Characterisation: The Bedrock Of Any Novel

In the Futurelearn Start Writing Fiction course we looked at Josip Novakovich’s methods of Characterisation:

Here is my summary of Novakovich’s methods:



This looks a bit like me, with my glasses on! Except no grey hair yet, well none I’m admitting to!

All the quotes I have taken as examples are from Hiromi Kawakami’s excellent book, Strange Weather in Tokyo which I have recently reviewed and given five stars.

Summary – In this method tell us what your characters are like and what they like doing using the 3rd person. The advantage of this method is simplicity and readability. The disadvantage is a tendency to tell rather than show. No dramatic action or dialogue takes place.

His full name was Mr Harutsana Matsumoto, but I called him ‘Sensei’. Not ‘Mr’ or ‘Sir’, just ‘Sensei’.
He was my Japanese teacher at secondary school He wasn’t my form teacher, and Japanese didn’t interest me much, so I didn’t really remember him. Since I finished school, I haven’t seen him for quite a while.

From this opening summary Hiromi Kawakami swiftly, and expertly, takes the reader into a scene at a crowded bar, with dialogue between the two main characters of the novel, Tsukiko and Sensei.

Repeated action or habit. This is a people watching exercise. What do your characters do? Have they any unconscious habits, or actions? The advantage of this method is that it saves time. The disadvantage is that it delays entry into dramatic scenes.

Sensei had always held an eraser in his hand when writing on the blackboard.

Sensei did not like anyone to pour his drinks for him. Whether it was beer or sake, he meticulously poured for himself.

Self portrait – Introducing him or herself. Can be achieved directly or indirectly. Works better if the words create a picture of the character or create some drama.

Here is Tsukiko’s self-portrait:

I, on the other hand, still might be considered a proper adult. I had been very grown-up when I was in primary school. But as I continued through secondary school, I in fact became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself to time.

This short paragraph tells us so much about Tsukiko.

Sensei tells us about himself in a lengthy story about his wife and son and himself going hiking.

It is interesting how Hiromi Kawakami uses the differing self portraits of the two characters, to suggest the disparity in their ages, the younger of the two, Tsuikiko’s is short and to the point, and Sensei’s is long-winded and rambling.

Appearance – We can learn an awful lot about a character from appearance. I liked Novakovich’s tip about hands. Hands can be used to great effect or even feet or the way a person walks. Writing captures motion well. Again careful choice of words seems to be the key.

Descriptions of Sensei’s appearance:

His white hair was carefully smoothed back, and he was wearing a starched white shirt with a grey waistcoat.

He wore a tweed suit with leather shoes. His suit looked old but well-tailored.

When he was chewing his mouth was that of an old man.

Details about Sensei’s gait:

Sensei held his umbrella straight up and started walking. I could sense from his gait the tacit but full expectation that I would follow him.

Scene – Set your character in motion, combining appearance, action and dialogue. Advantage of this method. The reader is with you visualising and experiencing the scene. Most lifelike. The disadvantage: it is difficult to include back story, there are only so many flash backs, and memories that you can interweave into plot.

‘These elms are so verdant, aren’t they?’ Sensai said, looking up at the trees beside the bus stop. He was right – dense with leaves, the branches of the elms waved in the breeze. Although the wind was light, high in the sky, the tops of the elms swayed even more grandly.
It was a hot summer day, but the low humidity kept it cool in the shade. We took the bus to Teramachi and then walked a little. Sensei was wearing a panama hat and a Hawaiian shirt in muted colours.



Combining techniques: Combine two or more of the above techniques, making the characters development incremental.

The advice to combine techniques is excellent, the sound of a character’s voice, and sensory details can also create a powerful image:

It was only his voice that I remembered from the beginning. He had a resonant voice with a somewhat high timber, but it was rich with overtones. A voice that emanated from the boundless presence by my side at the counter.

At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a hold on it – I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would sneak back up on me…Wasn’t a sensation just that kind of indistinct notion that slips away, no matter how you try to contain it

Author’s bio on Goodreads:

Josip Novakovich (Croatian: Novaković) is a Croatian-American writer. His grandparents had immigrated from the Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Cleveland, Ohio, and, after the First World War, his grandfather returned to what had become Yugoslavia. Josip Novakovich was born (in 1956) and grew up in the Central Croatian town of Daruvar, studied medicine in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad. At the age of 20 he left Yugoslavia, continuing his education at Vassar College (B.A.), Yale University (M.Div.), and the University of Texas, Austin (M.A.).

