Thursday, October 20, 2011

Be My Guest - Jodie Renner

Thank you Jodie for more help in defining characters.

Sketching Out Your Characters

As you formulate the plot and main characters of your novel, start jotting down info on your protagonist and other important characters, and keep filling it in as ideas occur to you. This way, you can get to know them so well that, when they’re thrown into the thick of the action or interacting with others, you won’t need to wonder how they’d act or what they’d say in various situations — you’ll already have a good handle on their background, personality, strengths, weaknesses, preferences, fears, and goals in life.
Readers are quick to judge if they think a fictional person is acting “out of character” or inconsistently with their upbringing or personality.

Here’s a checklist to guide you in brainstorming and creating your main character’s personality and background. Of course, their habits will need to fit their personality profile — a careful, precise person wouldn’t have a messy office, for example.

A.    The Basics
-    Name — and as you go along, does it still fit the character? If not, you can always change it later, as you get to know him/her better. (See my post “What’s in a Name? Naming Your Characters.”)
-    Gender, age and education
-    Occupation/Profession, and how they feel about it
-    Physical attributes: Maybe find a photo online or in a magazine that best represents your protagonist, and keep it handy it as a quick reference. Also, how they feel about their height, weight, hair, etc.

B.  Background
-    Where they grew up. A character raised in the Deep South will be quite different from one raised in Idaho, California, Montana or New York City.
-    Socio-economic status of their family as they were growing up. Were they struggling or privileged?
-    Family background: Happy or unhappy? Only child or lots of siblings? Loving or absentee parents? Sibling rivalry? Adopted? Orphaned?
-    Highlights from childhood: Anything that stands out that has affected them, either positively or negatively.
-    Past significant relationships or marriage(s), and how they affect their present outlook.

C.  Personality and Character
-    Personality: outgoing or shy, lighthearted or serious, tactful or outspoken, laid-back or hyper/workaholic, neat or messy, etc. Also include any interesting personality quirks.
-    Hopes, dreams, goals: What does this character really want in life?
-    Strengths and talents: What is he or she most proud of?
-    Any strong feelings or attitude(s) towards causes, people, politics, etc.
-    Insecurities and perceived weaknesses — maybe they grew up in a rural area and feel out of their depth in the city, or wish they could cook or dance better, or were fitter or more outgoing.
-    Any other points of vulnerability, flaws or weaknesses that work against them
-    Biggest fears, phobias and disappointments, especially secret ones
-    Biggest “baggage” to date — unresolved problems and issues from the past that still affect his/her attitudes and reactions today
-    What others think of this character

D.  Other significant people in their life
-    Best friends, close family members, and other supporting characters, and their role in relationship to protagonist
-    Any enemies or irritating acquaintances

E.  Interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes
-    Passions
-    Favorite leisure activities, hobbies, sports, TV shows, movies, books, etc.
-    Any special strengths or talents, now and earlier, in school or college
-    Likes and dislikes: cooking, housecleaning, exercising, socializing, crowds, etc.

F.  Their surroundings
-    A description of his or her current living and working conditions — home, workplace. Neat or messy? Sparse or cluttered? Elegant or thrown together?
-    Most treasured possessions, and why?

Now you should have a good handle on your main character, so you’ll be able to quickly decide how he or she would react in any given situation you throw at them. As you’re writing, you may find this character’s personality is changing, or you might think of more interests, strengths, phobias, or personality quirks — just add/change them to your character sketch as you go along. Another good trick is to write some journal entries from your character’s point of view, in response to events in the novel. That will also help you to develop and fine-tune this character’s unique “voice.”

Guest blogger Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, romance, YA, and historical fiction. Jodie’s services range from developmental and substantive editing to light final copy editing and proofreading, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at

Posted by Maryann Miller who loves discovering new things about her characters.

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sorry, my fingers got a little out of control on that first post.

    I see a lot of good information here so I've bookmarked this post to come back to when I have time to read it more carefully. Thanks for the tips.

  3. Jodie - excellent tips, but if I may include one thing I've learned after writing 8 novels as a "pantser" -- if I saw this list before I started writing, I might have given up. You can do almost all of this as you write. Yes, all this character background is important, but you don't HAVE to have it in place before you start writing. As a matter of fact, a lot of times, as you start writing, these things will reveal themselves.

    Sometimes it's the discovery that's the most fun. I didn't know Randy, the hero of two of my books, was a gifted pianist until 8 chapters into the first draft.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Thanks, LD. Glad you find this list useful.

