Monday, March 8, 2010

Building Character

Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, there are over twenty definitions of “character.” Here is one that is particularly important to us writers: “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.”

Throughout the course of a story, your character [main character(s)] will undergo change(s), and it is through his/her features and traits (the things that make up the character) and his/her actions and speech that will illustrate the change(s) for the reader.

What do you know about your characters? Hopefully more than what’s in the book or books your readers devour! As creator, we should know our characters inside and out. Their fears, their desires, their likes and dislikes, everything. Of course, we don’t put all of these things into our books because readers would cry with boredom, and we would never get to the point of the book – the actual STORY. When we know from which our characters come, it helps us to develop strong, complex, well developed characters that readers can read about and say, “Man, that character is so real. I know a person just like that.”

The first thing to ask yourself is: Who are my main characters? These characters will be “round” and “dynamic”, meaning these characters are complex, realistic. These are the character we care deeply about – we want to see them succeed (or fail if they are despicable characters…or change if they are despicable characters). There is a depth to their personalities that is reflective to how we live in the real world. They are not perfect; they are flawed, and we often see those flaws. They have conflicts, and sometimes, they do not make the best decisions on how to handle those conflicts. These characters make massive changes from the beginning of the story to the end. As the writer of these main characters, of these “round” and “dynamic” characters; you have to think about them in the physical, mental, and emotional realms – what do they look like, what do they think, what do they feel, and how do knowing these things help to develop the character and (PLEASE REMEMBER) to move the story’s plot along? Why do I stress the story’s plot here? Because – as I stated earlier – it’s not necessary to know every nuance of how a character looks, nor is it important to know every dirty secret in your character’s closet. What’s important is the realness of the character…as he/she relates to the story being told.

The second thing to ask yourself is: Who are my minor characters? These characters, oftentimes, will be more “flat” and “static” than the main characters. This doesn’t mean that minor characters should not have detailed, rich characteristics. It does mean that they typically have fewer traits from which to characterize them by; therefore, they won’t be as complex as our main characters – they won’t be the ones we are flipping the pages for to get to the end of the story. This also does not mean minor characters should be stereotypical or “stock” – you don’t need a Latina who is always loud and wisecracking, you don’t need a sistahgirl who knows how to pop her neck and get down with the getdown, and you don’t need a gay best friend who always snaps his fingers and says the most insanely inappropriate yet “right” things. We know that stereotypes have some basis in reality; however, readers want to feel that your characters – all of your characters – are integral and organic to YOUR story. Ultimately, minor characters, typically, do not undergo major changes in their lives; they are there to support the main character’s endeavors.

If you already have a completed novel, it’s a good idea to read your novel for character development. Pinpoint your main characters and minor characters. Analyze their development – do we see the physical, mental, emotional components of your main characters? Are these components tied to the story’s plot and not just added just to be there? Are your minor characters as developed as the minor characters? If they are and they are not undergoing significant change in the novel, consider cutting some of the development. Does a minor character sound stereotypical? Consider revising the character’s personality and give him/her a unique trait.

If you haven’t written the novel yet, or if you’re in the developmental stages of the novel, then consider sketching out your characters.

Usually, at some point in the writing process, I write dossiers for my main characters. I tend to do them like “job applications” – name, age, sex, weight, height, eye color, glasses, fears, favorite colors, parents, education, friends, biggest disappointments, desires…etc… One thing I love to ask about my characters is WHAT DID YOUR CHARACTER DO “JUST” BEFORE THE START OF THE STORY. By answering that question, the character becomes “alive” before the start…as if he or she had always been there.

An example of a character sketch chart can be found at The Scriptorium E-Zine for Writers []. I have used this sketch for years to develop my characters.

Remember, characters are vital to your story; they ARE the story. Without them there, who can a reader cling to, support, love, rally behind?

Creative Passionista Shon Bacon is an author, a crafter, an editor, and an educator whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her author website.


  1. I always create a detailed profile on each character before I ever begin writing. We have to know the full background in order to understand and accurately portray our characters!

  2. Great thoughts on characters. It does help to do a cheat sheet at times. Even though you think it's all in your head, it's easy to forget what you've told the reader and write something else. It will be discovered if you do.

    I've got a list of characters, where they're from, what they look like,etc for my cast of Forever Young, my work in progress.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. Great tips, Char. In addition to knowing facts about the characters, it is important to know what they care about and what are some of their strengths and weaknesses as people. This helps develop the emotional component that is what most readers connect to.

  4. This is an excellent piece, Shon. I urge all my writers to know their characters even better than they know themselves. (We can be more objective about our characters' flaws than we can about our own.) It still surprises me at times when I find that a writer changes a character's eye or hair color midway through a story or creates a response that doesn't fit the actions or the words attributed to a character up to that point. But then I guess that's why we're editors, right? We fix things . . . or suggesst that the writer do it.

    Your post nails the steps of character development that every reader needs to go through to create believability. Great job!

  5. Thanks for the comments! I think some writers are so eager to get the story down that they do not do the leg work needed to understand their characters. It doesn't mean you have to write a dossier of 30 pages for each main character before you write, but you should know these characters like they are very close friends of yours.

  6. Just found this quote on Twitter. Thought it would stimulate some more discussion:
    "When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature." ERNEST HEMINGWAY

    I tend to agree that if we think of the characters more as people than pretend people, we can make them more engaging. Thoughts?

  7. It's worth noting though that character profiles/dossiers don't work for everyone. They're actually a form of an outline, and to a non-outliner like me, it's about as painful as pulling teeth. I keep a list of all the character names in one document and just add keywords of the important details that get mentioned in the book to joggle my memory.

  8. Maryann,

    I definitely agree with that quote. And it's not necessarily about keeping character profiles or dossiers. Because just as Linda stated, there are some people who just don't do the outline thing. In the end, it's about KNOWING your character, in whatever way that matters to you.

  9. I like the idea of establishing what the character was up to just before the scene in question.


  10. Awesome. Thank you for the post.


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