Creating believable and compelling characters is essential to much creative writing, from books and short stories, to biographies and poetry. The following exercises will help you create and develop your characters.
Create a character profile,
a list of a character’s basic information: name, age, nationality, religion, place of residence, place of origin, occupation, nicknames, etc. Such information is simple but can have important consequences. Here are prompts you can use to flesh out your character.
- Physical Details: Readers want to be able to imagine a character. Consider your characters using all of your senses. What does the character look like? And how does the character sound? Voice can help reveal personality. For example, the dialogue for a high-strung character might be written with long, breathless sentences, the words and phrases running together. Consider other sounds as well: how would your character’s shoes sound as she walks down a hallway? Does your character wheeze or cough or sigh or have a distinctive laugh? Consider the sense of smell as well. Does your character smell of cigarette smoke? Or perhaps lavender soap or a heavy cologne? You can also invoke the sense of touch—silky hair, rough skin.
- Physical environment: Where does your character live, work, and play? Does your character fit in to the setting or stand out? The setting can help move the story along and define the character. A character living in Idaho who’s from the Caribbean creates an interesting dynamic.
- Other characters: Who does the character associate with? These other characters can serve as points of comparison or contrast. Seeing your character from someone else’s perspective can be revealing. For example, how did the character’s elementary school teachers feel about him or her? Was the character shy? Smart? Well-mannered? Family is especially important because everyone is influenced by family—their values, beliefs, and habits, and the way they interact with one another.
- Activities or daily routines: How does your character spend time? The narrative must weave around the character’s schedule, so it’s good to examine it. Extraordinary activities or hobbies can also play a role.
- Virtues and vices: What are your character’s strengths and weaknesses? Virtues such as courage or honesty may help the character overcome hardship in the narrative. Likewise, a tendency to drink or swear or shop compulsively may be crucial to the plot. Even if these virtues and vices don’t appear directly in what you’re writing, they help define your character and his or her motivation.
- Pet peeves: What annoys your character? What gets under this person’s skin?
- Fears: What is your character afraid of? Fears provide information about a character’s psyche as well as events that may have occurred in the past.
- Motivation: What does your character want? Understanding what drives your character is crucial to seeing how your story will develop.
Types of Characters
- Protagonist: The central character of the story and the person we identify with. A story may have more than one protagonist.
- Antagonists: The characters aligned against the central character. They can be internal or external.
- Flat characters: Extra characters whose purpose is to highlight what the protagonist is experiencing. They typically don’t change in the course of the work.
- Round characters: These characters are complex and three-dimensional; they are included to help the reader understand the scene in a way that advances the action.
- Stock characters: Characters who are so obvious and predictable that their roles and personalities are clichés. Don’t rely too heavily on these characters or you work will seem lifeless.
Each character trait and detail you develop when you create a character reveals a different part of the character’s appearance or personality. Rather than describing your character directly, use some of the information from the character profile to introduce your character to readers in an engaging way.
Ex. 1 Stating Traits Directly. The man was a dentist, a little pretentious, lived with his family, and liked order.
Ex. 2 Showing Traits through Detail. He began each day by squeezing out a strip of toothpaste exactly the diameter and length of his toothbrush. After 5 minutes of vigorous brushing and a 30-second swish of minty mouthwash, he was ready to descend to the kitchen for breakfast with his family.
The second example is a more effective and interesting way to develop the man’s character. It also lets readers experience his personality themselves and form their own ideas. Readers who are invited to do that usually feel like they know the characters better than readers who are told what to think.
Your protagonist should change over the course of your story. Asking the following questions can help you determine how your characters develop as the story progresses.
- What is this character’s personality at the beginning of the story?
- What are the character’s strengths and weaknesses?
- How would other characters describe this person’s strengths and weaknesses?
- What does the central conflict of the story force this person to do?
- How do the forced actions conflict with this person’s original personality?
Remember that some characters change a lot and some only change a little. Most characters stay the same in their essence. For instance, even though a character may learn to conquer a fear, he or she may still be quiet and unassuming at the end of the narrative.
Making Characters Memorable
Readers need to feel something about your characters—curiosity, sympathy, animosity—anything but indifference. The best characters are ordinary people with exceptional qualities who do extraordinary things. If your character is bossy and stubborn, show that. If your character is timid and kind, show that.
Readers should also be able to readily identify characters other than the main ones. It’s helpful to pick two or three adjectives or traits to identify a character with—especially when you have a large cast of characters.
Ex. Draco Malfoy – pointed face, blond hair, sneering. His dialogue is constantly described as “drawling.”
Ex. Rubeus Hagrid – giant, bearded, carries a pink umbrella. Hagrid is also immediately distinguishable by the way he talks: “Blimey, Harry, didn’ yeh ever wonder where yer mom and dad learned it all?”
It’s helpful if the physical traits repeatedly associated with a character are indicative of their personality. In the Harry Potter series, Aunt Petunia has a long neck “useful for peering over the fence to spy on neighbors.” This trait makes her easy to imagine but also reveals something about her personality. Characters can also be personified by an object such as an-ever present guitar or state-of-the-art cell phone.
Characters are essential to a story. Readers occasionally remember a quote or two. They rarely remember plot details, themes, or symbols. But they will readily remember characters; make sure yours are people who will come to life for your readers.
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