How the Ultimate Novel Writing Course helped me to craft my characters

How the Ultimate Novel Writing Course helped me to craft my characters

We’re delighted to have Bob join us again to chat about his Ultimate Novel Writing Course journey. If you missed the the first instalment in his blog series, you can read it here.

This time, he’s diving into character with the help of our tutor’s expertise along the way…

For this month, we covered everything from protagonist to antagonist to incidental characters. No stone unturned, as they say. I won’t lie. It was a tough month. As someone who loves to plot, I often forget to give the same attention to the characters. I just kind of hope they grow from the plot. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, depending on what kind book you’re writing. But for a module on character development, that kind of thinking had no place on my Mac. And if I’m being honest with myself, perhaps I had been a little too relaxed about the whole character thing.

Bob O’Donnell

Trouble With Character

My story is told from a single POV in the first person. The narrator is reliable, yet he doesn’t always like to share, not even with the reader, and this made developing him difficult. In my head, I knew who he was, what he did, and what he would do in any situation. Ask me where he was born, what school he went to, and ask me to describe his life from birth to the present. Not a problem. I have a timeline. Ask me why he does the things he does…


Since I couldn’t answer this question, I didn’t know him. So, I rolled up my sleeves and tried to figure out who this damn person was that had the audacity to play a leading role in my book. It wasn’t good enough that I had a dossier on his life events. Alone, that’s all a bit dull. I needed a reason for him being the way he was. Fortunately, there was some great material to read, a cracking lead tutor call with Emma, and a strong challenge laid down by my tutor to dig deep and uncover my protagonist. So with my shovel and hard hat, I got to work.

First, I focused on motivation. As Philip Womack wrote in his article on motivation …it’s the electricity pouring into the assembled body parts of your creation. It’s alive! I love that metaphor.

My book is a thriller where the protagonist’s motivation is to avenge the death of his brother. But he’s not interested in the law of the land. He’s out for blood. And there is nothing that will dissuade him from his goal of killing the killer. I always had this motivation set in stone—perhaps not as well defined as it’s becoming—but it all seemed flat without knowing why he’s out for blood. Sure, we’d be devastated and feel uncontrollable anger in his situation, but few of us would take the law into our own hands.

At the same time, I didn’t want a linear journey. I wanted my protagonist to help others, otherwise he would become consumed by his goal—I’m not writing a tragedy, nor do I have the talents of Herman Melville. I wanted him to be a hero, therefore he had to help others. Yet, at every point in my book, avenging this death is my protagonist’s focus. But there needs to be a why.

This is where the backstory, it seems, becomes crucial, and I think this is where my tutor was challenging me. And to add authenticity, I looked at real-world examples as suggested by Emma. For instance, I used to work with this guy. He was ex-military, having served in RAF infantry for many years. And one thing I always remember is how he took his tea: three tea bags and two sugars. I asked him why he did this. He told me that military tea is weak, and the extra tea bags and sugar made it mildly enjoyable. I think something like that is a great bit of detail to add to a character. It adds authenticity and allows for a neat segue into backstory.

But I had to dig deeper than that to find out why my protagonist was intent on killing those responsible. Initially, I just had him returning home to find the people who murdered his brother. Seems reasonable, right? People would want revenge. But most would accept the rule of law. I had to figure out why my character wasn’t interested in that route. Was it just rage? Was he actually a bad guy? Was he himself a cold-blooded killer? Honestly, before this month, I didn’t know.


Since he wasn’t interested in his killer’s facing justice, this meant he had no faith in the justice system. Or it couldn’t give him what he was after. Therefore, something likely happened to him to make him feel this way. So, I created a pivotal moment in his younger life where he is let down by the justice system. Then I ramped it up to where this event would be the very thing that makes him tick. Now I just had to figure out how to feed this to the reader. Do I do a flashback, straight up exposition, or put it into dialogue? My comfort zone is dialogue. Exposition I try to avoid. Flashback, however, seemed the best fit.

I’ll let you know how this goes. That’s my submission for August.

I realise I may have forgotten about all the other characters in my book. I guess… rinse and repeat.

Applications for the our next Ultimate Novel Writing Course close on 3 September 2023, so make sure you get yours in before it’s too late. Download the prospectus, or book a call with our friendly team to find out how to apply.

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  1. Really enjoyed reading this, Bob! It’s amazing how far we can go writing a book without actually know the ‘why’ of our characters (I’m pretty sure I wrote my first book twice without really understanding this…!) and once it’s unlocked it changes everything so dramatically. Looking forward to hearing how you get on next month.