In this writer’s opinion, characterization is the most important aspect of writing your novel. Let’s face it, there are only so many plots. All else is simply a replay of one of the basic plots. What makes a good novel isn’t the plot. It is strong characters, followed by, to a lesser extent, a good story.
Other than the actual writing, I spend more time developing my main characters than on any other aspect of the novel. I want to know my characters intimately. Both the good guys and the bad guys. I want to know everything about them. The obvious ones are height, weight, hair and eye color, what attire they wear. But there are all those minor traits, those that really define who a character is.
Traits such as their favorite food, what automobile they prefer to drive, what they prefer in the opposite sex, hobbies. Literally everything about that person.
You as the author are also the creator. You can make your characters anything you want. Perhaps your protagonist might have an unusual trait, such as a nervous tic at the corner of the left eye, or an attraction to a person they keep secret. Or maybe your antagonist likes old Chevrolet cars.
The point is, know your characters intimately. Then, they are consistent, as real people are, with no surprises. The last thing a writer needs or wants is for the reader to say “she prefers blue nail polish. Fifty pages ago she preferred red.”
I personally like real people in my novels. I don’t like heroes or larger than life characters. The characters John Wayne portrayed only happened in the movies. They certainly were not real world people. I want my characters to be passionate, with real emotions of happiness, depression, melancholy, love, whatever.
Before I start the actual writing of a novel, I list all my main characters. Both the protagonists and the antagonists. The good guys and the bad. Knowing the bad guy intimately is just as important as knowing the good guy. It doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway. Your characters are a compilation of people you have known throughout your life. Some have traits you like, some you despise. This is life.
On top of a blank page, I write that character’s name. Then I simply list everything about that character I can think of. Both good and bad traits. Plus, simple things like favorite foods, what they drink, anything I want that character to be. No person is perfect. We all have our good and bad traits. It is important to me that my protagonists are portrayed with their weaknesses as well as their strengths. We are quite imperfect.
You want strong characters, just not perfect. Without strong characters, your novel won’t sell. We all are a compilation of strengths and weaknesses. My wife says she likes “real men”, but they can be hell to live with. With every strength, there is a corresponding weakness, or an undesirable trait. My protagonist in All Ahead Full, Glenn Connelly, is a very strong character. A “real man.” But, because of this, he is hell to live with. Maria, Glenn’s nemesis and on again off again girlfriend, displays some of these same strengths. Glenn loves her for it, her being a spitfire with all that passion. But, because of these strengths, they often fight like cats and dogs. Respectable fighting I might add, but fighting none the less. Only to be followed by extreme fervor. In my opinion, this is what makes for page turning novels.
If it helps keep your characters intimate, make your list in three columns. One for desirable traits, one for undesirable traits, and a neutral column for those items that only matter for intimacy, such as favorite food or color.
Most of what is on your lists, you will never use in your novel. But it serves the purpose of knowing your characters intimately, even if you don’t use all of what’s listed. Study your lists over and over until you know everything about your main characters. Then there are no surprises in your novel.
Know them intimately.