8 Month Novel Course BLOG – Give your Character a Birthday


If you’re reading this the chances are you have a couple of characters, elusive and half-formed or irritatingly real, chasing around your mind all day. You may be able to picture them, you may know how they sound and what their most annoying traits are, but how well do you actually know your characters? Have you given them a birthday? It seems simple, but I know I hadn’t.

I’m Kelly, one of Retreat West’s social media marketing interns. As part of our internship, Phil and I are embarking on Retreat’s West’s ‘8 Month Novel Course’. This remote course is a mix of creative writing course with 1-1 mentoring and editorial reviews. It’s a month in and we are loving it! Phil and I plan to share our writing journey with you, giving you a blog article every three weeks which shares what we have learnt and gives you a sneak peek into the course.

Before starting the course I had a very basic draft of my WIP ‘Lily Trap,’ based on my own experiences with a neuro-functional disorder. I like to think of it as a coming of age, fantasy thriller. I’m pretty sure this is not a genre so, as you can tell, I still have a long way to go. Anyway, back to the birthday thing. ‘Give your character a birthday’ was part of an activity provided during the second week of the course. When you sign up to the course (which you can do on our website) you are sent weekly course material with complementary activities that really get you thinking. I’m no writing expert but I have been to numerous workshops and read plenty of articles, and yet no-one had ever encouraged me to think about birthdays.

During my drafting I had given my main character Lily a birthday, 9th February 1999, a date which I had plucked out of the air when I needed it. To be honest, I was thinking of skipping this part of the exercise; suspecting it to just be a matter of plot-device. I’m very glad I didn’t. Now, I’m not a horoscope kind of person and I’m not saying you should confine you character’s traits to them. However, exploring the different characteristics associated with each star and zodiac sign made me realise that I didn’t know my main character well-enough at all.

I knew Lily was sweet, altruistic and un-emotional. What I’d never considered was her level of independence, what factors most affected her decision making, and what enriched her life.  As I read on I found myself thinking about how she would react in an argument, an aspect  that will add so much depth and flavour to my dialogue. I also found myself wondering how she would react in circumstances which my narrative didn’t see her encounter, like her reaction when she found out her Mother had died. Even though I purposefully don’t write about it, it’s still an important part of her life story and thus gives an insight into her character. I even ended up wondering about silly things. For example, would she leave the rest of her apple if she found a hole in it or just eat around it? Now I’d really started to get to know her I wanted to know everything.

Browsing the descriptions for each sign made me more aware of the true complexity of our personalities. In the end I did change Lily’s birthday too, just because it felt right. It is important, as writers, that the personality’s we create on paper are no less complex than those which exist in real life. Readers need to relate to our characters, and to do this we need to know everything about them, including their birthday.

This blog article has given you a tiny insight into Retreat West’s wonderful ‘8 Month Novel Writing Course.’ Find out more here. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then check out the short and sweet six week ‘Start your Novel Course’ on the same page. Also, don’t forget you can receive 5% – 20% off with the ‘Retreat West Author Membership’ packages. More details about membership are here.

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