How Do You Create Your Characters?

How do you make the people in your fiction (longer fiction especially) well-rounded, believable individuals that the reader might care about?

In short stories it isn’t always necessary to know all the details about a character, for example it may be enough to know that the heroine is a grandmother and not her exact age or her previous profession (if any). But when attempting to write something longer, facts like these become important so that the writer can concoct a suitable back story for the lady, so it may be useful to know in what decade she was a teenager, at what age she left full-time education and whether or not she became a working mother. The life which the grandmother lived before the novel opens will have a bearing on how she acts and reacts within the story – so both the author and the reader need to know what went before.

Some writers advocate filling in a questionnaire about each character, covering physical appearance, hobbies, education etc (a sample questionnaire can be found on Stewart Ferris’ website here). This is a useful way of keeping track of facts such as eye colour and height (easy things to forget as you get deeper into the plot). 

However, I find it very hard to just jot down a sentence or two about the big things such as a character’s personality, attitude to life and motivation.  In order to get know a protagonist I have to start writing scenes from his or her point of view. It’s only as I write that I realise what I don’t know about a character and therefore what I need to put into their back story to make them act in a certain way in the present. This means I don’t do much planning before I write because I have to write in order to create the characters.

Some writers cut pictures from magazines and use these as prompts for their characters. But this only covers their physical appearance – so I’m not sure it would help me.

Nicola Morgan advocates interviewing your main character (her list of suggested questions is here and they are pretty searching!) Most of these I couldn’t have answered when I initially decided on the people I needed in my story but now I’ve written a bit from each point of view I’m going to pretend I’m a chat show host and start asking questions.

What about you – how do you develop your characters?

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  1. #1 by susanjanejones on February 16, 2012 - 5:48 pm

    Hi Sally,
    I spend far too much time putting my characters in extreme situations to expose them to emotions. For instance, (I can’t think why I do this!!) but I put them at a funeral of someone close to see how they react. Are they screaming and crying hystericaly, or quiet and subdued. If they’re the latter, then they may have hidden depths. Then maybe they get arrested, it’s a bit crazy, but then so are most of my stories, but I love them, we have to be true to ourselves I think. No good trying to write like someone else, that someone else might wish they wrote like me….:)))

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on February 16, 2012 - 7:41 pm

      I like the funeral idea, Susan. It’s at occasions like that when people often show their true colours.

  2. #3 by blogaboutwriting on February 16, 2012 - 7:53 pm

    Sally – for short stories (where you don’t have to go in quite so ‘deep’), I often get ideas for characters from real people and things that they say (just a line of dialogue will do). I used to work with a woman with lots of children who said things like “I come to work for a rest!” – that gave me an idea for a character and a story called ‘Accidents Will Happen’, which (plug, plug!) is in the latest issue of Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special. The same colleague told me about her mother who worried, to such an extent, that she wrote a ‘just in case’ letter to her children, everytime she went on holiday! And told them what kind of coffin she wanted. (not a cardboard one, but the next one up). She became a (minor) character in another published story, called ‘If The Worst Happens…’
    For characters in novels, I think you need to know as much about them. I do advocate filling in a ‘questionnaire’ for main characters in novels, as this can give you lots of ideas for plot. I have a 100-question questionnaire which has such posers about your characters as, ‘when did he last cry?’ and ‘what does she want more than anything in the world’ and ‘has he ever broken the law?’. It takes a while to do but I think it’s worth it!

  3. #4 by blogaboutwriting on February 16, 2012 - 7:55 pm

    Meant to say, “you need to know as much about them AS POSSIBLE!” (sorry – rushing!)

    • #5 by Sally Jenkins on February 16, 2012 - 7:59 pm

      Thanks, Helen. Looks like the questionnaire is worth a go.

  4. #6 by Marilyn Rodwell on February 17, 2012 - 11:17 am

    Hi Sally, I think there must me loads of ways to develop character. And it is more difficult when doing a short story, because you naturally have less time to devote to them. With longer fiction, you have more time to live with them in your head, so they grow and develop around the skin and bones you start with.

    What I have done is start off with a face. Then a body. Then physical characteristics. Then personality traits. Then behaviour. Then reaction in any given circumstances.

    Write them down. Live with them. Breath them. Take them on trips with you. Take them to bed with you. (be careful if you’re writing romantic fiction!) But I mean it. Love them. They will grow.

    One of my problems though, is that when I get to know them so well, I forget to write in things about them, because I assume the reader knows them too! I have to go over that in my editing and insert some of their physical characteristics.

    Just what I do. Hope it helps.

    Marilyn x

  5. #7 by Sam Perkins on February 17, 2012 - 12:45 pm

    I guess what the characters role in the story is, says a lot about what went before. Of course, one could always stray from the norm, but usually your goodie has a normal life, the baddie has faced more obstacles in life etc.

    That is where I begin with my characters. Then as I write, I note things down. Very much like how you do it Sally. But I have been told on many occasion that my characters aren’t *real* enough. I am always looking for new ways to develop characters.

    • #8 by Sally Jenkins on February 17, 2012 - 3:05 pm

      Marilyn – I think you are right, you do need to ‘live’ with novel characters and constantly carry them round in your head. That’s where writing at least a few hundred words is useful because then you can never forget the protagonists and they are always growing. But I do wish that I had your problem of knowing them so well that I forget the reader doesn’t!

      Sam – I too think that a character’s past shapes his future and am currently trying to build backgrounds for my characters that explain why they act how they do today. Good Luck to both of us in making our characters more real!

  6. #9 by loutreleaven on February 17, 2012 - 9:57 pm

    My favourite way of devising a character is just to start writing and see who walks on. I don’t like to plan too much as I like to surprise myself! Then later on I’ll go back and develop them more such as looking at their speech and making sure they behave consistently. Having the right name helps and sometimes I’ll struggle for a name but at other times the name will pop into my head and sound ‘right’.

    • #10 by Sally Jenkins on February 18, 2012 - 5:10 pm

      Lou – I tend to just start writing too but I’m finding that I’m only creating characters that live in the present, rather than having any life beforehand to mould them. So going back and developing them is definitely a necessity! And yes, finding the right name is important too – especially to reflect a character’s age.

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