Thursday, June 24, 2010

Think Like Your Readers: How to Bring Characters to Life!

I have been working on a couple of manuscripts lately. Now these are stories I wrote about a year ago, but haven’t had the time to really sit down and do some revising. I’ve had my critique group look them over and give me feedback. I even submitted one of them to an editor’s critique at a SCBWI conference. But the one thing, which stood out to me after relooking at all the notes and the manuscripts themselves, is my character development.

Now, I’m not saying I don’t love my characters in both these manuscripts. I do, but they are not fleshed out as well as they should be which is leading to the other problems my critique group found and the editor from the SCBWI conference. So how do I fix this? Well today, I am going to share a little bit about how we can make our characters more lovable by our readers.

Many adults think children do not care about plot, setting, or a book full of suspense. Well they do, but only after the characters bring them into the story. Let us think about this for a moment—

Do you remember wanting to go on an adventure with Bilbo Baggins? Longing to escape into the wizarding world with Harry Potter? Or solving a mystery with Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys? These characters became your friends and you want your characters to befriend the children who read your books or stories, too.

So how do you do this? By looking for potential story characters in the world around you. All you need to do is open your eyes and you will see them walking to school, shopping in the mall, bike riding or skating down your street. You can also close your eyes and see them in your memory—the child you once were, the friends you remember from your childhood, the children and grandchildren you’ve watched grow-up. The point is you can draw from these potential characters to make your story life like.

Think about it, what makes a story so enjoyable? The characters . . . and the more believable characters are, the better the story. This means you just cannot write down in black and white a character. Just giving them a name, a place to live, a problem to solve, and a few challenges are not going to be enough. First, you have to know your character just like you get to know real people and you can do this in many ways. But today, I am going to share how I do this.

For me, I start with the physical traits. I need to have fat, plump, round, fleshy characters in my stories. I need to know how my character looks to understand how they feel, behave, or see themselves in their own flesh. One thing I learned from being a buyer in my former life is . . . if you want to be successful, you need to dress the part. Well the same thing goes for my characters. I need to dress them for their part in my story.

For example, let us say I am writing a book for teens and I decide to make my main character a girl. I want this girl to be someone who blends into the crowd. With this in mind, I decide to use a person from my past. I close my eyes, I see the person and here is what I come up with:

My character has blonde shoulder length straight hair. She wears it pulled back in a ponytail. Her eyes are small, close together and are dark midnight blue, with dark brown eyebrows that look perfectly plucked. She is average in height, a bit wide in the hips, and perfectly proportioned in the chest. Her lips are a bit dry and she wears braces with purple rubber bands. She has three earrings in the left ear and two in the right. She likes to wear tee shirts with ¾ length sleeves (Ringer), jeans with the hem slightly frayed, plain white tennis shoes and ankle socks.

From this description, you may think this person shops at Hot Topic, is a tomboy and maybe even a loner. The person I used was myself; I was an average student, I knew many people, but kept to myself outside of school, I was in then drama club, and yes I was a big time tomboy.

Now that I have a round, plump, fleshy character I need to give her a name. Picking a name can be one of the hardest things for any writer. I tend to look at names in a stereotypical way.

For example: My name happens to be Virginia Ann, which sounds very southern, but I was born and raised in California. I was named after my aunt, so my name has family history to it, however, I don’t feel my name fits me or who I am as a person. This is something you need to keep in mind when naming your characters. As parents, we cannot see who our children are going to be or what their personalities will be like when they grow-up. But we can see who our characters are and picking a name that fits or does not fit means a lot to a reader. So for this character I feel she needs a name that can be shortened into a nickname, like Samantha.

Finally, I need to make my character act and feel like a real teen. One way to do this is to ask her questions about herself. Here are few questions I like to ask my characters:

1. Do you get along with your parents?

2. Are both your parents living?

3. What subject do you like in school?

4. Who is your favorite teacher?

5. Worst teacher?

6. What sports to you like?

7. Can you play a musical instrument?

8. What do you hate?

9. What do you like?

10. Who’s your best friend(s)?

11. Like to eat and drink?

12. Favorite saying?

13. Movies, T.V. shows, and music you like?

14. What’s the worst thing that has happened to you?

15. The best?

16. What do you do for fun?

17. Any pets?

18. If you can have anything what would it be?

19. What would you change about yourself?

After I interview my characters as fully as possible, I then put them in a situation with each other. This may be a scene I end up using for my story, but mostly it is just an exercise to see how they relate to each other. Then I take each character and put them in a scene with a stranger on the street or at the mall. This gives me a better idea of how they talk, act, and feel about different environments.

As you develop your characters, trust them to let you know how they feel about a situation and use their dialogue, thoughts and actions to express their feelings. Believable characters act, think, feel and speak as “real people” do.


  1. Virginia, it's interesting to hear that you start with your character's physical appearances and that you often take aspects of people you know.

  2. I have a cheat sheet. When I wasn't using one, one of my characters started chapter one as Albert and in chapter 5 was Andrew. I did the same thing with the Mom. She was Rose and became Grace.
    I also record their physical characteristics, personality, hobbies, etc... My grandparents (in the book) have a loving relationship. They greet each other with a hug and kiss. They still hold hands. They've got pet names for each other.

    Their relationship & how they relate to each other deeply affects who my main character is. (I hate taking the time to do this, but it's helpful & very necessary) I draw a diagram of the houses in my book & the town or city.

    It keeps my details consistent. I can see in my head where my characters are. I really recommend it. I bet you'll hate taking the time from writing, but you'll be glad you did it.
    J. Aday Kennedy
    The Differently-Abled Writer
    Children's Book Author & Inspirational Spokesperson
    Klutzy Kantor & Marta Gargantuan Wings

  3. Yeah, a lot of writers I know start with a name and then build from there. Others with personality traits. I think because I worked in retail and marketing, physical traits come to me first, followed by personality, and lastly the name.

    Also, many of my characters are based of real people. Sometimes just one person, but most of the time a combination of two or more people. I do have a few characters based on me, but their books haven't been written yet.

  4. Virginia, I have a character chart that lets me interview my characters & flesh them out much like you do. I got this from I.C.L. I also picture the character before the name. You gave me a few more pointers on fleshing out my characters, though!