Now There's A Character

Friday, December 31, 2010

Each time I start a new project or revisit an old one, I worry about my characters. Are they realistic enough for readers to invest time reading about them? Are they compelling? Will they meet readers’ expectations or will they jump off in a direction that makes the reader wonder what on earth got into them?

And sometimes, I just don’t know the man/woman well enough to write convincingly about him/her. In this instance, I’m forced to step back and do a character chart. If I’ve started the book already, I take time to read through the old stuff before I can get a handle on the story and pick up where I stopped writing.
In all my adventures with new characters, there are a few constants.

No Man is an Island

In the heat of storytelling, I sometimes forget that characters don’t exist in a vacuum. I might have one relative and a friend thrown in here and there, but the reality is that a variety of people cross our paths in a day. At work, I may interact with as many as two dozen people. At home, I’ll also speak with a few neighbours on my way in or out. While every interaction would be impossible to insert in a chapter, not to mention how boring that would be, I do believe little touches like these help establish what might be the norm for characters and may also hold clues that tie plot lines together.

Interpersonal relationships tell a lot about people. Do people see my character as kind, impatient or self-absorbed? How does my main character treat the people in his/her life? Many readers have been known to put off reading books because they couldn’t stand the MC. This isn’t the kind of character I want to create, so I have to provide situations involving other individuals that show the strength and individuality of the person I want them to spend hours reading about.


My earlier writings have little, if anything, to do with leisure time activities. Characters move from home to work, sort out problems, but they don’t do anything of note with their downtime. I might read, write, exercise at random, but my characters tend to be taken up with their problems, which is unhealthy, not to mention unrealistic. No matter the circumstances, I find a little time to watch television, read a bit here and there, or surf the net.

It should be the same for people I want readers to identify with. Again, the aim is not to overwhelm with tiny details, but to point to the fact that life does go on, despite whatever is happening around us. And who knows, characters have been known to have ‘startling revelations’ in the course of after hours activities – which reminds me of a YA character I created who was always dreaming. Nonetheless, her fantasies helped shape her reality when she took action to find her birth-mother.

Our hobbies also help define us. Someone who won’t miss a day of exercise can be seen as focused and disciplined. The same can be said of an individual who writes for an hour each day before or after working hours. A man who puts up his feet every day and watches television for hours might be a sports buff or a couch potato.

Consistent Mannerisms

This is an area of weakness for me. On the nth edit, I have to dedicate myself to sprinkling consistent actions throughout the story. We all have habits that identify us—whether it is twirling our hair, raising eyebrows, giving other people ‘the look’ or making snappy comebacks—and so should our characters. The more unique the habit, the better it defines our characters, and If it is truly part of their make up, should remain with them until the story is complete, or they give up the habit.

Problem Solving

One important thing that sets individuals apart is the way they handle problems. It might be one person’s approach to whine and moan about the unfairness of life and their situation, and do nothing. Another individual might be resourceful and tackle problems head-on. The characters who live on in my mind long after their story is finished are those who took action despite circumstances, discouragement, fear and major opposition.

Now you’ve read my list of must-haves, what are some of the things that make your characters more rounded?


  1. Excellent post! You have mentioned several things writers need to keep in mind when creating believable characters. Sometimes I "see" the character in his complete form but forget to let my reader know him as well as I do.l

  2. Hey Joy,
    Looking forward to following your blog.
    Your friend, Neugh (M.W.) Jörke ;)

  3. Thanks for stopping in, Catherine. I have the problem too of knowing things about the character that I don't always remember to tell the reader. Happy New Year when it comes!

  4. Neugh,

    Welcome! Nice to meet you. Thanks for coming by.

  5. Joy - you're always teaching me something new. I appreciate your wonderful insights into the craft of writing.


  6. I'm always glad to help, Jeanne. Happy New Year when it comes.

  7. Your posts are always so full of great ideas!

    I try to do character charts for my main characters before I start new projects, but I really ought to do them for the supporting characters as well. I try to come up with what the MCs have been occupied with during the weeks leading up to the story beginning; it doesn't always get written in the ms, but it helps me with the starting point. Like you said, mannerisms are so important to individuality of the characters, and it's fun coming up with quirky little bad habits for them. :)

  8. Tina,

    You have some great ideas yourself. Until certain scenarios come up during the novel, I don't even think about what the characters get up to before the beginning of the story. I'll be thinking about that short-term period though.

  9. Great list. It's aways difficult to keep the characters consistent and interesting and well rounded.

  10. Lynda,

    Sometimes I think getting characterization right is the hardest part of novel writing.

  11. Great list, Joy! Do you use a specific character outline sheet?

  12. I experiment a lot, but the latest one I've been using is a nifty one I found at this link.

    It has lots of details, some of which I find tedious, but I keep slogging on and it works for me. :)

  13. I really enjoyed this post. It was very thorough and it gives lots of ideas on how to make a charater real. I believe character is what gives way to plot. Good characterisation can lead to a great plot and an interesting story. I like to shed light on human nature through my stories, so realistic characters are very important.

  14. Julia,

    I agree with you. Once I have an interesting character, I usually can find a good plot for him/her. And it's important to make our characters as true to life as possible.


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