WT 2: Who Are Your Characters?

The best books I’ve read are ones in which the characters seem to be real people. Books that leave you feeling something about the characters you’ve read, long after you’ve finished the book. But what makes these fictional characters come to life and seem relatable?

Well, like real people, they can “walk and chew gum at the same time.” Think of real examples of people you know and think about what they do when they are talking. Are their hands in their pockets? Are they running their hands through their hair?

I’ve also heard that if all of your character’s voices sound the same, it’s not their voices, but the author’s. So how do you develop characters that are different from one another and possess the qualities you want them to have?

The best characterization tips I’ve learned are from a Community Ed Class I took with a retired literature professor, Dr. Ron Neuhaus. He shared a method of developing characters that has stuck with me.

Step 1: Write the process of doing something: baking cookies, painting a room, fixing something etc. Break this process down into simple steps that could be explained to a young child.

Step 2: After you have all of the steps listed, put your character in the process and do this with 3 different characters who have certain traits you want to exemplify. For example:

Does your character roughly measure the ingredients or precisely measure them? Is he/she impatient? Sloppy? Methodical? Do they let the cat sit on the counter and lick the bowl or is it a sterile, cold, granite countertop?

Step 3: Once you know who your characters are and what makes them tick, it is easier to gauge how they would respond to certain events in your story line and how they’d interact with other people.

EXAMPLE: Painting a bedroom

  • Take down all of existing pictures, shelves etc.
  • Fill in existing holes with putty & allow to dry
  • Sand down puttied holes so smooth to wall surface…

NOW: Add in character

Pouring herself another glass of Cabernet, she stood in the entrance and glanced about the bedroom, wondering if one bottle of wine would be enough.

The blank walls, once alive with pictures and memories, no longer showed any indication of the life they had created together. Now looking more like the later years of their marriage, there was a series of attempts to cover the holes and though they may have been puttied, they still existed.

Setting her glass aside, she picked up a wet rag and began to wipe down the surface of the walls with aggressive strokes so as to clear any particles of dust from the patchwork she had sanded earlier that morning.

Sometimes it helps to think of real people you’d like to build characters around. Think of their traits and how they interact with others.

To me, this is the fun part of writing! You can make your characters realistic and relatable or wild and eccentric and interesting…so fascinatingly different from anyone you’ve ever met that you can’t stop reading about them. Even if you’re not in the middle of a manuscript, you can think of characters and set them aside. As you write, some main characters and supporting characters will be planned and others will “pop up” as you’re writing, whether to guide or support your main character or to showcase a quality of your main character.

I hope this helps! Happy writing!