-one conversation and to stay on topic is unnatural for people. Yet writers have characters do it all the time.

Combining action and dialogue gives a more natural feel and prevents the story from collapsing into strings of conversations held together by the odd bit of exposition. If you pay attention to conversations around you it soon become clear that people circle around, stumble, pause and generally bumble through conversations like toddlers in a play pen.

A fun exercise which can heighten your awareness of natural conversation is to unobtrusively record family or friends – nobody who will get cross with you and smash your digital recorder – having a conversation and then transcribe it, or use speech to text if you have it. Edit the conversation down to a couple of lines which capture the feeling and subject. It’s quite a surprise to discover how much rubbish people speak on a daily basis.

It’s also a valuable exercise for detecting the dynamic between speakers or within a group. What is left unsaid, is thinly veiled, hints at an underlying agenda or is obviously an attack or an alliance, should all be considered when writing dialogue, because, for all their talk, people often don’t mean what they say.

It can be far more realistic and intriguing for readers, who often know more than the characters do about a situation, for the dialogue to be indirect and subtle. Dialogue is a great vehicle for showing character. You just have pay close attention to how you write it.


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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.


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Character Cliches And Originality When Writing Novels, by Greg Barron

In part two of my series on clichés I’m going to look at character clichés.

A polite way of referring to character clichés is to call them archetypes, and it’s true that these do exist. We all know a friendly mechanic in blue overalls, a funny dentist who hands out lollypops, a depressed, rebellious teenager, or an adult who never grows up, but once you get to know them, you find that they all have unique qualities of their own.

Elements of clichés exist in all humans, but unless you’re writing something deliberately basic, you need to make your characters complex and interesting. Clichés are neither.

The late Robert Graves, in his wonderful poem The Devil’s Advice to Storytellers advises that you should populate your novel with random travellers, like you would find on a train or in a cafe. Try having a look next time you’re waiting for a coffee. These people are all interesting in their own way. Describe some of them. I often take a notebook to public places and write short, descriptive phrases about people I see.

It’s amazing how few outright clichés you will find. Much fewer than in the latest Hollywood romantic comedy. Best of all are the people who raise questions in your mind. An elderly woman wearing a red coat and blue beret holds a faded biscuit tin. What’s in the tin? Why is that teenage girl holding hands so tightly with that sad little boy? Make your characters fidget, look around and get jealous. Make them do real things that real people do.

Many clichés are based on looks. Dialogue helps too. As we walk down the main street of our town we are constantly assessing people. Take that kid with a skateboard tucked under one arm, baggy shorts and his cap on backwards – he’s a skater, smokes dope, does graffiti and wags school, doesn’t he? Not if he’s your nephew, because then you know that he also collects rare coins, came second in his school in maths and is a good long distance runner. Or take the old man driving down the road at 70 km/hour. If he was your grandfather you’d know that he raced for Holden at Bathurst in the 1960s.

What separates clichés from real living characters is detail. Clothes, age, facial features and hair colour are a great start. But readers need more than that. They need to know the experiences that made the character into the person they are. The great writers of commercial fiction can paint these details very quickly, with just a few strokes of the pen (or keyboard). The finer points of character, in genre fiction, are best fed into the story a little at a time. Literary writers will slowly build immensely detailed characters.

Don’t write nationality clichés: the disciplined, obedient German; the gruff, penny-pinching Scotsman; the loud American; or the ocker Aussie. People might see these as insulting. Or jobs: the boring accountant, the stern headmaster, the selfish (or selfless) politician.

Have some fun and turn archetypes on their ear. Use thoughtful, original detail. If there is a secret to writing, that’s probably it.


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Writing Novels in Australia

Getting the Structure Right, by Russell Cornhill

Damn it, I’ve killed my second POV character. No, I don’t mean he died in the story. I mean he’s gone, deleted, never to be seen again. Now there’s identity theft.

That means structural changes that can’t wait until I finish the first draft. I didn’t need that right now.

I guess my problems started well before I joined the Novel Program. I had eight or nine ideas for satirical stories with goblins as the central characters. That’s fine except that then I had the bright idea to connect the stories – same world with a background story that culminated in a tenth book. I believe in keeping things as simple as possible but somehow I always manage to complicate things. Some of the ideas were strengthened when I quickly worked out a rough chronology, so I decided the idea was a good one and left it there while I concentrated on a rewrite I was doing at the time.

I started the program with only a rough idea of the first story and suddenly realised that in many ways, the story line didn’t fit the new world, though it was still the best story for introducing a world where the conflict between humans and goblins was to become the main theme.

I introduced the orcs and orc character Abal to bridge the gap between the start of the story and the arrival of the humans. Kain (a goblin character) is the protagonist but Abal became Axal and took on a life of his own. Not a problem except others were identifying with Axal and not with Kain.

Okay, I’ll get rid of him.

I decided that was a knee-jerk reaction and I’d look at ways to make Kain more appealing but the idea persisted. I realised that Axal was taking much of the story-line that should have belonged to Kain – even stealing the climactic scene. By giving most of his story-line to Kain, I was strengthening Kain and getting rid of the constant switch between characters. Not only did Kain take on added life but so did some of the other characters and so did many of the relationships. Axal was only adding complications I didn’t need.

Bye, bye, Axal.

I guess another solution may have been to allow Axal to become the main protagonist but I’m not sure that ‘The Orc Chronicles’ has the same ring to it.


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The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Boxed SetBeast Quest Master Your Destiny: The Pirate's Curse (Beast Quest)The Grasping Goblin (Grim and Grimmer)Green Goblin: A Lighter Shade of GreenThe Monster's Corner: Stories Through Inhuman EyesWriting the Breakout Novel: Winning Advice from a Top Agent and His Best-selling ClientWriting: A User Manual: A Practical Guide to Planning, Starting and Finishing a Novel

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