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Monday, July 29

She's Such a Character: 8 Tips for Creating Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Characters make the story. No matter how intriguing the idea or exciting the plot, if there isn't a character there we care about (even if it's just a little) the rest of it falls flat.
There are all kinds of ways to develop those characters. One of the more common tricks is the character worksheet. I'm sure most of you have seen these--long lists of questions you fill out that determine physical characteristics, likes, dislikes, history, etc.

Well, these sheets have never worked for me. Details with no context have never helped me get to know my characters, and sometimes they even pigeonhole me into something I came up with because I needed to fill in that slot.

What I've found more useful, is to ask questions about my characters that pertain to their lives. This gives me answers that I can apply to my story. Now, it's important for me to point out here that I rarely know the answers to all these questions when I start. I'll know a few key points since those are what's driving my newbie character, but the rest develops as I write the story and watch my characters interact.

There's nothing wrong with starting a story with basic, underdeveloped characters if you need to write them to know them first. When part of the fun is discovering who these people are. Sometimes you don't know the type of person your character needs to be (or is) until you see how the story unfolds.

Things I Find Useful to Know Before I Write

1. What are the critical needs of my character?

Chances are these needs will be connected to the core conflict of the story. Knowing a few key needs are important because those needs are probably driving and influencing all of your character's decisions. You want them to be the kind of needs that will help your plot unfold.

2. What are the critical fears of my character?

Knowing what they're afraid of helps you flesh out what your conflicts might be. You won't just pick stuff to throw in their path, you'll pick stuff that will affect them on a deeper level, thus creating a more emotionally layered scene. And seeing how your character reacts to what they fear, helps you learn more about them so you can flesh them out more.

3. Who are their friends?

They say you can tell a lot about a person by who they hang around with, so what types of people are in your characters' lives? What are their key needs and fears? Do they have traits that your character finds appealing or soothing? Annoying or irritating?

4. Who are their enemies?

Who they avoid or can't stand says a lot about them, too. Why do they avoid these people? It's okay for them to have selfish or childish reasons. Not everything your character thinks has to be noble. Stuff that'll cause them trouble is actually a lot more fun, especially if their beliefs are flat out wrong sometimes.

Things I Look for as I Write

1. What personality trait helps them? What hurts them?

This is a different take on the old "strengths and weaknesses" question. I like to look at it as it pertains to the story at hand. What does your character do that usually gets them out of trouble or helps them find their way? What do they do that usually backfires, or gets them into trouble?

Once you've found these traits, ask yourself: "How did the character get that way?" You'll draw from or create some backstory here, but that's okay. Because odds are, you'll know enough about your character and world now to see where in that world your character would have learned (or not learned) these skills to survive. That might even connect to something else in the story you can use to create more conflict or raise a stake.

2. What do they think is fair? Unfair?

This explores their moral beliefs. What have they found in your story that really ticked them off and made them want to act to fix it? (it doesn't have to be your plot, but it's okay if it is). What has made them happy, or feel safe? Their sense of justice can be found in how they feel about the situations around them.

Once you know that: You'll have a better sense of what they'd be willing to do or not do when faced with these situations, and that'll tell you even more about them.

In fact, knowing how they view justice can even give you ideas on how to put them into situations where those ideas are tested. Forcing them to make tough choices gives you further opportunities for character development, and gives you some nifty scenes to boot.

3. What do they like about their friends? Dislike about them?

Not everyone agrees all the time, especially friends. These spots will probably come up naturally as you write, because you're probably looking for places to add conflict or hash out different ideas to keep the tension up. What opinions have you given your characters without even realizing it? Use these to deepen emotions.

Once you know this:
You're often more willing to agree to something if you like that person or believe the same thing. Even if that something is "wrong" or goes against the norm. Just like you'll rebel against doing something you disagree with, even if it seems like the most logical way of handling a situation. You can use these feelings to show other sides of your characters, both good and bad, and exploit their flaws and virtues.

4. How do they handle stress?

Some folks are calm under pressure, others fall apart. Since your characters are going to be in some stressful situation (I hope), knowing how they react and why can reveal more about them. Sometimes we naturally react one way, but other times it's because we've had experience or training in some way to handle things--good and bad. And we don't always handle them well.

Once you know this: You'll know the knee-jerk reactions your characters will have when faced with obstacles. That first reaction often determines what they'll do next, which drives your story. It might be tempting to give them reactions that help them and always put them on the right path, but giving them traits that cause them to falter can be way more interesting. And provide you with more fodder for the story.

Character development is all about throwing your characters into situations and seeing how they react. Sometimes you can decide that ahead of time, but a lot of times it shows up as you write. Don't worry if you don't know everything about a character when you start a story. Get to know them same as a reader would. One page at a time.


  1. Great post! I've never been that good at doing character worksheets either (and sorry, no, I still don't know what brand of gum my main character would chew, or what significance it would play in the story if she chose Orbit over Trident). Your list has given me several things to think about for my WIP, so thanks a bunch!

