Character is Everything

Friday, September 17, 2010

Stories are about characters - nothing more, nothing less, but it's who our characters are and how they deal with their circumstances that give readers something to chew on and digest.

The material I’ve been reading lately, through a study group, brought this home forcefully to me. Orson Scott Card (Characters and Viewpoint) advocates looking at characters based on a number of factors: motives, past, reputation, stereotypes, network, habits and patterns, talents and abilities, tastes and preferences and what they look like.

Noah Lukeman (The Plot Thickens) suggests that the writer finds out everything about their characters before they start writing. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

I do this by downloading character charts off the Internet. I did a pretty good job with the last one I completed for three female characters in the novel Distraction. This particular chart included everything from physical description to political and religious views.

Now after spending time filling in three pages for each character, one would think I’d use all this stuff. I didn’t. Not to say I would have used every little detail I wrote down, however, it struck me that my characters would have been a lot more rounded if I’d followed through on more of the character details. Whether I want to admit it or not, I can still make them more real by including additional traits and personal preferences.

In editing this particular novel, I had one character reflecting on what her mother—who lived overseas—would think if she knew her daughter was involved in an adulterous relationship. Further in the novel, the character again thought about her mother, who this time, was deceased. Then last night after re-reading some articles on characterization, I went back to the character chart and found that this same character mentioned above had a mother who was alive and well.


Yeah, this happened because I stopped following the ‘Project Bible’ I created for the novel. I’m a firm believer in outlining, and part of this process is creating character charts.  My troubles arise because I don’t always stay faithful and check in with the charts once I’m up to the eyeballs in writing.

It’s okay to try and retain all details if working on one story, but if you’re like me and work on several stories at once—writing and editing—the details can get a little hazy. But to come back to where I started out, I find that my most memorable characters are those I know the most about. The more history they have, the better. They emerge more richly drawn and have fascinating stories to tell.

Are you one of those writers who can track of personalities in your head or are your characters so complex that it pays to write their history down because there’s so much of it?


  1. I don't write things down so much. For me, they're quite real for me. I do write down some of the specifics though. Like the neighborhood where they live and their favorite restaurants.


  2. I did a myers briggs test for my main characters. I have a pretty clear picture of them in my head but writing things down really helps. I'm reading Lukeman's book now and I love his lists of questions you should ask your characters. Some are seemingly obscure (like 'when did you open your first bank account?') but those are the little details that bring a character to life. Even if you don't use but a small percentage of the details in your novel they are in the back of your head as you write. Great post, Joy! Cat

  3. Clarissa,

    Wish I had your memory. I write stuff down to avoid jumping back and forth looking for stuff. Thanks for stopping in.

  4. Cat,

    I usually skip over the interview questions for characters, but I came across one yesterday that had some really interesting ones that'll help me build my characters.

  5. I do a little of both -- write down stuff, and learn/make it up as I go along. I do try to know, in detail, the personal history of all my characters, major and minor. I think it lends a lot of authenticity to the character to have all that mapped out, whether or not the details appear in the novel itself.

    btw -- Orson Scott Card is one of my heroes. I loved his novel "Ender's Game"; and his book "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy" occupies a privileged position on my shelf. One of the best I've ever read on the craft.

  6. Hey, Rita,

    I do agree that whether or not everything gets used, the characters do ring truer (is that a word?) when they have some history.

    Card's suggestions for how to look at characters carries a lot of weight with me. Some of them are thing I never consciously thought about.

  7. Like you, I like to write the character and plot details down and sketch things out on paper before I type my first word of the story. I think it's actually kinda fun fleshing out the main characters, giving them hobbies, like and dislikes, etc. I even give mine bad habits, to keep from making them seem too 'great'. :P I need to probably do this with my lesser characters, as well.

  8. Tina,

    Yup, though it takes me a while to get to it, sketching theses characters make them oh, so real. I agree that secondary characters need a history too - some of them are so strong, they eventually demand their own stories. :)


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