Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

After developing an idea for a story and sketching out a working plot, the most important area to concentrate on is characterization. How much time do you dedicate to creating your characters?

When I develop my characters, I concentrate on one at a time. First, I give them their name and physical attributes: skin tone, hair and eye color, height, weight, birthmarks and scars. Then I give them their personality and demeanor: shy, outspoken, friendly, bubbly, awkward, self-conscious, confident, persistent, or overbearing. I list their talents, strengths, weaknesses, addictions, obsessions, disabilities, occupations, and education, just to mention a few. Next, I delve into the environment they live in: friends, family, home, neighborhood, job and coworkers, pets, car they drive, and clothes they wear. Some writers stop here, but I find it beneficial to the layers of my story if I go a little further. I visualize this person I have created and concentrate on writing their history: birthplace, toddler years and any defining memories, elementary and junior high years, complete with the names of friends and pets. This sounds like an easy task, but if you do it well—make them believable—it’s not as easy as it sounds. The key to giving birth to believable characters is consistency. While an occasional quirk, such as giving a huge, tough, tattooed biker type a weakness for kittens or assigning a petite grandma to a huge four-wheel drive truck with a lift kit can make a character endearing, excessive inconsistencies such as these take away from a story’s credibility.

By now, you’re thinking I’m finished, right? Not quite. There are at least three questions I like to ask myself before I pronounce a character developed. Last Sunday afternoon, where was my character and what was he doing? Next Tuesday morning, where will he be? And if someone threw a glass of cold water in his face, how would he react? When I can answer these questions, this character has become real to me, and I feel like I know him well enough to tell his story.

How do you sketch a character? At what point do they become real to you?


  1. Well, I am a pantser so, gestation happens as I write.

    Most of my characters start with a single personality trait from a known subject like my daughter's strange sense of humor, my dog's stubborn streak, my wife's tendency to anthropomorphize.

    From there I write them into the story. They react how the like and I struggle to understand them. Often they give me clues with a thought or a statement but sometimes I'm left wondering why they did that.

    In my view, the characters, like the story, are there and I am merely discovering them. This has it's drawbacks; I have to go back and add things that I discovered out of order. But, it's the way I work.

  2. Like you, I also like to start with something I can visualize, for instance, someone or a trait I see in someone I know. I have talked to other writers who let the story lead them, but I like working from an outline. I like knowing the story is going to work before I dedicate so much time to writing it. But I have read your work, and obviously this method works great for you. Keep it up!