Friday, October 23, 2009

To Thine Own Characters Be True

Character development seems simple enough. Blonde hair, blue eyes, a to-die-for figure or tall, dark, handsome, but a scoundrel. Good guys, bad guys. If only it were that easy.

Come on, we’re talking fiction, make-believe, right? Yes . . . and no. Our “storybook” characters may be much more real than we imagine—in fact, they may not be products of our imaginations at all. If we analyze their personalities, physical appearance, good and not-so-good traits, we may find them to be much like someone we know or knew in the past, or even more likely a composite of two or more friends, acquaintances, or family members.

How well acquainted are we with our characters? We’d better know them as well as (perhaps even better than) we know ourselves. For example, we should know their

Height, weight, dress/suit size, shoe size,
Likes and dislikes,
Pet peeves,
Favorite music,
The list goes on and on.

Do our readers need to know all these things? Not necessarily, but we do. Why? Knowing even the most obscure details about our characters helps us to make them believable, unique, never clones of other characters.

For our stories to ring true with our readers, our characters must be as realistic and identifiable as our situations. They must be the people next door or down the street, the clerk in the supermarket, the lady at the dry cleaners, the UPS man. They must have shape, size, dimension, personality, and every other quality—good and bad—that defines the human condition.

And once they’ve been defined, they must remain true to that definition. In other words, a protagonist who hates all kinds of vegetables isn’t going to take a date to Salads-R-Us and crunch on a huge platter of rabbit food. That would be out of character. So pay attention to character development. It may make or break your story.


Linda Lane—writer, editor, publisher—teaches others how to write effectively. A proponent of reading and a serious student of language structure in English and Spanish, she stresses excellence in writing and advocates the drafting of guidelines that will encourage writers to meet or exceed industry standards in all their works.

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  1. It's funny, when I first started writing my book (my first attempt at doing so) I didn't think characterization would be such a problem for me. But its turning out to be my single biggest weakness. That's especially true of my protagonist. My secondary characters seem to ringer truer than my main character. It's a struggle every single day. *sigh*

  2. Good points, Linda. Something I had never thought of was to do a character sketch of the person I was playing in a stage play. A director told me that once, and it made sense. Just like it does for novel writing.

    Gink, if you are having trouble with your central character, maybe you need to rethink whose story this is. I have found that when secondary characters start trying to take center stage, I am off on the focus of the story. Just a thought.

  3. Great post! I tend to write a lot of extra details about my characters in my first drafts. I know a lot of them will be deleted when I'm editing, but it helps make the characters very real for me.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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