He has published a novel (April Fool’s Day), three short story collections (Yolk, Salvation and Other Disasters, Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust), two collections of narrative essays (Apricots from Chernobyl, Plum Brandy: Croatian Journey) and a textbook (Fiction Writer’s Workshop).

Novakovich has taught at Nebraska Indian Community College, Bard College, Moorhead State University, Antioch University in Los Angeles, the University of Cincinnati, and is now a professor at Pennsylvania State University.

Mr. Novakovich is the recipient of the Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, an award from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He was anthologized in Best American Poetry, Pushcart Prize, and O.Henry Prize Stories.

He taught in the Master’s of Fine Arts program at Pennsylvania State University, where he lived under the iron rule of Reed Moyer’s Halfmoon Township autocracy. He is currently in Montreal, Quebec teaching at Concordia University.

His book Fiction Writer’s Workshop, may be of interest: .

ISBN 1884910394 (ISBN13: 9781884910395)

As might Marakumi’s excellent novel:

Strange Weather in Tokyo Hiromi Kawakami

ISBN 9781846275104

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A Fully Loaded Balloon of a Character


In the Futurelearn Start Writing Fiction course we’ve now moved on to Finding and Developing Fictional Characters, so I thought I would share with you some writing nuggets of wisdom.

We have been studying Josip Novakovitch’s methods of finding and developing fictional characters.

Of course there are numerous ways to develop characters. This is not rocket science, but the following gem of wisdom is.

Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an UNTOLD story INSIDE you.”

Maya Angelou is right. If there is a story inside of you, don’t keep it to yourself! Share it with the world, draw upon your own life as a starting point. Why not? Everybody has a story inside of them, reach in and you’ll find it.

Then look around you. What about your family and friends? Delicately mould these starting blocks into something new, but don’t just produce carbon copies of the originals. Blend and mix on tap resources of inspiration, use your observational skills, listen to the way people talk, and the way they interact with other people, refer to a wide range of readily available information, such as internet search engines, books, and don’t turn your nose up at strange sources of inspiration, embrace them all.

The key is to use your imagination. You need a tree load of inspiration.


Without this your characters may disappoint and burst like an overblown balloon. Or else they will fall flat onto deaf ears. Just make sure they aren’t full of hot air!

Let your imagination soar, and your characters will be fully rounded, developed and ready to lift off like a released balloon, or even a hot air balloon, soaring to the highest heights.



Allow your writing to evolve spontaneously.

Novakovich quotes Mel Brookes, Somerset Maugham, Erskine Caldwell, and Graham Greene.

Mel Brookes: “Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities, and have them relate to other characters living with him.”

Erskine Caldwell: “I have no influence over them. I’m only an observer, recording. The story is always being told by the characters themselves.”

Graham Greene, “One gets started and then, suddenly, one cannot remember what toothpaste they use…”

Graham Greene’s quote is spot on, when things just start to happen spontaneously and the story carries the author along, then you know that you’re on the right track.

Somerset Maugham: “People are hard to know. It is a slow business to induce them to tell you the particular thing about themselves that can be of use to you.”

That’s the key and that’s why imagination is so important.

Somerset Maugham, also gave us these humorous gems of wisdom:


I especially like this one, there’s hope for me yet! There’s no age bias in writing, as long as my mind stays fresh, what is there to stop me writing when I’m older?


Getting back to my own writing experiences. I didn’t set out to follow any particular method. To be honest I stumbled along, and discovered my characters in quite a haphazard way, but in general I used a variety of approaches, which seemed to work for me.

In fact when I finished my novel I was struck by the realisation that I could see my own anxieties interwoven into my plot. This was obvious to me but might not be quite so obvious to other people reading it. I don’t have a sister or a twin so I can’t say that I write about siblings. I do have a brother but I don’t think that he influenced my writing, certainly not in this novel. Maybe who knows, he might do in future projects to come. To a certain extent I do write about my experiences, I have two teenage daughters, so it’s not surprising that the main protagonist in my novel is a teenage girl. There are male characters too. I have re-invented the main love interest for a modern audience. Is he based on anyone I know? Maybe there are elements of him in men that I have met! I’m a Scorpio and I do like to be secretive, so I’m not saying anymore. I think that we draw on all sorts of influences and this shapes our writing and the characters that we discover along the way, some of these influences may be conscious and some may be less conscious, and more exciting!

Images – via google search.

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