Developing Characters

Fiction, biography, history, adventure stories – they all have one thing in common: they’re all about people. Too often, such works are simply variations on the seven-word biography:

he was born, grew up, and died.

Such writing merely offers readers lists – of facts, of dates, places, relationships, experiences and accomplishments, what I call laundry lists. Writing like this is dull. It doesn’t involve readers in the character’s life, because it doesn’t give readers the kind of inside information that allows them to get involved with the character. Laundry list writing doesn’t reveal the character’s inner person or tell what that person’s life was about. It doesn’t engage readers because it doesn’t provide the intimate information that brings the character to life, right off the page.

Readers live through your story by experiencing the events and dilemmas you present to your character. You want readers to experience the people you write about. For this to happen, you have to characterize your characters, whether they’re real or imagined.

There are three primary methods of characterization: description, action and dialogue.

DESCRIPTION is narrative that simply tells your reader something about your character:

Keith was a tall, unhappy man with short brown hair.

The words and actions of a character, particularly when enhanced by description, can tell your reader a lot about who that character is. Here is Keith in ACTION:

Keith shuffled into the kitchen, ducking instinctively as he came through the doorway. The dishes were piling up and the floor needed sweeping, but he couldn’t find a reason to care about that right now. He pulled a beer from the fridge and sat at the table without opening it.

From this passage we get an impression of Keith’s height from the fact that he needs to duck through the doorway. His unhappiness is hinted at by his shuffling and his apathetic reaction to his surroundings. In a similar way, DIALOGUE can characterize by letting the reader see the character relating to someone else:

Beth clicked on the light and jumped when she saw him slumped over the kitchen table. “Jeez, Keith, you scared me half to death. What the hell are you doing, sitting in here in the dark?” “I don’t know. Nothing.” He ran his hand over his head, spiking his short brown hair. “Did you go to work today?”
“You sick?”
“No.” Beth laid her purse on the table and sat down. “Now you’re really scaring me. Tell me what’s wrong.”

All three methods of characterization can be effective. How you use them, and in what combination, is a matter of your personal style and the needs of your story.

Characterization depends on creating word pictures of your characters. This is best done through showing the character, through his/her actions and speech, or through imaginative descriptions that create pictures in readers’ minds.

To create word pictures about your characters, you have to know them thoroughly. Do you know, for instance, your character’s job description? Where (s)he lives, the decor and furnishings? Favorite foods? Treasured possessions? Tastes in clothes, movies, music? How the character sees him/herself?

If you’re writing non-fiction, about a real person or persons, you may already know the answers to many of the above questions. But if you’re writing fiction, you’ll have to create this information. You’ll have to give birth to characters that are consistent, believable people with specific qualities and faults, with specific feelings and histories and needs and desires.

Your characters must seem like real human beings. They must be feeling, caring, striving, failing, winning, hurting. Above all, they must earn your readers’ respect. Readers have seen every imaginable plot, yet they have not learned how your character will handle adversity.

CREATING CHARACTERS Only stress reveals true character. Characters react to stress because of motivation. To ensure they act as you wish under pressure, you must construct their past to set up the desired reaction in the future.

Give them a biography, including a history. The more important the character, the more complete the biography. Print out this personal resume for each character and place it nearby. Include the character’s name, date and place of birth, physical description, age, address, occupation or primary endeavor, immediate relatives, friends and relationships with each. List every facet of their physical and emotional makeup. Build them from the inside out, including traits that set them apart and differentiate them from other characters.

In the history, list the dates and circumstances of pivotal events which have imprinted the character. Think action/reaction. Impact characters with a past event that explains why they react in a certain way to a present event. Not all past events need be revealed. However, as the author, you must know their history. Otherwise, you won’t know how and why your characters react as they must under pressure. If you take the above steps, you will end up with the intimate information that allows you to bring your characters to life.

The above article has been excerpted from the online class, Bringing Your Characters to Life, one of 17 classes offered by Patrika Vaughn, your Author’s AdvocateTM, on