Know Your Characters

If you are writing fiction, you must know your characters better than anyone else does. It’s helpful to get a good start on that before you plug them into the plot. Why? Because you can’t use them to their (and therefore your) best advantage if you don’t know everything there is to know about them ahead of time. Fiction writers know a good story isn’t just about a character. It’s not even about a character doing things. A good story requires a flawed character who wants something, goes after it, and is prevented from reaching their goals by other characters, circumstances, situations, or even their own weaknesses. In order to set up those conflicts, it’s important to know what your character brings to the story in the first place.

But it goes beyond that, too. Having a clear understanding of their personalities and quirks allows you to write clear, three-dimensional, believable characters. It also helps to know what they look like so they don’t have black hair on page one and red hair on page 75 (artificial hair dyes notwithstanding).

Here are the seven specific particulars I use to flesh out my protagonist, antagonist, and most of the supporting players. I’m a Scrivener fan, so the details listed below are mostly included in that software’s built-in character profile, though I’ve added a few of my own.

1. Physical description. Close your eyes, step back from your character and try to see them as if they stood in front of you. What do you see? How old are they? If you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, are they human or another race? Describe their facial features. Blue eyes? Green? Yellow? What shape are the eyes? Look at their nose (if they have one). Is it short? Long? Wide? Narrow? Pert? Broken? Other details affect facial shape. Consider cheekbones, jaw and chin shape, brows, scars, beard, mustache or other facial hair.

Move on past the face. Look at height, weight, skin color and texture, hair color and length. Look for distinguishing marks. If your character is a warrior, do they still have all their limbs and appendages? If not, have they implemented replacement devices, or do they move with assistance of wheelchair/cane/staff?

Think about other physical details. Are they sighted or blind or somewhere in-between? Are they hearing or Deaf? What language do they speak? Are they gendered? What kinds of clothes do they wear (if any)? Shoes?

All these details will (or should) color this character’s role and behavior in the story, so it’s helpful to know them before you write a single word in their name.

2. Personality. This part of your character’s description will be colored by all the other aspects, and may evolve as you write, based on what happens to them in the narrative. Still, it’s a good idea to have a starting point for understanding. A character’s personality could define what they want in the first place, as well as how they will respond to the antagonistic forces that stand in their way. For example, a selfish young rebel will have a very different reaction to adversarial confrontation than would an older pacifist.

This is the part of your character that will direct their actions, behavior, speech, relationships. It will likely also influence how your reader feels about this person.

3. Background. A character can’t help but be flavored by their background. That may or may not be the sum total of why they are the way they are, but it is often where the seeds for later character development are set. And the outcomes are not always predictable, so there’s no need to fall back on tired tropes. If a person is raised in a household or culture where religious devotion and ceremony is essential, that character’s later development could range anywhere from atheist or agnostic (because they are unconvinced by the teachings of their parent/s or religious figures) to fanatic (because they believe it so completely that for them, there is no other correct way to live). Throw in a chemical imbalance in the brain or the possibility of some sort of trauma related to that religion in their history and you could have a serial killer. As long as the connections make sense, knowing the character’s background—why they are the way they are—will make your characters feel more authentic.

4. Quirks. Everybody has them. Perhaps they whistle. Or tap their foot when they’re nervous. Maybe they lick their lips to the point of distraction, bite their nails, chew the ends of their hair. I used to have a beloved teacher in college who carried what he called “feelies” in his pocket—anything from a textured stone to a melted blob of solder, as long as it had an interesting surface, he would carry it. During his lectures, his hands were always in his pockets, holding one or another of those little tokens. He said it helped him focus, and he had quite the collection. Adding these kinds of detail to your characters is like another layer of realism, as long as you don’t overdo it. You can have too much of a good thing.

5. Fears. Unless your character is psychopathic, they have at least one fear. Give them neuroses and they might have many. Don’t just list the character’s fears, though. Give them a reason to fear. Is she afraid of dogs because her sister was attacked by one when they were very young? Is he afraid of spiders because he climbed into a tree and stumbled into a spider web where the critter landed smack in the middle of his face and he fell out of the tree? (This is something I might do.)

Some fears (like spiders) are pretty common, with numerous psychological theories for why this is so. A fear of great heights might work like that, or a fear of loud noises. As long as you know why your character is afraid, it should sound realistic in the storyline.

6. Flaws. It’s pretty safe to say nobody is perfect. Flawed characters are far more believable, more human (even if they’re not human), more relatable, which is what you want. If your readers can’t connect to the characters in your story, they will have no incentive to read it. Besides, character flaws are often directly responsible for at least some of their difficulties in the plot. Defining the flaws ahead of time will allow you to use them to further conflict in your storyline.

7. Secrets. I know exactly one person who says she doesn’t keep secrets. Even if that’s true, it’s not the norm. Most of us have secrets, both big and small. Sometimes these are tied into our fears. Giving your character secrets makes them vulnerable, but it also gives them reason to grow and evolve in the story. Even if the secret shocks us or changes how we feel about the character, it isn’t just the secret itself that defines them It’s also how they react to the secret being discovered, or how hard they might work to keep it hidden and why.

Creating real, three-dimensional, relatable characters takes effort, work that’s best done before you begin your tale. Even so, there is on occasion, the need to create a new one (or more) halfway through a draft. (Don’t deny it…I know you’ve done this.) Whenever this happens, I always stop everything and create the character fully before moving on. Sometimes that necessitates going back and adding some foreshadowing in previous chapters, but not always.

The point is that it’s worth every bit of time. Don’t shirk here. The rest of your story rests on the shoulders of your characters. If they aren’t strong enough to support it, the whole thing could collapse.

How do you create your characters?

Image courtesy of Pixabay.