A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Building Characters from Scratch – Where do I begin?


I’m often asked how writers create characters. I completely understand why people want to know – after all, we start with nothing and, if everything goes well, end up with fictional characters so well drawn you feel like you know them in real life.

But exactly how this happens – how writers go from a blank computer screen to one containing a believable 16-year-old girl with dyed red hair, smeared mascara and a chip on her shoulder – is something of a mystery to me even now.

I think this is the magic part of novel writing.

Much about writing can be taught – grammar and sentence construction, clichés to avoid, plot construction and the ideal ‘W’ shape of a story – but how to build a character from nothing to living, breathing life? That’s tough to teach.

Practice is critical, and flexibility. If you’ve written 100 pages and your character still doesn’t feel right, you need to think about why,and what must change to make them real. Reams have been written about this process – entire books. But the truth is, every writer has their own method – their own way.

Here’s how I do it. I start with an idea of what I want – an age range that makes sense. A look that I can see this character having. I get a basic sketch of them – fat or thin? Fair skin or dark? Tall or short? I work these out, often as I’m writing the first chapters. Sometimes I get to chapter three with a fair-skinned, red-headed character and in chapter four decide I’ve been wrong all along and this character should obviously be Asian. Write some chapters

When I was writing Night School Resistance, I’d finished the first draft with a new major character (Dom) as a guy. When I sent it to beta readers, one wrote back ‘Don’t you think it would be interesting if Dom was a girl?’ She was right. So in the next draft, Dom switched genders. And she was much more interesting as a girl.

But the way they look, and even their gender, is only so important. Characters become real when you give them depth. Distinctive attributes that make them breathe on the page and are consistent throughout the book or series.

For this you should also consider nuance – rarely are people in real life all good or all bad. The most interesting people are a mixture of the two. The same is true of characters.

As a writer, you should know as much as possible about your main characters. What are their favourite books? What do they watch on TV? Even if you never share it with the reader – and most of the time you shouldn’t – as an author, you must know your characters’ back-stories. That will drive their actions, their mannerisms, their dialogue.

In the Night School series, for example, there’s a gardener who the students sometimes go to for advice. Eventually the main character learns what I knew all along – that he used to work in the City as a banker. That he was involved in developing a terrible financial scheme that cost many people their savings. That he couldn’t live with his part in that, so he went back to the boarding school where he’d once been a student and became a gardener.

runs with scissors

Knowing this about him helped me build him as a character, and made his actions more real to me, and hopefully to readers, too.

Now, saying ‘give all your characters back-story’ and doing it are two very different things. And the obvious next question is ‘How do I come up with the back-story?’

That is up to you! My method is very fluid, and involves lots of coffee and staring into space. Sometimes I don’t develop the back-story until I’m most of the way through a draft. Once it comes to me, I go back through the manuscript and add layers to the character’s actions based on what I’ve now decided about them.

Now, the truth is, my method might not work for you. Each writer has their own approach, and writing styles are as personal as hair styles. I tend to make it up as I go and then redraft and redraft – literally nothing makes me happier than editing.

Except maybe cake. I love cake.

By contrast, some writers must know everything about their characters before they write a word of the story. I respect them, while also finding them bewildering.

However you do it, I wish you luck! It’s not easy to create characters people really believe in. A Harry Potter, who really struggles to understand who he is. A Katniss, who fights a war she doesn’t want, to save people she loves. A Clary Fray, who can suddenly see the demons around her and must learn to fight. Or an Allie Sheridan, who battles to know the truth about her life and her family’s legacy. It’s not easy, but it’s brilliant when the magic happens and it all comes together.

I look forward to reading your characters!

About CJ Daugherty

Former crime reporter CJ Daugherty is the author of the international best-selling Night School series, and the co-author of The Secret Fire. The first book in that series is out now in the UK and the US.


This entry was posted on April 20, 2015 by and tagged , , .

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