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Developing Characters

Saturday, January 14th, 2012


When developing characters for your stories, you need not only a physical description, and general background, but also habits, wants, memories, favorites and fears, Hopes and hatreds. There should be a reason for everything your character does in the story. The grown man who gulps down his food because he grew up the youngest in a family of nine children. The female engineer who’s afraid to voice her opinion, imagining her father telling her “nice girls don’t do that”.


Sometimes actual people can be used as a framework for your characters.   The operative word here is “framework”.


1. Take one or two characteristics from a real person. The way she snaps her fingers as she thinks. Or the way his smile lights up his face making him look boyish. Or maybe take her curly blond hair, or his smoky gray eyes. But don’t develop an entire character around a real person.


But you may argue, “My uncle is such a card; no one will believe he’s real.” Until, other members of your family start pointing out how much your such-and-such character reminds them of Uncle Joe. So, if you must have your character bray a laugh like Uncle Joe’s, make sure he looks nothing like him, or has enough other interesting habits to minimize the comparison.


2. Create combination characters. If you chose characteristics from people you know, create combination characters. How about combining your mother’s love of cooking, Cousin Thelma’s red curls, and Aunt Flora’s ability for snappy comments into one character.


This is also useful for the antagonists in your story. If you have the “bad guy” resemble a friend or family member, friction could develop between you and the real person. But if the evil-doer has your brother’s limp, a friend’s large hands, and cousin Adam’s constant sniffles, then they’re just characteristics, and can come from anywhere.


3. The good, the bad, and the humorous. Everyone has bad habits, even the hero and heroine. The antagonist should have some good habits or characteristics, too. A fully fleshed-out character has a good side, a bad side; a public persona and a private one. Miss “Goody-Two-Shoes” may turn into a witch and cast an evil spell or two in the privacy of her own dark cave. Mr. “Stay-Away-If-You-Value0-Your-Sanity” may be the best dad in the world to his motherless children.


And a bit of humor never hurt. The female student who swipes her favorite male teacher’s favorite pen, then finds a spreading spot of ink on her sweater when she meets him in the hall. (No one told her he used a real ink pen.) The young boy who hides a puppy in his room and it gets out and eats his father’s socks.


4. Individual history. If your character does something “out of character”, make sure there’s a reason in his background to explain it. The prominent businessman who steals candy because he never had enough money when he was young. The attractive female executive who doesn’t know how to talk to men because she was teased for being shy and clumsy all through school.     


You don’t need to put the reason right before the unusual action. It can be mentioned briefly at the beginning, or referred to during conversation. But, like a well-woven tapestry, that shows new details at every inspection, it should be there.


5. Forms and Profiles. There are many character profile forms out there. They should include: physical description, education, family history, former employment, travel experience, outlook on life, innermost hopes, favorite things, secret fears, habits, ambitions, and friends and family members. It can include important past incidents and secrets.        


How do you develop your characters? Do you use profile forms or simply write a brief “history” for each? Do you take characteristics from actual people or do you create them completely from fiction?  


Other articles of interest:

1. Janis Hubschman’s: Creating Characters at