Writing Great Characters
Creating the right voice and tone
The voice of your main character needs to be compelling and authentic from the start, as do all of the supporting characters. This means that they are believable and have their own way of speaking and thinking which is recognisable and unique. A character may have favourite phrases and words that they use, or a regional dialect or accent. The narrator in The Book Thief is Death, which brings with a certain gravity of tone; he also has a very particular way of describing the world in colours, which is consistent and meaningful throughout the book. Similarly, Dylan Mint in When Mr Dog Biteshas Tourettes and swears throughout, which makes sense for him within the context of the story.
Tone also needs to be consistent throughout your story. At no point do you want your reader to step back from the story and think ‘That’s not something X would say!’ It would be weird if Katniss starting cracking jokes, or if A Monster Calls got romantic. Keep your tone consistent – in horror, in suspense, in romance, in a laugh-out-loud book. Even if your book is sad and funny in parts like The Fault in Our Stars, make sure it balances nicely.
Building three dimensional people
Great YA reads like Annabel Pilcher’s Ketchup Clouds or The Fault in Our Stars feature rounded, three-dimensional characters. By recognising that no-one is wholly good or wholly evil, you will write characters that readers believe and can identify with. Flaws, weaknesses and knowing a character’s sometimes less-than-perfect motivations makes a real person on the page.
Similarly, avoid writing a pantomime villain by showing that your antagonist – the person that makes things bad for your main character – has issues that are making them act badly. If you can make a reader interested in your characters – giving them a reason for their actions, rather than “they’re just evil”, that’s good writing. Even Darth Vader has a backstory.
Use people you know to inspire your characters. Find real details about how they talk, how they look, what they think about and develop a unique character. You might like to make a mood board for a character – collage or Pinterest a selection of images that represent how they might look, what they might wear, what they would be interested in, what they’d eat etc. You don’t even have to use all these details in your writing, but it’s important that you feel you know your characters as well as possible as their creator so that you know what they’ll do in any situation they find themselves in.
Choosing narrative techniques
Using what’s called an unreliable narrator is an interesting technique. By “unreliable” we mean someone who tells the story naively, with a particular agenda that makes them lie or see things in a particular way, or someone that is too young to understand the events they are witnessing. You can see this used with devastating effect in John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, where the main character Bruno describes Out-With and the Fury, which we, with the benefit of historical knowledge, know is really Auschwitz and Adolf Hitler – the Fuhrer. Using a naïve narrator like Bruno gives the reader a fresh and more immediate sense of horror and fear.
Alternatively, in Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is an unreliable narrator because of his own troubled personality; he describes his world and the people he meets coloured by his own depression and negativity. However, this raises an interesting issue: all characters see the world in their own way and coloured by their own experiences, just like in real life. Existence is subjective, after all! Be aware of how your character sees the world and how this affects the story.
Sometimes writers use a stream-of-consciousness style, again, like in Catcher in the Rye, which appears to present a character’s thoughts and feelings as they happen in an interior monologue. This style can appear more disjointed and raw and gives a sense of knowing the character intimately. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale uses this style well because the main character Offred lives in a society where all her behaviour is strictly monitored, so it’s only her thoughts that can be free.
Other narrative styles open to you include the epistolary story, which means that your story is told with one or a variety of your characters’ documents, such as diary entries, letters, emails, texts, stories, poems etc. Examples of this are Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Annabel Pilcher’s Ketchup Clouds (letters), Steven Camden’s TAPE (partially told by diary entries on cassette tape), and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (diary).
Alternatively, you can choose between a few different character- or narrator-based points of view.
Pinpointing point of view
In YA fiction, the protagonist needs to be a young person. Adults are allowed in the world, but the action stays with, and is driven by, the young people, and the world is described through their eyes. Depending on your story and how many characters it will feature, there may often be a friendship group around the main character/s.
Often, though not always, YA fiction has a first person narrator – either present or past tense. Using the “I” is particularly relevant to YA, perhaps because one’s teenage years include a lot of self-discovery! Benefits of the “I” are that it provides direct access to a character’s thoughts and feelings and gives the reader a strong sense of identification with the character – a “real” feeling.
Alternatively, you can use a third person narrator that is outside the story – not a character, but an anonymous storyteller. This narrator describes all the action from a more “objective” point of view and sometimes the thoughts and feelings of one or more character. Epic and involved stories like Lord of the Rings suit this kind of narration, partly because so much is going on that the writer would find it difficult to describe everything from one person’s point of view – because they couldn’t conceivably be there at every part of the plot. Also, the third person omniscient point of view gives the greatest sense of truthfulness and believability, because it appears to have an objective, non-character based view.
Lastly, you could write in second-person point of view, which isn’t very common. This means using “you” instead of “I” or “he/she”. Sally Green uses it for parts of Half Bad, and it gives a distancing effect if a character uses it about themselves, as if they are looking at themselves as a separate entity. In Half Bad, the main character uses second-person point of view to describe stressful events, which gives the reader the feeling that the character is recounting something painful and difficult. The second person also can work for describing things in the past, in memory, or instructions, like in Choose Your Own Adventure books: You walk to the door and open it; you see a castle etc.
Questions to ask of your writing
- Does your character have an identifiable and authentic voice – a way of speaking, thinking and expressing themselves?
- Is the tone consistent throughout your piece of writing?
- What are your characters’ flaws? How are you showing those flaws in the story?
- What motivates your characters to do what they do – good and bad?
- What point of view have you chosen? Do you understand the rules of that point of view, i.e. what knowledge can be given to the reader about events, thoughts and feelings? Do you slip into another point of view halfway through by accident?
- How are you telling the story? Is it one character, an all-knowing narrator, through letters between two friends? How does the way you tell it make sense for your story?
Previously printed in Book Trust