One of the biggest challenges you face as a novelist is creating believable characters that don’t all look and sound the same. Besides the usual character worksheets that can help with this, here are some quick tips and tricks that I’ve used over the years.
I’m not suggesting that you copy the traits of a Scorpio or Pisces and plop them down in your novel as the main character. That would be just plain foolish. But astrology books can be a fantastic jumping-off point when trying to create colorful characters.
One of my favorite books is an old standby, Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. Besides containing a wealth of ideas about personality types, Goodman’s book is a joy to read. Take her opening description of the Aries personality, for example: “Have you recently met an unusually friendly person with a forceful manner, a firm handclasp and an instant smile? Get ready for a dizzy dash around the mulberry bush. You’ve probably just been adopted by an Aries. Especially if you’ve found it a little tough to take the lead in the conversation.”
Now even if you don’t care one bit about the traits of an Aries or any other astrology sign, this description could be the seeds of a dazzling character, especially when you add your own imaginative ideas. Sun Signs is filled with goodies like this.
Trying to describe what your character looks like? If you’re like me, you’ll fall back on people you know or someone you’ve seen recently. And that’s fine--up to a point. But sooner or later you’re going to want to travel a little further and wider when it comes to portraying your peeps on the page.
Pick up a magazine and check out the faces there. I mean, really look at them. Describe them using pen and paper or fingers and keyboard. How wide or far apart are the eyes? What shade of brown is that hair? Are the features equal on both sides of the face (usually they are not)? What type of hairline it that?
This will spark your imagination and it makes for good practice when it comes to depicting the features of characters. While you're at it, you may even find someone with the physical traits you had in mind for that villain you’ve been struggling to describe. And if you’re looking a particular lifestyle or ethnicity, just pick up a magazine that fits—GQ for fashionable men, sports magazines for athletic types, women’s magazines for homemakers and career woman, Seventeen magazine for young adults, Essence magazine for African American men and women and so on. Chances are there’s a magazine full of the types of characters you’re attempting to portray.
Lots of authors struggle with naming their characters. Coming up with a few names might not get you. But trying to name a dozen on more, big and small, of all types, gets to be a challenge. Especially since you likely want to stay away from using the names of close family and friends.
You don’t have to go it alone. Fortunately, a gazillion books and websites can help you with this. Sites for first names are really plentiful. Just Google “baby names” and you’ll come up with all sorts of lists, even by ethnicity. Parenting magazine online has a list of popular names from all over the world. An article on Writer’s Digest called, “The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters” has useful tips such as “Get Your Era Right.” You probably wouldn’t want to name a woman born in 1965, Taneisha, now would you?