Writing Fiction: 4 Tips To Help You Create A Character Ensemble

When you’re writing fiction, starting a new novel and setting up your cast of characters can be challenging. However, if you meet that challenge, not only will your novel be fun to write, it will also (other things being equal) sell.

A few months ago, we spent a writers’ group meeting chatting about character creation. My bugbear? Choosing character names, especially for Regency novels.

Beyond names however, what about your cast—your ensemble of characters? When you’re creating characters, spend a little time thinking of them as a group: as an ensemble.

Make writing fiction easier when you create an ensemble

I’ve been reading Harriet Steel’s period mysteries, the Nuala novels, set in 1930s Ceylon. Ms Steel assembles a wonderful cast of characters, including pets.

Currently there are 11 novels in the series, so at the start of each novel, there’s a cast list. It’s ideal to refresh your memory on who’s who, if you’ve forgotten who the characters might be.

Why not make a list of the main characters in your current novel? A list helps you to decide whether you have characters who are too similar, or who don’t suit the genre—it’s always good to try and suit your characters to the genre in which you’re writing.

Here are the main tips from our meeting.

1. No one is an island: minor characters reveal major characters

Maintain a cast list of characters. The minor characters reveal aspects of a major character’s personality. Jane Bennet and the other Bennet sisters reveal Elizabeth’s character in Pride & Prejudice, for example.

Minor characters also contribute to the plot. When Lydia Bennet bolts with Wickham, it helps to build a relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy.

How do you keep all these characters organized? Mind maps can help. Add an adjective summarizing each character. For example: Ferdinand Aylewood: adventurous.

Pets reveal character too. Does your main character have a pet?

2. Make your dastardly villain more horrid

Ideally, you’ll create characters who are very different from each other so that you have a good mix. You might create a character who’s very outspoken and rude, with another who’s nervous, for example.

Your villain needs to be villainous. This post, Create Drama In Your Fiction, suggests:

Balance your “good”characters (your hero and heroine) with characters who are evil.

This can be challenging when you’re writing fiction, no matter the genre in which you’re writing.

Recently I’ve started to write short “book reports” about novels I’ve read. I’m not interested in the plot, as much as I’m interested in the characters.

3. Avoid “as you know, Bob dialogue”: create an effective sidekick

In most genres, your main character has a sidekick, as Sherlock Holmes has in Doctor Watson. Elizabeth Bennet has her sister Jane.

Remember however that the sidekick has a life of his own. In Pride & Prejudice, Jane’s story contributes to her sister’s story—Elizabeth blames Darcy when Bingley leaves Jane to return to town.

Although the sidekick makes a good confidant, avoid sneaking in exposition with “as you know, Bob,” dialogue. You’ll often find instances of this kind of dialogue in your reading.

Similarly, one of my pet dialogue peeves is characters who constantly use other characters’ names. “Are you ready to leave yet, Maria?” etc. How often in conversation do you use another person’s name?

Although authors want to avoid using dialogue tags, such as “Bob said,” using a tag is less noticeable to readers than characters using names… It’s an oddity. Readers wonder: why did Bob use Maria’s name?

4. Your characters contribute to your novel’s mood

Your readers read your novels for entertainment; they want to experience a mood in their fiction. Try to keep the mood in mind while you’re writing. This can be challenging, but it helps to have read widely in your chosen genre.

For example, the Nuala novels are cozy mysteries. In some ways, they remind me of Agatha Christie’s novels, but Harriet Steel’s characters are more comforting and comfortable than Christie’s.

Shanti de Silva and his wife Jane are characters in their own right, but their partnership adds to the novel’s “cozy” atmosphere, as do the novels’ other characters.

When you’re writing fiction, remember characters, and emotion

That’s the main takeaway from our meeting; people read to learn more about other people. They want to experience emotions, too.

What’s important to you when you’re reading fiction?


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