  2. Good stuff. I tried some of those worksheets for the book I'm shopping around right now, and I feel like they didn't play a role in my actual writing. I filled them out and promptly forgot about them. What helped me more was to (secretly) associate them with people I knew and to find pictures on Google Image Search that I could use to visualize them. Another thing I've been doing recently is to pretend one of my characters is with me when I'm doing stuff alone. I'm a big kid, so having an imaginary friend is nothing new to me. ;)

    Next time I'm getting ready to work on something new, I'll definitely pull this post out and try to answer these questions!

  3. These questions go great with the ones Juliette posted a couple weeks ago. I'm going to put these somewhere handy so I remember them.

  4. excellent. bookmarking this post. :)

  5. Great questions. Thanks for sharing. I'm also bookmarking this.

  6. Great post. I'm not good at those worksheets either. Glad I'm not alone. Your questions about characters are great. I'll check it out when I start on my next new novel.

  7. So far I've tried to keep track of all my characters in my mind, without writing down much, but then I find it difficult to be consistent throughout. Think I should try out this kinf of method mow. Thanks for good hints >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  8. Great suggestions. I too tried the worksheets and couldn't force myself to answer most of the questions as they just didn't seem relevant to my story at all. This one's going in my "helpful tips from Janice" folder!!

  9. These are excellent questions. I'm going to use them on my characters in my current work in progress. I think these questions are a lot more helpful than the character sheets, at least for me. I started to do those sheets, but something felt odd about it. I didn't feel like I was getting into the character as much.

    Thank you for this post. =)

  10. Excellent post again - thanks Janice.
    I develop my characters in a similar way. They grow with the story. Then when I feel I know who they are I sit down and write a kind of bio. Just let everything about them - their past, how things in their life affect them, their flaws and strengths etc - just flow. When I read it back I'm always surprised at how fully developed they are and how much more I know about them than I thought I did.

  11. Thanks all!

    I have my own folder? That's so cool! I'll do some more character stuff probably next week since I got questions about it.

  12. Neat! This list is essentially what I do, though not consciously enough to verbalize it like you did. :)

  13. Yes *blush* there is a dedicated "Janice folder" :) It's located in the "stuff I don't want to forget" binder. LOL! I like to keep my tips close at hand.

  14. Those worksheets don't work for me, because I don't have much of an idea about my chracter traits until after the first draft is mostly finished. I give my characters whatever traits they need to make the plot work to maximum effect. For example, if my character is going to have to walk across a narrow bridge overlooking a deep gorge, I'll suddenly realize that he's afraid of heights. I sometimes have to go back and chnage earlier chapters after I'd added a new trait in order to keep things consistent, but for me, it's worth the trouble.

  15. Ken, sounds like my process as well :)

  16. Ooh, this is marvelous! I looked at a character sheet once. It bored me.

    I think I'll use this for my secondary characters more than my main guy. I don't spend enough time on them, so this forces me to stop and look at the other people. Thanks, Janice!

  17. I enjoyed this post. Normally, I try to avoid character worksheets, but this doesn't feel like the typical "interview" that most are. It's more of a personality rather than just what kind of ice cream they like, etc.

    Usually, I try to just find the most influential/important moment in their history and write it out as a short story. That way, I can see how they react to stress, what they think is fair, etc, all of the things that you posted here.

  18. Even when pulling from the archives, your posts are perfectly timed. I've been seeking out ways to hone my character development, and your tips are just what I needed--mostly because they go more in-depth than most of the advice I've heard lately. Thanks so much.

  19. Rachel, my pleasure. happy you found a use for it :)

    Krista, Thanks! I have a friend who likes to do short stories as well. Really nice way to develop a character. And you have extra content for later if you need it. Bonus, lol.

    Karen, oh good! That's why I like to re-run them. So much information here is applicable even if it's older, and there's almost always someone who needs just that post :)

  20. Great ideas and information..It helps me a lot.

    write my book

  21. Love these ideas! I'm creating new characters right now :)

  22. Great ideas :) I have tried many methods to character
    development but this one might work well for me.

    Developing the characters while I write my first draft as I discover and their backstories and personalities through my writing. Then writing down what I discover in their bios after writing a part every session.

    1. I like the note taking afterward part. I also discover my characters during a first draft, and taking notes like that would be a big time-saver later. Thanks for the tip!

    2. Oh a question. What do you mean by critical needs exactly? Is it the same as goal??

    3. Yes and no. Some needs are the goals, because they know that's what they need. Others are part of the character arc, and might be unconscious needs. For example, they want love, but don't yet know what they need to find that love and be happy (so it's a need, but not a specific goal). Over the course of the novel as they pursue and solve their goals, they eventually realize what to do to find love and be happy. It's usually a flaw of some type, or a refusal to see a truth about themselves.