Monday, March 12, 2012

Character Definition

When I first began to write stories, back in elementary school, I would always make up character sketches. I would jot down how old the characters were, how they looked, what their basic personality was. Favorite color, favorite flavor of ice cream, favorite animal, what their parents did, if they had any pets, siblings, or hobbies. It was part of the fun of creating the story.

As I got older I didn't like to do that anymore. It was too confining. A character is more than a list of traits! A character is a living, breathing, organic thing! Instead of creating character sketches, I would get to know my characters as I wrote. I would let them walk onto the stage and then I'd watch them to see what they'd do rather than starting out by making all the choices for them.

That method created a few really wonderful characters, ones that surprised and delighted me, but most of the characters that sprung up that way were living, breathing, organic balls of mush. They had no definition. I have one book I wrote, in first person, that I still haven't decided what the main character's hair and eye color ought to be. I spent a whole book with him, and I don't know if he's ever had any pets. It just never came up. But maybe it should have, and it would have if I'd known from the start.

So now I want to find a way to blend these two methods of character development. I love the crisp, sharp detail I get from knowing a list of traits, but I also want the characters to feel natural and to be able to change and adapt.

How do you create your characters?


  1. My characters sometimes seem to pop from nowhere, although often, they arise from their situation. I think 'what would a person be like if...' and then I go from there. It's actually really flexible because there's a lot of different ways people can react to situations. I build characters around each other. This person needs a cousin, what would their cousin be like? This person needs parents, What should their parents be like? I start with my main protagonist and my main antagonist, and then I build all my other characters around them. It's good because that way, my characters tend to fit their roles in the story well. But it also means I don't come up with characters until I need them.

  2. I did character outlines and still do!!! They sometimes just come to me though. It's crazy.

  3. Yeah, characterization is tough. You want to create someone that everyone will want to know, and will love through your book. It's like reaching into a magician's hat and pulling a fully formed, dynamic person out. Not easy. I've heard of writers pinning up photos/drawings that represent their character. Many writers base their characters on real people, or a mix of them. I've done that and tried both methods you mentioned above. All help. And I've learned to be flexible and try new things - especially listening when someone reads my story for the first time. They'll spot character inconsistencies and tell me what they wish the character had done or been like. I really enjoyed "Writing the Breakout Novel". Donald Maass gave some great suggestions there, mainly that we all want to read about someone we admire - for whatever reason. We want larger than life people, but ones we can relate to. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!


What be on yer mind?