Writing Wednesday: Character

Fundamentally, the topic of the day is Getting to Know Your Protagonist, Getting to Know All About Her, but that was too long to fit on the subject line, so let’s just call it Character Development: Part I. (I’ll talk about developing side characters another day.)

The best advice I ever read on creation of one’s protagonist came from a Writer’s Digest article long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away: do not attempt to create Every Man. Every Man equals no man. The characters who call to people, who intrigue them, infuriate them, keep them reading are always highly specific. Don’t leave your character vague or generic in the hopes that that very vagueness will allow more people to relate. The key is specificity.

That specificity applies in multiple ways: experiential, emotional, physical, verbal.

1) Verbal:

Yep, we’re talking dialogue here. We’ll get into dialogue as an art in another post, but, for now, it’s time to think about what speech patterns can tell you about your protagonist. How does your character sound? What’s the cadence of her (or his) voice? Accent, diction, verbal tics? Does he speak in long, flowery sentences or short, terse ones? Do his external and internal monologues align? Does he say what he means or does he dissemble? Try to hear your character’s voice in your head. Sometimes, just listening to your character talk to you can tell you a great deal about that person. As an exercise, try free-writing monologues for your character. What does she have to say? And how does she say it?

2) Physical:

When I say physical, I’m not talking about the mole on your character’s left shoulder. (Although, hey, if it’s there….) What I mean are the traits that your character conveys physically, traits that reveal something about your protagonist’s personality. Does she hunch her shoulders? Is her walk bouncy, mincing, sure-footed? When she sits on a chair, does she drop down on it or seat herself more delicately? It’s a bit like method acting. You need to observe your character to figure out her means of movement. Sometimes, you might not have fully figured out yet what these specific traits convey. That’s okay. What you do need to know is that these are the specific ways in which your character interacts with the physical space that he or she occupies.

3) Emotional:

This is a clumsy way of getting at the heart of what makes character character. You and I, when placed in the same situation, will probably react to it in different ways. Thanks to a combination of innate character and experience, we’re each wired a certain way, no two of us the same. Your mission is to figure out what makes your character tick, primarily vis a vis how that character reacts to certain triggers. When insulted, would she fly off the handle? Take it with quiet dignity and then go cry? Give back as good as she got? Grin and say “thank you”? A good way to get at this as you get to know your character is to try to imagine him or her in various situations and try to figure out how that specific person would react. Another good exercise is to figure out how they might have reacted at different ages: would your character have responded the same way at eighteen as at twenty-eight?

4) Experiential:

I’m talking back-story here. You don’t have to know everything about your character’s back-story (often, I figure it out as I’m writing it), but you do need to know that it’s there. Are there major experiences that have shaped or scarred your character? Sometimes, the lack of experience can be as much of a character marker as a scarring experience: the sheltered or cloistered character, blithely unaware or arrogant, makes an excellent target for Harsh Life Experiences over the course of the plot.

As you may have noticed, I think of character development more as excavating than creating. Michelangelo used to say that in sculpting, he wasn’t creating the work so much as freeing it from its enveloping marble. I feel the same way about my main characters. They’re already people, full and entire in my head. Usually, when I start a book, they’re still mere acquaintances. As I write them, I get to know and understand them. (Which is why the first three chapters are usually the hardest for me.)

Don’t worry if you don’t know everything about your main characters the minute you start to write them. Sometimes they just need to reveal themselves to you as you go along. I’ve found that some characters are harder to get a handle on than others. (Ahem, Arabella from Mistletoe, ahem.) In those cases, I’ve found it helpful to free write: bits of dialogue, descriptions of the character, other characters talking about the character, straight-out exposition about the character’s back story (generally in the character’s viewpoint)… in short, anything that keeps me focused on and hammering away at what makes that person unique.


  1. Céline on May 30, 2012 at 9:34 am

    It seems that I discover my characters as i write too, because I find it very very hard to get to know them beforehand. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong… the characters reveal themselves as I write them, but I try to be faithful to them, even though they are not being cooperative and do not let me get them where I want them to go! But trying to see them in other situation is a very good advice, I’ll try it!
    Somebody told me once that one could also try and answer to a Proust Questionnaire as if one were one’s character… never tried it though!

  2. Julie H on May 30, 2012 at 10:59 am

    Thanks, Lauren. Now I have The King and I stuck in my head!

  3. Lauren on May 30, 2012 at 11:02 am

    In that case, my work here is done. : )

  4. Shannon M. Howell on May 31, 2012 at 10:25 am

    You’ve given me some ideas on how to whittle out some of the details of a few characters who aren’t behaving themselves. Perhaps you could say something on writing characters who act dichotomously (you know, like spies or something)? I’m thinking about characters who act very differently in different circumstances. Augustus & Emma, for instance.

    I’m having trouble with a snappish & harsh character who is reduced to the likeness of a frightened kitten in the presence of a particular person. I’m finding balancing the two rather difficult.

  5. Lauren on May 31, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Hmm, interesting point, Shannon. I guess my question would be, is there some underlying factor that unites the two behaviors, something innate to that person? For example, sometimes snappishness can be a sign of insecurity or perceived self-weakness that the character is trying to hide– and the sense that a particular person can see through those defenses might lead to the frightened kitten behavior. Is there something like that going on?

    The thing to beware of would be making a character behave in an uncharacteristic way for the sake of the plot.

  6. Shannon M. Howell on June 2, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Sort of. The particular individual who makes her “meak-out” is an abusive relative. She’d managed to get away from this person, but circumstances (ie. the thing that triggers the whole darned plot) pushed her right back under this person’s nose.

    So, she’d been all bristly but now is sort of off-foot since she’s regularly near this person. The problem is, she’s sort of mentally freaked out and in flux, which is making it REALLY challenging to write her.

    Probably, I need a couple beta readers to see if it’s coming off as mentally-erratic due to being freaked out (or as if I’m writing a character inconsistently).

    Next book, my characters are all going to be completely sane. 🙂

Leave a Comment