Thursday, August 26, 2021

A Layered Method for Creating Consistent Characters

By Ann Harth, @Annharth 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: A great character has more to them that just a few obvious traits. Ann Harth shares a layered approached to creating compelling characters readers will love.

Developing believable characters is one of the most important components of writing fiction. One technique for creating three-dimensional, consistent characters is to know them as well as you know yourself – even before you start writing.

If you struggle with creating characters, it may help to think of developing a character layer by layer. Here is one simple, 8-layer method for developing a realistic character.

Layer 1. Create a still image.

Start by creating a sketchy character file that includes only physical attributes. Have a clear picture of your character in mind:
  • Hair color, length and texture
  • Eye color, shape and size
  • Skin tone - fair, dark, clear, spotty, splotchy
  • Height and build

Layer 2. Create a moving audio image.

Stills are helpful to start, but imagining your character walking, running and moving can add another layer. Do they stride? Skip? Shuffle?

Adding a voice can also increase your knowledge of a character. This might be whispery or grating, or maybe they have a unique way of forming sentences or using language.

(Here’s more with 5 Questions to Turn a Character from Flat to Fabulous)

Layer 3. Give them one or more unique traits.

Ann Harth
What sets this character apart? What makes them memorable? Is their hair frizzy and completely out of control? Do their eyebrows meet in the middle? Maybe they have a tattoo of a wombat on their thigh. Is their voice unnaturally high? An interesting trait or two can give you a little more insight into your character and possibly spark some ideas for your plot. 

Layer 4. Name them.

You may have decided on a name even before your first visual, but often the traits and habits of a character can help.

Let’s put this into play.

We’ll call our character Lionel. He has long, wild, frizzy hair. Lionel is self-conscious about this, but is attached to it for some reason (there will be a back story here). He refuses to cut it. This means he spends much of his time gelling, brushing and trying to control his unruly mass.

(Here’s more with What's in a Name? Naming Your Characters)

Layer 5. Show Lionel in action. 

Set up a short scene that includes this character trait(s) and how it influences your character. This might be how he feels about his hair or how others react to it. This can also show us a bit more about Lionel’s personality. He might be shy and insecure, confident and cocky, or anything in between.

The scene setup:

One day Lionel is late for work and is trying to hide from Posy, the chatty, elderly woman next door. He hasn’t had time to manage his hair, so he grabs his brush and ponytail holders and walks to his car in a crouch, hiding behind the brick wall that separates their yards. His hair puffs up, out and over the wall and gives him away. Posy spots him.

The reveal:

How does Lionel respond to this? Does he stand politely for the next few minutes while Posy chats about the poodle next door who peed in her Begonias? Does he get red in the face and begin to sweat, causing further frizz in his hair? Maybe he’s rude. He barks at her or simply walks away. The way your character responds to Posy will give away a little more of his personality. This layer may help you begin to define his strengths, weaknesses and flaws.

Layer 6. Walk us through a usual day.

By now, Lionel is beginning to come to life, so let’s get to know him even better by imagining his daily routines. What time does he wake up? Does he live alone? What’s his house like? Is he a morning person or does he growl until he’s had his coffee? Does he work? If so, how does he get there? Does he like his job? Does he have friends? A pet? Follow him through one full weekday. You must be getting to know your character by now.

Once we know about his work, school, or lack of either, let us follow him through the weekend. This will tell you as much, if not more, about him than his weekdays. Is he sporty? A computer geek? A partier? Does he take his dog to obedience school? Play the trombone? Maybe he’s in training to swim across the Tasman Sea?

(Here’s more with 6 Steps to Creating a Great Character)

Layer 7. Dig into the past.

Once you’ve learned about your character in the present, delve into his background. Where did he grow up? Did he know money or was he a street kid? Are his parents still alive? Does he know who they are? What was his favorite thing to do as a child? A teenager?

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Get to Know Your Character)

Layer 8. Use your depth of knowledge to shape his character.

How does his background affect his outlook on life today? It’s not necessary to include everything you know about Lionel’s past in your writing; often it’s more subtle but stronger if you don’t. But if you know Lionel well enough and are aware of how he became who he is, he will be consistent in thought, word and deed.

Creating three-dimensional and consistent characters with rich personalities is important, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Getting to know your main players layer by layer may help.

Bernice Peppercorn’s imagination fills her mind and her notebooks with adventure and intrigue. She sees crimes where there are none and races to the local police station daily to fulfil her civic duty.

When a real robbery is committed in town, Bernice dives into detective mode and stumbles across vital clues that could help find the thieves. No one believes her except Ike, a one-legged fisherman who lives down at the wharf.

Bernice Takes a Plunge is an exciting and humorous adventure for middle grade readers.


  1. This is brilliant. I'll certainly be using this in the future.

  2. Yes, exploring a character's backstory is really helpful. Thanks for sharing these tips.