    Terry, I absolutely agree with you that you don't need to fill all this out before you start writing! As I said, "start jotting down info on your protagonist and other important characters, and keep filling it in as ideas occur to you."

    The main thing is that if/when your characters start developing their own personality, which may be different from the one you originally envisaged for them, you note their new characteristics down on your list, and take out any contradictory ones that may be there. That way, when confronted with a new situation, it's more likely that they'll be acting in character.

  5. Thanks, Jodie! This is awesome! I just finished a chat in Writers Chatroom the other night where the topic was character development. Some chatters had a lot of questions on how to go about it.

    I love character development but I often get bogged down in long, excruciating lists and forms that I'm loathe to fill out, much less refer to ever again. So this post is perfect. In fact, I think I'll link it in my own blog in hopes the ladies and gents from Writers Chatroom swing by there. They could benefit a lot from it! Thanks again!

  6. Thanks, Donelle, for the comments and the link!

  7. For me, the best character is a flawed character--not just any, but ones that create vulnerabilities, and as a result, make the reader sympathetic. Emotional complexity is a powerful device and when used properly,can drive a plot, adding layers of depth to a story.

  8. So true, Andrew, and so well said! Thanks for your insightful contribution!

  9. Excellent tips, Jodie, and I like the nuances that visitors have left. Laughed a bit at yours, Terry, not because it was so funny, but I too, discovered one of the central characters in one of my books was a pianist, and I didn't plan that. I think when it happens out of the progression of the story it is more authentic to the character, but I do agree with Jodie that we need to take note of that. I have a notebook in which I jot all kinds of things as they pop up while I am writing. As you know with a series, once you introduce some character element, you can't just forget it.

  10. Maryann, You make an excellent point that knowing your characters well and keeping track of all the details is especially important in a series, where that character will reappear time and time again, as readers will be quick to notice and point out any discrepancies!

    Character growth is always a good thing, but be sure all the basics (physical characteristics, background, etc.) don't change from one book to the next.

  11. Maryann -- so true about being stuck when characters reappear. I had a throwaway line in one book about a character using his kids birthday as his password, and then when he demanded his own book, I had to deal with the fact that I'd given him a child!

    On the plus side, I had a LOT of fun writing that book and dealing with the child. His existence created lots of good conflicts for my hero.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  12. Terry, if it's the character I'm thinking about, you did a great job of presenting him as a father and integrating his child into the story!

  13. Thanks for the tips, Jodie. I'm currently writing short stories that, I feel are stepping stones to a novel that's been perculating.

    These tips are relavent to it all.
    I'll print out your post for my old fashioned bulletin board.

  14. I'm a pantser, but this list will be very useful after I've written the first draft. Thanks

  15. I even told my friends to take a look at your blog and in fact your blog is already bookmarked on my computer. Hope to see more of this.

  16. Thanks for all of your comments, and thanks to webpromo for bookmarking Blood-Red Pencil and telling your friends about us - this is such an excellent, extremely useful blog for writers and editors!

  17. Gee, Jodie, if I did all this, it would eat into my favorite past-time: filling plot holes.

  18. I create similar character sheets using. But there's one more piece I add for every character: a secret.

    The secrets aren't always revealed, but they always affect my characters' behavior. They get evasive. They provoke curiosity. They create all sorts of opportunities for conflict and subplots.

    My character sheets aren't always complete, but they always have a secret.

  19. Love your funny comments, Christopher! Filling plot holes could be the subject of another post!

    Adrian - what excellent advice about creating a secret for each of your main characters! That would definitely add depth, complexity and intrigue to that character and their motives, decisions and actions!

  20. This is a great template. I use one that's much more involved, but I like how concise this one is. I may switch, actually. I spend entirely too much time obsessing over the minor details, instead of letting things work themselves out naturally.

  21. Jodie's posts are always chock full of relevant and well thought out information. Thanks!

  22. Thanks, GPS and Jenny! If my posts help writers write more compelling stories, we all win!

  23. Jodie: Thanks for another useful post. This reminds me of a trait that no editor can "learn," but may exhibit due to nature alone: the ability to track details over a large page span. Because if the author didn't do the job as you set out here, that limp on the left leg may shift to the right some 150 pp later. For some reason, I can do it, but not all editors can, so it makes sense for the writer to take better care in the first place. Because if your editor doesn't pick it up, you know one of your readers will!


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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