4 Things a Character List Reveals about Your Novel


I am working on a series proposal and have been asked for a list of characters. Wow, what a lot you can learn from a list.

  • Name them all. First, I created a list that just names the characters. It’s interesting to see the variety (or lack thereof) in just the names. For children’s books, I am careful to avoid using the cliched names and to include some names that could represent ethnic groups (of course, being careful not to be cliched with that, either). Did you notice the huge variety of names of competitors in the 2012 London Olympics? I was inspired to push past the usual when naming characters. Try some of these girl names: Soulmaz, Reem, Shaza, Mouni, Layes, Tomomi, and Aminata. Boy names: Alaaeldin, Arnaldo, Amir, Kanat, Raidel, Georgias, Kieron, and Idrissa.
  • Write a paragraph about main characters. My next task was to write a paragraph or two about each of the main characters. One check of effective characterization that I like to use if to read ONLY the first five pages, turn over page five and write everything I know about a character from those pages (and ONLY those pages). That was telling! Of course, for this summary, I could add things from later, too. But I will go back and revisit those early pages to sharpen the characterization.
  • Minor characters. These characters need to be individuals, too, and I found that I am weak sometimes on this level, too. I need to make sure that each one has a quirky trait, identifiable physical characteristic or unusual way of talking. For example, Freddy has the unusual skill of being able to cram 30 french fries into his mouth at one time. I need to give him a full mouth each time he tries to talk. Indeed, a couple of the minor characters were only a name–not a real character. It’s OK to have placeholders, but before I send this out again, I’ll flesh them out a tiny bit more, at least give them a character tag.

  • Types of characters. This is a story set in a school, so I also looked at the type of characters I used. There are students, parents and teachers. Oops! I forgot to create a principal of the school! S/he can be a minor character, but s/he probably needs to be there in some capacity.

What characters have you inadvertently omitted?

  • Amy Jane (UntanglingTales)
    November 7, 2012

    Not to be critical (I’ve been enjoying your posts w/o commenting for a long time, so I really don’t mean this as a downer), but the title of this post is a little off.

    I see the value of these four exercises, but I didn’t see four things about my novel from these exercises.

    As to my characters… when writing from plot/the seat of my pants characters aren’t exactly forgotten. That is, they don’t exist until they do, and then I stick them where they’re needed.

    (Sorry to start negitive.)

  • Darcy Pattison
    November 8, 2012

    Ah, but anything that affects your CHARACTERS, affects your NOVEL. For me, it was the balance of the NOVEL that I was looking at as I did the character list. The story is pretty well set, it’s just fine-tuning the overall novel and one of those fine-tuning things is to make sure the characters are balanced.

    So, I agree that I stuck characters where needed. But in the REVISION, I am checking to make sure everything is seamless.

    Shrug. Opinions never bother me!

  • AHAnto
    November 8, 2012

    Got me thinking, Darcy (well, Ottawa got me thinking, this got me thinking MORE), and finding an interchange beyond the post made that even deeper. THanks so much.