January 3, 2012

Character Building-How To Make Your Characters Come To Life

The characters in a story are what bring it to life. If you don't have strong characters who seem as real as your reader's next door neighbors, you don't have a story someone can get lost in. No one cares about your exciting plot twists and turns if they aren't invested in the people that they're happening to. But how do you deepen your characters enough to make them believable in the story?

Spend A Lot Of Time With Them Before You Start Drafting. In Other Words, Live With Them For Awhile.
I never start writing a story until I have a good handle on who my characters are and what makes them tick. If I don't understand them, my characters become one dimensional and as substantial as puffs of smoke. So once I have my shiny new idea, I spend days hanging out with the characters who will populate it BEFORE I ever put down one word of the actual story. I surf the web for pictures of people who look like them and then print them out. I make a profile of each character, the big and the small. I list physical and emotional traits, special ticks, likes and dislikes. I profile them as thoroughly as any FBI agent would profile his quarry. I can't anticipate my characters' moves if I don't know a lot about them.

Create Back Stories.
I give all the main characters and some of the not so main characters back stories that won't make it into my actual story. I need to understand their motivations, what's hurt them and what makes them who they are for the story I am actually writing. I write them out just for my own reference. The more detail I go into the more real they are to me before I start writing.

Let Them Marinate A Bit In Your Head.
I think sometimes it's easy to rush into drafting before you have a good handle on what it is that you want to say. By taking weeks to do my research and get to know my cast of characters, I waste less time rewriting scenes and wandering around on page after page trying to find my way. My characters are already friends of mine by the time I sit down to write and I feel the need to do their stories justice. I'm invested and as a result, my readers will be too.

Everyone's heard authors say that their characters speak to them. What they mean is that they've spent so much time constructing them that they are now a real thing inside their head, a fully formed being who feels as real as any person in this world because the author took the time to really get to know them.  So if you are beginning to write-either again or for the first time, don't rush headlong to the page without a good working knowledge of who your characters are and why their story needs to be told in the first place.


  1. Wow, this is really insightful, and applies very much to me as I'm only a few chapters into a new project of mine.

    I'm curious as to how you come up with character traits. Do you first give them a trait and then give them a back story to justify it, or do you give them a back story first and realise then that an event or lifestyle will cause them to have a specific trait?

  2. Good question, Sarah. Honestly it is a little bit of both. I come up with the basic situation of the story and usually when I do that I have a very basic sense of the kind of character I want to put in it-the worst person to handle whatever situation I'm writing about. From there I come up with his/her basic composition. For instance, for the story I'm querying now, I put a peace loving girl in the middle of an apocalyptic cult that is very pro gun/defense during the last three months before the world's supposed to end.But the little things about her: her love of horses, painting ability, sense of humor, awkwardness came once I started to think about her back story and how she came to be in the cult in the first place. Her actual voice only comes once I start drafting, but I couldn't get that voice right until I knew her pretty well. Hope that makes sense. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Great post! When I write a story I create the protagonist and the antagonist right away. I try to figure out what they want and why (having a back story helps with this). The minor characters often get made while writing the story.

  4. Thanks, Rena! I envy your handle on your antagonist up front. I have a general sense of the antagonist at the beginning but that character is the last on my list to come into focus usually. I'm usually fleshing him/her out just before outlining and drafting.

  5. What do you do when you have 18+ characters that play a big part in your story/book and some of them are based off people in your everyday lives. Some you want to make the complete opposite of those people and others you want keep the same. Does this process work the same even if you start adding people you already know or do you need to get to know them all over again? Or because your making them the complete opposite it still works.

    And another thing after you spend time getting to know your characters will this help when deciding who should talk when, who says what, and how much the characters show up? Will the characters start to tell you where to put them, and what the want to say and when. Because I cant wait for that to start happening. they need to start pulling there own weight around here.

    Sorry for all the questions. I'm kinda new at the whole writing thing, as you can tell, this is my first piece. My grandmother starting telling me i could be a writer a short time ago and i wanted to finish something before shes no longer here . Thank you for the help!! Cant wait for your feed back!!

    1. Hi Natalie,

      Wow, eighteen characters! That's a lot of people to manage as a writer. My advice is to start by concentrating on the main characters first. Every story needs one or maybe two (usually no more than that) characters who are "telling the story" or who we are sort of following as a reader. Once you figure out who the main characters are, start writing from their perspective first. Figure out what their back stories are (all the stuff you need to know about them in order to get inside their head and see things/events the way they would. At the same time you need to have a general grasp on what your story is...what is going to happen to the characters? You may not have all the answers, but you should have some before you can sit down to write. When I start a story I start with the situation first...for me this is a "what if" sort of thing. Example: What if a teen girl woke up at a sleep over in a remote house out in the country to find all the other girls there murdered and a knife in her hand? From there I work on my characters....who is this girl? What is she like? Is she alone? Are there parents at this house? In this situation, what kind of person would have the hardest time with it? What was her relationship to the other girls. In this case there would be at a minimum three or so more girls attending the sleepover who would have distinct personalities themselves. I'd write up a profile of each, but I would focus primarily on the surviving girl and tell the story from her perspective. The other characters have to be special and unique and would get talked about, maybe have dialogue in flashback scenes, or even chapters written from their perspective right up until the murder...but my main focus would be with that one girl. It keeps the story from getting too confusing and it helps the reader to invest in someone. If you have too many characters set up as main characters it will get really confusing. If you really need all eighteen to be very present or have their own chapters, I'd recommend reading THE STAND by Stephen King or UNDER THE DOME--both of these books have a myriad of characters--many of which have scenes and chapters from their perspective...but even in these books I'd argue that there are still only a few that the story really revolves around. Telling a story with a huge cast can be done, but it will be a definite challenge to keep the story tight and moving along smoothly. Hope this helps. Since you're new, I'd also recommend checking out Beth Revis's writer's advice here: http://www.bethrevis.com/for-writers/ --she breaks things down really well.

    2. Thank you so much for the help!!