How to Achieve Great Characterisation

For all writers of fiction

Think of the novels you most love – possibly, To Kill a Mockingbird, Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, Sherlock Holmes – and it’s a dollar to a dime that they’re novels with strong, memorable, richly detailed characters.

You want to achieve the same depth and quality of characterisation in your fiction, of course – only how? What are the tools and tricks?

Well, really, it comes down to two things.

The first is character development – the art of building a richly imagined, deeply known character before you even start writing your novel proper. Think of it as part of your planning / research phase. We cover that character development process extensively here; there’s also some great stuff on how to instigate that development by creating an inciting incident here. We won’t say much more about it in this post.

But the second huge element of great characterisation is interiority. It’s all about building a rich inner life for your character and then letting that inner life seep through onto the page.

And sure, interior monologues may abound in first person narratives, or in literary fiction, which means there can be a tendency for authors of genre fiction (thrillers, sci-fi epics, etc.) to neglect the interior. But you can’t! Read a Lee Child book. A huge part of why we read the Jack Reacher books is to have insight into what this man thinks, feels and observes.

Adrenaline, not action, grips readers. We’ll only feel adrenaline if character experiences enthral us.

So: the question we’re going to focus in on is this: How do you create the inner worlds of characters in your novel? How do we make our characterisation work feel alive and exciting on the page.

Here’s a quick guide, no matter what your genre.

Interior monologues and first person narrative

What is interior monologue? And why is it vital to character development?

Rumination is an easy means to convey the inner worlds of characters, though it mustn’t slow down pacing. It must be kept relevant. (And if reflections turn to ramble, better to cut.)

In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Offred has lost everything (even her name) to the state of Gilead, living under surveillance in the Commander’s home, but Offred secretly tapes herself speaking about her life. As we learn later, what readers ‘read’ are Offred’s cassette recordings, literally an extended interior monologue.

So, ruminating as she does, we live her inner life.

In one of Offred’s more introspective passages, we sense her hopelessness that someone may one day hear her, and her wish for this to be a story she can gain control of:

… I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. … If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. … I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. Even when there’s no one. A story is like a letter. Dear you, I’ll say. … I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one. You can mean thousands. … I’ll pretend you can hear me. But it’s no good, because I know you can’t.

Keep interior monologue writing grounded in relevance, linked to plot. (And if it’s not linked, cut it.)

If you are adding memory to narrative, though, make sure it does not slow pace. It must serve the action, the drama.

Never add anything superfluous.

Free indirect discourse and third person narrative

A trick named free indirect discourse means you can weave how a character thinks or feels into third person narrative. It’s possible with free indirect discourse to get a deeper insight into the minds of your cast, and this goes for protagonists, antagonists and supporting cast.

You may already be using this subconsciously, so if free indirect discourse sounds unfamiliar, let’s unpack what it means.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone begins with Harry’s Uncle Vernon going about his day and spotting an odd cat lurking near his house, as J.K. Rowling laces action with free indirect discourse.

J.K. Rowling gives us an insight into Vernon Dursley’s rigidly stubborn, unimaginative mindset, whilst he watched the cat in his [car] mirror … now reading the sign that said Privet Drive – no, looking at the sign; cats couldn’t read.’

We know those words (Vernon correcting himself) are Vernon’s own, clearly not an omniscient narrator’s. Almost all free indirect style passes after this to Harry. Through him, we absorb the wizarding world and all that happens.

Free indirect speech can also be used give your readers insight into your antagonist, too.

Look at this extract from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as Voldemort learns Harry has been destroying Horcruxes (his magical tethers to immortality):

… Surely if the boy had destroyed any of his Horcruxes, he, Lord Voldemort, would have known, would have felt it? He, the greatest wizard of them all, he, the most powerful, he, the killer of Dumbledore and of how many other worthless, nameless men: how could Lord Voldemort not have known, if he, himself, most important and precious, had been attacked, mutilated? …

Readers see these are Voldemort’s words. We read his deranged stream of consciousness. Yet this passage does not detract from pace or thrill us less. It heightens tension, exacerbates the action quickly for Harry, Ron and Hermione from this point until the finale.

So if you’re penning a fantasy epic, mystery or thriller, and thinking inner world writing does not matter much, think again.

In thriller Red Dragon, Thomas Harris writes, through free indirect speech, how lone-killer Francis Dolarhyde decides that ‘if he worked at it, if he followed the true urges he had kept down for so long, cultivated them as the inspirations they truly were, he could become.’ And ‘before his Becoming, he would not have dared any of this. Now he realized he could do anything. Anything. Anything.’

Obviously, Dolarhyde’s evil actions are not inspirations. He is not ‘Becoming’ anything. Crucially, though, we see his warped psychology.

Often, in any crime novel, it’s not just events gripping us. It’s the characters who keep us turning pages.

Inner worlds and actions (or show, don’t tell)

We read emotion in thought, sense how a character feels when we read a stream of consciousness. Physicality can translate how characters feel, too.

In Jane Eyre, settling into life as a governess, eighteen-year-old Jane paces as a release for boredom:

… My sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot, and allow my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose … a tale my imagination created.

Much of Jane Eyre is written as interior monologue, but Jane also shows, does not just tell, her wish for more.

Think also of Wuthering Heights, Cathy’s ‘[tearing] the pillow with her teeth’, Heathcliff ‘[dashing] his head against the knotted trunk’, gestures conveying deteriorating mental health and inner turmoil.

Show what’s going on underneath in your novel, using actions to indicate what’s going on inside.

Character development and your writing

Take a random few pages of your text as it stands, and check it to see if you have:

  • Any mention of character thinking, including free indirect discourse, e.g. Dolarhyde’s musings as he ponders becoming the dragon. Count only those thoughts specific to your character in question.
  • Any mention of character feelings. Again, ‘he felt hungry’ doesn’t distinguish that character from the rest of humanity. You’re looking for things to distinguish your protagonist’s inner world from the rest, e.g. Voldemort’s wrath for being brought bad news about horcruxes.
  • Any mention of physical sensations. Here you’re looking for sentences that tell us about how a character feels inside their body. Like Jane Eyre, pacing at Thornfield. Think also of smells they may come across, sounds, etc. Disregard the obvious. Look for things unique to your character.
  • Any discussion of memory or past. We are shaped by our pasts, so don’t forget to give your character a strong past. Just don’t slow the book down by having too much flashback. (Harry Potter’s sojourning through other characters’ memories and flashbacks works, due to the magical Pensieve, without slowing pacing.)

If you feel your own character development needs reviewing, then revise and be sure you bring their inner worlds to life. Your novel will be richer for it.

Remember you can always sharpen your know-how by taking one of our writing courses, or get honest and constructive feedback on your work so far.

We’re here to help, so just get in touch.

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