Sunday, July 18, 2010


It is no easy task creating characters that readers and even I, the writer, can sympathize with.  To me, its like walking a tight rope.  Make characters too nice, and the reader finds them sappy and unrealistic.  Make them too angry or evil and the reader gets sick of them and roots for them to be taken down a peg.

The key, for me, has always been to assign my characters a real back story, even if the reader never has access to all of it.  In doing so, I give my characters real motivation.  This way, the reader can at least meet the character half way.  A perfect example of this happened recently when I was reading one of the newer as yet unpublished chapters of H&T.  I was reading aloud to my "ear editor" (the person that I read new chapters to for helpful commentary before I edit) and he was more than a little annoyed with Honor.  He said that she has mental problems and that she is not too smart.  Of course, she is my girl, my creation, and so I had to disagree.  I explained that indeed she is very bright, but that her past of poverty, of having to struggle and fight for everything, made her incredibly intolerant of certain social trespasses.  Additionally, she is aware of this weakness of hers, anger, and hopes to one day learn to control it.  (Hope I didn't spoil anything here.)

Character creation, I think, also depends on if the story is character driven, as opposed to story driven.  If character driven, you have got to absolutely know this character so that their actions and behaviors make sense and are believable.  If the story is driven by events, I think that this might, perhaps, give us more leeway as to how we make the characters react to what is happening to them.

In the past, I've found the book Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon very helpful in terms of getting the skeleton of my characters started.

Share any techniques that you may have that help you to create characters that you can live with.


  1. Writers seem to fall into two main camps (there are probably others, but these are the big ones): those who need to consciously work out the details of their characters, and those for whom the characters show up fully-formed with no particular effort required.

    I'm the second type of writer. My characters are as real as anyone else in my mind. They do what they do and job is to write it down. If I'm unsure about something in a character's past, I ask. If the character tells me, then all is well. A character who won't communicate is always a sign of trouble. I had to abandon the third book of a trilogy when my main character wouldn't work with me. He was angry that I had sent the love of his life away at the end of the second book, and the girl I had in mind for him in the third book was no appeasement. He wouldn't go along with any of my plans and I finally gave up. (Poor guy. I've always felt bad about this, but his dream girl really didn't like him that way, so what was I to do?)

    Being able to channel a character comes with a price. Most of us with effortless characters struggle with plot, whereas writers who rarely have problems coming up with a compelling plot are the ones who have to make a special effort to know their characters. I suspect that very few writers have it all come easy. It's simply a matter of understanding which gift you have and looking for ways to compensate for the weaknesses.

  2. Thanks Ann. Beautifully said.
    I agree with you on many points. In fact, a story of mine, recently published by NPR's Three Minute Fiction Contest came to me as a result of my asking, "Tell me about your beginning." He told me something marvelous. I knew what role I wanted Mars to fulfill in my book/story, but I needed to know why/how he would play that part.
    Usually, when I come up with a great idea, it begins with a seed of a story, and then as if by magic, my character falls into the situation. I can begin to write the character, but at some point, especially if the piece is long, I have to go back and give the character more flesh.
    I am the person many people quickly tire of because I challenge with the question "Why?" And I ask this of my characters too. And, like you, sometimes they refuse to tell me.
    Thanks for checking in Ann!

  3. Really? I've never created a character I haven't liked. Even Hank, Trevor's Dad, seems more tragic and sad than unlikeable. And someone who beats his wife with the Thanksgiving turkey is pretty unlikeable!

    The difference, I think, lies in how completely the character comes alive. Even a cool character who's sketchily drawn can come off as a jerk.

    Over the years, I've created my own question sheet about characters. I keep vowing to create a character building workshop I could deliver at conferences and things, using that as the base. Just gotta find the time...