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Characters And Novel Writing, by Julian Stockwin

For a novelist, getting the central character/s right is absolutely crucial. The reader must really care about the characters, but not necessarily at the outset of the book. The central character can be someone the reader comes to identify with as the book progresses. Or a connection can be made right on the first page (probably the ideal) and the reader is drawn to the character from the get go.

I am a firm believer that writing should be character-led, not plot-led. Plot development is important but comes very much after character; it’s only the stage for your characters to show their colours. I spent a great deal of time thinking about my characters before really doing much work on the plot.

Because I am writing a series, I know my characters intimately by now. I feel that they have such definite personalities that I cannot force them to act in a way that is against their nature. Sometimes they do take on a life of their own and tell me they are just not going to do what I want them to do for my plot’s sake. One of my characters, Nicholas Renzi, is a martyr to logic, and particularly prone to this at awkward times. My main character, Tom Kydd, was once perceptively described by an American reader as being “true north”. Those two words do sum him up.

Names are particularly important and I sometimes spend a great deal of time selecting a character’s name. I have found a number of these from ancient gravestones, particularly when I lived in the ancient town of Guildford. In fact I was once questioned by the constabulary for loitering too long in the local graveyard.

Names should match a character’s personality. I once read that Margaret Mitchell initially wanted to call her female main character Scarlett Pansy, which was also the original working title for “Gone with the Wind”; I can’t help wondering whether the book would have gone on to be such bestseller if she hadn’t been persuaded to change her mind.

I always travel with a pocket dictaphone and if I come across a good name I will record it for later use. I remember being introduced to a lady many years ago called Persephone. I loved that name but had to wait until my eighth book before I found a suitable character upon whom to endow it.

Once you have decided on your main characters, a useful exercise is to draw up a character questionnaire. What are their family details? Ambitions? Habits? The more you ask, the better because the more you know your characters before you start to actually write about them, the more fluently your words will flow and the less are your chances of having problems later into the manuscript. It also helps your writing if you make friends with your characters.

The test of a well crafted main character is how long the character stays with the reader after the last page of the book is read. The reader may feel they have little in common with the character on the surface but, as they say, the memory lingers on…


Julian Stockwin’s author website:

Julian Stockwin’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

KyddMutinyConquestVictory     Battle Fleet: The Adventures of Sam WitchallThe Kennedy ConspiracyThe Leopard Sword (Empire)

Writing Historical Novels

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I agree with your thoughts. I’ve also run into some of the same issues with non-fiction. When I was recently writing a non-fiction book, I had a lot of trouble finding the right viewpoint character, who played a large role in the events that covered decades and was also likable. Since I couldn’t make real characters likable if they weren’t, I almost decided to tell the story as historical fiction.

    June 7, 2013
  2. Loitering in a graveyard? Identity theft is a serious business, nowadays 😉

    June 7, 2013
  3. Thanks for the comments! The graveyard one made my smile…

    June 8, 2013

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  2. Month In Review (June 2013) | Writing Historical Novels

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