It is often said that everyone has at least one novel in them just waiting to get out. The reality is that while it is probably true to say that everyone has at least one life experience around which a novel could be based, it is a big step to further say that anyone could actually sit down and write that novel. The novel writing experience in most instances is complex, requiring dedication as well as inclination, creativity and imagination as well as language skills. It is fraught with dangers for the unwary and the number of novels which are started but never finished for a variety of potential reasons outnumber those which ever make publication many, many times over. If you are inclined to take the first steps in writing a novel, it's best to be as clued up on the process as possible before you write even that first word.
The Initial Idea for Writing a Novel
It is probably fair to say that the majority of novels will begin with the most basic idea for a plot. While it is of course an exaggeration to say that the plot for all the best novels can be summarized on the back of a postage stamp, it is unquestionably true that the initial idea is likely to be vague and insubstantial, only burgeoning and developing as more thought is put in to the concept with the passage of time. If there is one thing likely to coincide with early plot development, however, it is the idea for at least one of the novel's principal characters and their direct involvement in the unfolding events.
Stereotypes and Other Most Common Mistakes
Everyone knows the supposed classic and "essential" character inclusions in certain types of novels. Romantic novels are associated with tall, dark, handsome strangers and pretty, innocent girls, while crime or horror novels are associated with ugly and twisted individuals who have been the subject of horrific abuse in their childhood leading them to commit horrific crimes and atrocities in adulthood. The reality it that outwith those most specialized of fields where readers expect stereotypical characters, creating and featuring such individuals in your novel may prove an instant and major turn-off to potential readers. While it may be an easy trap to fall in to, creating a principal character in particular for your novel who is as predictable as the sun rising in the morning may prove to be a fatal mistake with regard to your chances of your novel succeeding in a commercial sense.
Make Your Characters Real People
Characters in a novel are not supposed to be real people but they must seem so to your readers for the duration of their journey through your tale. This means that you should almost always discard the stereotypical ideas which have been milked seemingly a million times and focus on creating characters which live, breathe and know their own individual existences, even though that life technically exists only in your mind as the author. If you can achieve this, it will be communicated naturally to your readers through your writing and they too will be better able to identify with the people you create and your novel as a whole. It is also important that you name your characters appropriately and avoid using names which are wholly inappropriate (or at least seem so) to the way in which they are likely to develop.
Ideas for characteristics of specific people in your novel can be found anywhere you choose to look in everyday life. Does your Uncle Joe have an unfortunate habit of snorting like a pig when he laughs? Does your neighbor have a drink problem and regularly fall over the trash cans when he stumbles home late at night? Does the woman you regularly encounter on the commuter train in the morning give away too much information during her cell phone conversations? Every aspect of your daily life and the people you encounter will give you small insights in to creating specific characteristics for your fictional creations and should never be discounted at any time. Carrying a simple notebook and pen can pay huge dividends when unusual individual traits are noted.
A word of warning should be sounded however in that basing your characters too much on a single person can be a major mistake - especially when that person is close to you and could later be easily identified...
Establishing Personnel Files
When you are writing a novel it is imperative that you remain true to form in relating the attributes, tastes and experiences of your characters. If, for example, you describe a character as having blue eyes early in the novel and grey eyes later, liking cream in their coffee before later stipulating that they can only drink it black, or making them a huge Elvis Presley fan before referring to them as Bruce Springsteen's number one fan at a later stage, there is an excellent chance that your readers will notice and be turned off by the inconsistencies. While these examples are deliberately rather extreme, it's amazing the number of times character inconsistencies do turn up in even the otherwise best quality novels.
The first step to going so far as you can towards maintaining consistency in characterization is to create what are effectively personnel files for each character. Just as law enforcement agencies, physicians and employers keep files on real life individuals, so too should authors for their fictional creations. It is best to create a Word document (or similar) file in each instance to enable easy editing at later dates and allow the entries to be maintained in a logical order but even a paper based file is better than nothing at all. The creation of such a file should be the very first step when an inkling of an idea for a character and their attributes is born.
Populating Personnel Files
The design and layout of each character's file is down to personal preference and will almost always differ slightly from author to author. It is important only in the first instance that a standard layout be determined which will suit not only your preferences but your working style and will facilitate easy referencing and updating as the character develops and grows. The character's name is likely to be the file title but basic personal details should be prominently included. A brief physical description of the character, notes on their hobbies, likes and dislikes are all good places to start but don't forget to include simple details like a date of birth. Getting the character's age wrong, particularly in lengthy sagas set over a period of years or in a series of novels, is a very easy mistake to make.
Updating Personnel Files
Characters can and will develop in any number of ways and not always in the same manner in each instance. It may be that your characters develop naturally in your mind as your novel progresses. Alternatively, it may be that you witness a characteristic in a family member or friend, in a stranger on a bus or train, or in a new colleague at your place of work, which you wish to attribute to a person in your novel. However these new feature ideas come about, when you include them in your novel manuscript you must remember to update your file with the details to avoid future omissions or inappropriate inclusions. Similarly, prior to introducing a characteristic, you should check your file to ensure it does not contradict anything you have included before.
Character File Maintenance Tips
As your characters develop, it is only natural that so too will your files grow and expand. What you must do is be careful that these files don't become too packed with information to an extent that their bulkiness outweighs their usefulness. The files should be as succinct as possible and easy to read and digest at all times. Be meticulously selective as to what you include in the files. For example, if a character's favorite drink is a vodka martini, it would be appropriate to note this in their file. If they stop off for a couple of unnamed beers on the way home from work one night, this need not be included. Be sure also to conduct regular reviews of the files, ensuring the information is in what is essentially note form - short, sharp and to the point - and not in colorful prose form like the novel itself. You should also rearrange information as necessary and perhaps even delete details which are no longer relevant or required.
Character files should above all ensure that each persona in your novel displays consistent attributes and life preferences. They can also however have other benefits, including allowing you to read a concise summary of each prominent individual in your story as you have created them thus far and perhaps serve to highlight omissions in their overall makeup or stimulate ideas for future character development. By maintaining these files appropriately and updating them accordingly, you will serve to significantly remove one of the major obstacles to successfully writing a novel and perhaps considerably enhance your chances of ultimate publishing success.