Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Three Tools For Making Characters Come Alive

By Guest Author Kerry Schafer, @KerrySchafer

Part of the How They Do It Series

Please help me welcome Kerry Schafer, who's here today to share some tips on making our characters come alive.

Kerry was born and raised in Canada, moved back and forth across the border several times, and finally settled on a compromise. She now lives in Washington state, but within an hour’s drive of her home and native land. Her childhood book collection traveled with her through all of those moves, and although she now owns a Kindle she continues to acquire books and bookshelves. During her lifetime, Kerry has worked as a lumber piler, an OB nurse, a secretary, and a substitute teacher, among other things. No matter where she lives or what she is doing, she finds a way to create writing time. Currently she balances writing and family with her work as a mental health counselor

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Take it away Kerry...

Creating characters is one of my favorite parts about writing. I love it when a reader tells me that I’ve managed to create a character who lives and breathes for them. And I do work hard at this, although I have to confess that they often seem to create themselves. Jesse, the protagonist in my Dream Wars novellas, for example, just rode onto the page on her motorcycle and started talking.

That said, there are a few things I pay attention to when I’m creating characters that help to bring them alive on the page.

1. Figure out their temperament style

Notice I didn’t say create a temperament, because my characters really do just kind of show up with the building blocks of personality in place. Just like babies. Did you ever notice that the little nippers are born with either a sweet disposition or a feisty one? Adventurous or timid? My characters are the same. That said, I think it’s important to understand them, so I usually keep an eye on where they fit according to the Meyer-Briggs Temperament Sorter. This is a system that originated with the great psychologist Carl Jung, and it’s well worth taking a little bit of time to get familiar with the basics. Here’s the Wikipedia link to get you started.

Basic questions to consider include: Is your character an introvert or an extrovert? Do they process the world around them through intuition or based solely on what they can taste, touch, hear, smell, and see? When they have to make decisions, is this based on a logical thought process or an emotional response? And how do they feel about the whole concept of making decisions? Do they like to keep all the doors wide open just in case, or do they fell better when they are locked and loaded on a particular action?

Taking the time to sort out these points helps keep your character consistent and true to him or herself.

2. Core Values

When I was working in crisis mental health, part of my job was to make quick, but accurate, assessments of how dangerous a suicidal or psychotic person might be to themselves or others. What I realized after I’d done this job for awhile is that we all have a core value system that we will only betray under extreme duress. If at the deepest center of your being lies a belief that it is your responsibility to be there for your children, no matter what the cost or the penalty, then you will put up with any amount of darkness and misery to do exactly that. If somebody whose value system included always keeping their promises, and they promised me that they would be safe if I let them go home, I was more inclined to trust that than a similar promise made by somebody who ran around breaking trust on a regular basis.

I find it helpful to know what these very core values are for my characters. One of the things that defines Vivian, the protagonist in my Between books, is the sense of herself as healer. Even when she is afraid, even when her inner dragon threatens to take control, this one thing always acts as compass and guide for her. It’s also an excellent tool for creating internal conflict. What if your character is being compelled to betray their core value system? What happens then?

3. Life Altering Events 

The third and last thing I look for with my characters is some sort of formative event. Everybody has one, I believe, a point in our lives where everything changes dramatically. I noticed this over and over as a counselor. Clients would talk about the event in almost mystical terms. I could hear the capital letters. “Before the Divorce. After the Accident.” So I look for an incident like this with each one of my characters. It gives me the window into their emotional world and what drives them. I write this scene for every important character. Sometimes it makes it into the finished work, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s an essential process for me that allows the character to become real on the page.

About Wakeworld

Vivian Maylor is trying to hold it together. But her attempts to build a life with the man she loves seem doomed by the dragon inside her yearning to break free. Vivian is a dreamshifter, the last line of defense between reality and the dreamworld, and the only one of her kind.

Weston Jennings also believes he is the only one of his kind. He fears his powers as a dreamshifter, and resists learning to control them. After suffering a tragic loss, Weston heads deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest to embrace a safe life of solitude. But when a terrible mistake leads to an innocent’s death, his guilt drives him to his former home, where he encounters what he never thought he would find: another shifter.

Now Vivian and Weston must work together to defeat a new threat to the dreamworld.


  1. I never thought of taking the Meyers-Briggs test for my characters. I think I will.

  2. Very good stuff! My characters are born in such a complete way that I can just put them in different places and watch what they do. The breakdown was really helpful and your background in psyche was interesting to get into :) Awesome reference for the next time I'm stuck.

  3. Great post! I'm always interested in how to better my characters. It is something I struggle with and it frustrates me to no end. I'm going to work through these 3 things with the characters in my current books. I have 1 MC that has a very obvious life altering event which is a catalyst for most of the novel, yet I haven't really pinned down her core values. A MC from another WIP has a definite set of core values but there is a part of her personality I can't quite figure out and
    I think a life altering event of some kind might be exactly what I need to know about her.

  4. Excellent blog. Just linked to it on my writing wikis. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for sharing. What a great post to help us with our characters.

  6. Ooh, forgot the Myers-Briggs!

    Thank you for this! I've never thought quite so specifically about my hero's core values.

  7. Awesome point. I loved the ideas for really deepening character development. Thanks so much.

  8. Excellent advice. Core values create amazing inner conflict. Some of my characters are so complete from the start, I could answer the Myers-Briggs questions for them accurately. :)

  9. Excellent post on character building!