Friday, 27 January 2012


How do you get your character into focus?

How do you create a character? Do they spring forth from your imagination like Athena, fully formed from the forehead of Zeus? Do you start with one aspect, say “this character has a weakness for gambling” and let their tale unfold? Or are characters simply ciphers to drive your plot along?

I do not believe any character has ever arrived fully formed. Here are some of the techniques I use to develop characters:

o THE IMPORTANCE OF BACKGROUND: If you cannot see the world your story is set in how can you expect to convince others it is real? I am not just talking about science fiction, and building strange alien worlds, but any point in history or geography. For example, did you research what it was like to grow up in Liverpool in the 1950’s before you wrote about it? How different was that to your own childhood experience of growing up in San Francisco in the 1960’s? What aspects of your own childhood can you transfer to another place or time? How do the actions of the past affected the world of today? How does the present economic situation affect your character? How do they get the money they need to pay their bills? You may write pages and pages about this that never make it into your story, there is a saying in the army: “Time spent on reconnaissance is rarely wasted.” Time so spent will enable you to write with fluency and be believed by your readers.

o GIVE THEM A CV/RESUME: This may sound like I am gilding the lilly but the more you know about a characters life the easier it is for that character to make believable decisions. It can be as detailed or as vague as you want it to be, but we have all read stories where a characters behaviour seems more driven by the plot than by their own internal weather-that is because not enough work was done to anchor them in their reality. You can also use this timeline to sort out the chronology of your story. You dovetail the character life into the events of the story.

o LIKES/DISLIKES: What does your character like? Why do they like it? This may grow out of their back story, but are we formed simply by our environment? The old Nature v Nurture debate rears its head here and you as the author must decide where you stand on it. One thing I do early on when I am forming a character is look through some magazines and ask myself what would they like on this page? I then cut out those items, let’s say a wristwatch, shoes, a colour-whatever. I past these on to some paper-I have a book, then I ask myself what is the importance of those things to the character? I write down my thoughts. I also ask myself “if this person was a...” car/table/colour-whatever; what kind of car/table/colour would they be. I then try and describe them as that object.

o WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE: I know that some skilled authors exclusively use dialog to describe their characters. We build up a mental portrait of the person via the words they speak, Evelyn Waugh is an excellent example of this style. Most of us are not that skilled, at least I am not. I need to use words to paint a picture of my character-even in a graphic novel, where the real work is done by the artist. As I leaf through magazines looking for items they would like, I am also looking for their face, their shape, how they move. I am not saying that one photograph, or drawing will provide me with the complete character, usually they are a composite of a number of images.

o RELATIONSHIPS: Are you influenced by your family, by your friends, do you have different relationships with different people? I know I am, so is your character. I use an old technique I learnt as a social worker, genograms (for a more detailed description: Basically this is a diagram of the people involved, in a family, a situation and symbols are used to denote the relationships between them. You can use this to chart the development of your story, you could draw a genogram at the start, another half way through to map the changes in the story/relations. Also if you are stuck you can scribble a quick genogram to orientate yourself or to track what the characters would be doing at that point.

One last thing, outside of a Victorian melodrama, people have reasons for the actions they take, people think they are acting for the best of reasons, however terrible those actions are, it is just that their perspective on the world may not be yours or mine. The techniques I've outlined above can help you develop those reasons.

So how do you create your characters?


  1. Mine creep up on me. But it then takes a while befire I know them well enough to do them justice :-)

  2. FABULOUS post! Mine never come fully-formed. It takes lots and lots of drafting to really get them figured out.

    And I love the pictures!

  3. I think this is precisely why I haven't started writing a book yet. There is SO MUCH to consider when writing a book, like character development, correct facts about time and places, etc. It makes my head hurt! If I do decide to do it, coming back and looking at your list will be one of the first things I do!

  4. Kate: Mine do as well, sometimes though they need a hand.
    Peggy: Glad you like the photos, I agree, as I write I begin to know the character, but the background work I think, makes this possible.
    Kelley: Please do not be put off, the list is just one way of approaching writing there are lots of others.

  5. Characters never emerge fully-formed for me, either. They usually start as a single idea and then I'll build on that, connecting them to other things.

    Great post!

    1. We all have our own methods, I think it is interesting listening to authors describe their creative processes. I agree, characters need time to grow.