How to develop novel characters

One of the things I love most about writing novels is the process of getting to know the characters. It is as if I’m making a new group of friends.

There are three ways I go about doing this:

1) As an author of historical fiction I’m often writing about renowned real-life figures. Becoming acquainted with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, for instance, during the process of researching and writing The President’s Lunch was relatively easy. But it was also extremely time consuming. Copious amounts have been written about and by the First Couple. I read their autobiographies, biographies and letters. I analysed their speeches. Finally, I took a research trip to the USA and visited the homes in which they lived. These have been scrupulously preserved, maintained and restored by the National Parks Service.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt
2) Some real-life characters aren’t so easy to get a handle on. For instance, although Anna Charlier - the heroine of Perfect North - was real, there is not a great deal of material relating to her. She was a peripheral figure in Sweden’s 1897 balloon expedition to the North Pole, the event that is at the centre of my novel. This is where artistic licence comes into play. From reading as much about Anna as possible I gained enough insight to build a strong and believable character.
A rare image of Anna Charlier
and Nils Strindberg
3) Imaginary characters are no more easy to get to know. While they’re creations of the author’s mind, they also have to be authentic and believable. One good technique in developing a character’s behaviour and personality is to write thorough backstories for them. I also find it helpful to construct dialogues/scenes that include the character but are not intended for publication in the novel. These might be exchanges with their parents or siblings, friends or work colleagues. Similarly, I write scenes that might be discussed in the novel but never seen. This way, the author gets to create a life for a person that has none. In the process, you get to know their habits, gestures and speech patterns, and every foible that goes into making a character real.

Once I have lived with these characters, for the most part I grow to love them. Of course, this then leads on to the most difficult part of writing a novel – saying goodbye. But let’s save that for another blog...

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