The reader should always know what a character wants – otherwise the character is aimless.

Mission by Paul Forrester-O’Neill – John wants to find his father, the one his mother lied to.

The Jacobite Wife by Morag Edwards – Winifred wants her husband to stop running up debts.

The Takers and Keepers by Ivan Pope – Allen wants to know where the missing women go.

What motivates your characters?

It could be:

Money – greed, need, coercion, blackmail 

Ideology – powerful belief, usually politics or religion

Ego – envy, exploit others, entitlement, narcissism

What do your characters long for?


Characters need opposition – politics, weather, belief system, enemy

This can be about how others make us feel – underconfident, depressed, unhappy to be around…Or they might make us feel better about ourselves.


How does your character perceive life/ themselves/others?

We all believe that how we perceive life is true – what we feel accurately reflects reality. For instance, experiencing a storm for some is joy. To others it’s a terror.

In real life, whether it is a car accident, a mugging, onlookers report different things but they all believe they are telling the truth. Their perceptions often reveal their deeper thoughts – racism, sexism, opportunism.

Arguments are often about perceptions.

It is the same with our characters.

For example, two characters view another character differently – one sees her as uncaring and bitchy, another sees her as ambitious after a difficult start in life.

Two characters judge a scene differently – one sees serene silence, the other sees boredom.

Show us two opposing characters in a scene.

Take one of your characters:

Main conflict –

Three words for how they perceive the conflict –

Over-riding emotion –

How might you use this?

Let the characters describe each other. This means you don’t have to break a scene with a lengthy description.

Anna Karenina, Anna only gives one description of her husband. Until this point, she has been content in her marriage. After meeting Count Vronsky her perception of her husband changes. “Oh mercy, why do his ears look like that,” she thought, looking at his frigid and imposing figure, and especially the ears that struck her at the moment as propping up the brim of his round hat.

Bring characters longings together with their conflicts – it might lead to conflict in itself i.e. Someone wants love but isn’t willing to compromise their own needs for someone else’s needs.

Think of the terrific characters you have encountered in novels – we feel that we know them. Who are ones you have loved?

For me:

Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel - Thomas Cromwell (he wants power, wealth, and the Bible translated into English)

The Country Girls trilogy by Edna O’Brien - Kathleen (she wants her mother back from the dead, her father to stop drinking, someone to love her).

Think about a youth who acts out or feels sad all the time, worrying his parents. Your job is to put clothes on that youth – why is he like this? Peculiarities, enjoyments, history of childhood. You may not use everything you have painted but when it comes to writing your novel at least you will know your character.

You need to know how your characters will react in situations - write their reactions into scenes so that your reader knows the character. Don’t simply tell us that John was angry – show us!

Instead of telling readers ‘Andrew was always looking for ways to make money’, describe him seeking an opportunity to make money during an unfortunate event.

Watch people:

The woman who yawns every time her friend talks – background story.

The man who steps gingerly – back problems, why?

The family with two young kids – daughter gets so much attention, son only gets attention when he misbehaves – what happens to them in the future?

Anchor your characters into the plot so that the reader feels they are entwinned.