How Writers Build Their Characters

How do writers build their characters? Ideas for stories swing by very often in a writer's head. So do setting and dialogue. One of the hardest things I find about writing is developing my characters. No matter how gripping and original your story is, if your readers don't feel, or can't relate to your characters' plight/position, they cannot completely engage with your novel.
So how do writers build their characters?

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How writers build their characters

                                                                       image source

Writers build their characters from real life

Of course you won't write a character based entirely on someone you know - unless your story is non-fiction. However, 'stealing' something here and something else there can make up a very interesting character indeed. Use people you love and people you dislike for a good mixture of characters. Diverse characters encourage more real-life situations and interesting conflicts in your story. Make sure that originality stands out when building your character. 

How to write your character:

  • Example: you want to use your mum as the skeleton for one of your characters. Your mum is a great cook (which is fantastic for you) but in terms of a character, a mum who can cook is slightly boring. You may want your 'motherly' character to feed her family with TV meals. She may not cook meals, not because she can't, but because her dad used the cooker to punish her when she was naughty. The possibilities you can get from this are endless. A mum who can cook, is a mum who can cook. Period.

Writers build characters from using no extremes

Avoid using extreme characters. We see a lot of those on TV ads and dramas these days. Writers want to get away from traditional characters like the stay-at-home mum so they write their leading ladies as hard, masculine, career women who can't boil an egg without burning it. This is overdone and frankly, boring to say the least. 

How to write your character:

  • Example: if your characters are evil, they should have a touch of humanity. They may have a soft spot for a dog or are prepared to catch a spider and gently release it outside rather than stepping on it. This 'show' of gentleness serves not only to highlight their cruelty, but to flag the reader to the stay of humanity that's somehow buried deep inside your 'baddie.' Being kind to a spider does not make your bad a guy good. It makes him more evil by way of comparison. Your reader will bear in mind the gentleness he showed to the insect the next time he beats the face off his old girlfriend. This makes him complex and more scary. A bad guy doing only bad things is a one-dimensional thug.

Writers build characters from watching people

writing memorable female characters
Always pay attention to what people do. Does your daughter pull at her hair when she's lying to you? Does your boss go bright red when he gives a speech?   What about your local shopkeeper? Does he shower you with spit when he talks to you? All these attributes help you to write fewer words. They help you to show the story as opposed to telling it. For example, if you know what your character does when she's lying, you could make her do that instead of telling your reader she's lying. As long as you let them know once that she bit the skin off her lip when she lied, they will 'suss' her out the next time she's nibbling on her lip.

How to write your character

  • Write down certain things you see strangers do. Do you need to be told the woman at the supermarket this morning was an alcoholic? No. Likewise, show your reader the jaundiced woman with trembling hands, who had clinking bottles in the bag she clutched to her chest. Her oily hair and skinny legs and whiff of vodka are just extras to confirm your suspicions. 

Writers build their characters by feeling for them

Feel scared. How does your body react? Now write your character's scared episode. The eyes grew bigger, the heart beat faster, the palms felt moist, breath came in short spasms. It's a lot better to say this than just to report, 'Susan was scared of him.'
Having said this, remember that your characters are different from you. They will behave differently so you have to let them. Otherwise, they all will react in exactly the same way you would. Just know them inside out so you'll know that while Susan is a little like you and will freeze when scared, Jill will scream and take flight. 

How do you write your characters and what helps you to 'understand' them better? Character building can be quite difficult, so I've included some tools to help you below. Just give them a browse and see what you think.



Lisa Miles February 16, 2010 at 8:20 PM  

Great post!

myletterstoemily February 16, 2010 at 8:38 PM  

i learn SO much here.

thank you.

Anonymous February 16, 2010 at 8:49 PM  

Great post. I love to watch people, and I'm with you on the extremes (I find them unbelievable).

Anne Lyken-Garner February 16, 2010 at 10:16 PM  

Medeia, so many writers work very hard to get the balance right. But on occasion when you see the extremes in character sketching, the story becomes very difficult to relate to.

Raine Chasing February 16, 2010 at 11:18 PM  

Great information. Thanks. I need all the help I can get on creating my characters.

Anne Lyken-Garner February 17, 2010 at 8:34 AM  

Thanks, Noelle. And welcome to A Blogger's Books.

Anonymous February 18, 2010 at 11:33 AM  

Great tips on building characters! Weaving in real life experiences is my favorite part.

Jason Quinn February 22, 2010 at 2:48 PM  

Very good post this, Anne. With our characters, as we write them they kind of grow pretty much from a basic stock idea into a person as we add on the flesh of their personality. I've found that you often get to know more about your character from the incidentals that don't drive your story. Silly little bits like the guy taking the slices of tomato out of his sandwich, tells you more about the character and almost makes you identify with him, (if you don't like tomatoes that is). You know what I mean, we build our characters with those little bits of background detail. We have one fellow who gets a bit upset when he sees people haven't wiped their feet before going inside. It's those little touches that tell you what makes someone tick.

Anne Lyken-Garner February 22, 2010 at 7:09 PM  

Thanks for the visit, Icy and Jason. Jason, I've read some of your characters so it's a pleasure to have you comment on my post.

Anonymous March 10, 2010 at 8:13 PM  

What a great resource!

Beyond Wandering October 1, 2012 at 2:08 PM  

Still love reading this great post, Anne!

myletterstoemily October 13, 2012 at 5:41 PM  

great post! i hate it when a writer tells me about
his character rather than show me. you've given
me fodder to show mine.

thank you!

Anne's a published author, freelance writer and experienced editor. She's just signed her second publishing contract this year with 2 separate publishing houses. You can hire her or see her available books in the side panel on the right.
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