Discovering Characters

Sorry for the late post.  I got sidetracked and ended up writing a short story of sorts (more like a scene) in attempt to demonstrate today’s topic…

So anyways, today I’m going back to a topic that gets considered in the earlier stages of writing a novel: characters.

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(That was just me being lazy.)  One of the funnest things about writing a novel, for me, has been learning to characterize characters.  Creating them, too, I suppose, but it’s especially exciting to see them out there interacting with your other creations.  But oddly enough, I don’t actually want to talk about creating characters.  There are hundreds of articles and books on the subject and frankly, there’s not much more to it than “filling in the blanks”–creating a biography/history, motivations, desires…so on and so forth.

Unless it’s for minor characters, that’s all sketchy, whitewashing stuff .  And unless you are writing about a real-life person, you don’t really know who your major characters are until you see them talk the talk and walk the walk, not until you see them in the flesh (so to speak).  You can draft up all the little details you want on paper, but if it doesn’t feel natural when you employ them in your story, then your perspective of your characters is going to change.  You know how they say, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy?”  Well, I think this is similarly true with characters before you start writing and characters after you start writing.  A lot of times they will change on you and your understanding of who they are evolves.  That’s part of the fun (and agony) of the process.

Though, perhaps for you, understanding your characters isn’t such a tricky process.  Maybe all you have to do is create a list of attributes and qualities and you’re set to go.  This might work well for secondary and tertiary characters, but if that’s all you do for your main characters I have a feeling that’s just not gonna cut it.  Readers will look at them, see right through them, and oh, what do you know, there’s nothing left to see!  You can place your hope in engaging plot at this point…

Or you can get to know your characters better.

Getting Intimate with Your Major Characters

How well do you know your main characters?  I mean really.

I can’t tell you how many reincarnations of my protagonist I’ve encountered, though after all these years of laboring on her story (and still toiling with it) I could tell you the following: what kinds of things she thinks about at random moments throughout the day; what kind of undergarments she wears and how she refers to them not as undergarments but “underthings;” how she reacts to flattery and stressful situations, among other things; what kind of drink she orders from her local café each day between jobs; what kind of books she likes to read; what she thinks of each of her coworkers and her employer and also of various organizations and political members in her world… I could even tell you what she fantasizes about.

More information than you’ll ever need to know?  Of course it is, but the point is it’ll always be there for me to draw upon at any given notice, which means that writing about her is going to feel very natural to me and will hopefully come across that way to my readers.  If I can’t convince myself that this chick could be real, then there’s little hope for me convincing readers.

I think one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve ever received about developing characters is to just ask questions.  Ask lots of questions.  You’ll be amazed by what your muse comes up with.


I think there are a lot of ways to reveal character, so I’ll list some that I know of:

  • vocabulary and speech: if their choice of words suggest an abundance or lack or education or multi-lingual skills; a preference to say as much or as little as possible; if they talk rapidly in a constant stream of words or take their time, though this can depend on their mood, too; whether they use fragments, complete sentences, contractions, humor, idioms, pauses, a change of topic mid-sentence or interruption, cursing and swearing, etc.; if they ever misuse language or ideas, revealing ignorance; the use of slang or vernacular; if they have an accent–though this can be tricky to pull off and overdone…
  • body language cues: the kind of gestures and mannerisms they use to demonstrate their emotions and intentions–fidgeting, arm-hugging, shaking or flipping hair out of the face, foot-tapping, grimacing, eyelash-batting, huffing, puffing, pouting, putting their hands on their hips, etc.; if they smile or frown a lot; if they like to laugh, chuckle, sniff or just plain stare at folks…
  • actions and habits: if they tend to keep their distance from certain other characters or stand really close; whether they feel comfortable with touching others or prefer to keep to themselves; if they tend to act violently, aggressively, passive-aggressively, diplomatically, expressively, impulsively, etc.; how they react to other people and certain situations; how they reach their goals; whether they like to smoke, chew on stuff, bite their nails, set stuff on fire, etc. (I’m just saying), but some of this can go back to mannerisms, as well…
  • thoughts: if readers get to see or hear a lot or very little of their thoughts; what kind of things they think about and how (often) they think about them–in a positive, negative or neutral light; how their beliefs, upbringing, preferences and world view colors their thoughts…
  • emotion: if they show their emotions visually through facial expressions, tears, actions, etc. or remain unreadable; the kinds of emotions they are willing to reveal; what triggers them emotionally in the first place…
  • physical appearance: how they see themselves and how others see them, their physical attributes in general…

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples, but these are the ones I could come up with quickly.  In any case, there are lots of things you can consider when portraying your characters.

People may look fairly simple on the outside, but a lot of stuff happens inside the human brain, which eventually manifests itself in the physical realm.  Just watch people talk!  There’s so much that happens beyond the words they say.  You can show these kinds of things in between all the other stuff that goes on in the story, like plot exposition and dialogue–break/mix things up a little.  Of course, there’s always the possibility of going overboard with this stuff, but that goes for anything.  It’s always a matter of balance and necessity–what is necessary to tell your story and get your point across?

Show and Tell!

Okay, how about a little role-playing today!

We bloggers tend to write mostly about writing and other things of interest to us with good reason, I think), but it isn’t common to talk about our own work.  Perhaps this is because it can be considered narcissistic to do so, if done too often, or could become too revealing?  (We do want to save the good stuff for that published novel, after all!)

Well, today I want to know more about your favorite characters, though you don’t have to bare all and share their deepest, darkest, juiciest secrets.  Just tell me a little about them, what makes them special to you.

So I propose to you a challenge: Pick a major character, if not your protagonist, from your current WIP whom you feel you know well and answer the question below; any POV will do.  You could think of it as an interview, of sorts.  Maybe you’d like to even answer in the character’s voice.  That’s completely up to you.

All right, so here is the question:

Tell us one of your favorite character’s names, and list three (3) to five (5) things that you find interesting about him/her.

(I guess that isn’t really a question, though, is it?  Heh.)  Maybe it’s stuff that’ll never make it into the final story, though maybe it is.  Whatever you feel comfortable with sharing and is relevant to your story.  Hopefully what you share also reveals or hints at a little something about your story’s world, if there’s something unique about that.

It’s nice to play fair, so I’ll go first; I’ll even put it in my protagonist’s (Voi’s) voice:

  1. I drink sage tea every day to keep myself calm, though it admittedly doesn’t work very well and tastes horrible.  (All right, it’s true: I secretly always believed it could cure emelesia, though I suppose I was wrong there, too.)
  2. Sometimes I like to lie in the grass and watch airships float by–particularly the ones with ruching on their outer skins.  Those are pretty.
  3. And for the love of decency, yes: I still wear a corset.  I haven’t worked up the courage yet to be fitted for one of those new stylish brassieres–you know, the ones with separate cups.  (I can’t believe I’m telling you any of this!)  And besides, I haven’t the time.
  4. You may think it strange, but I do believe it is possible to receive a high just by breathing air alone.
  5. I like to fly my aeroplane at unsafe altitudes because I know no one–no one–will pass me snide looks and remarks or otherwise pester me at those unattainable heights.

6 thoughts on “Discovering Characters

  1. “Tell us one of your favorite character’s names, and list three (3) to five (5) things that you find interesting about him/her.”

    Now that’s a writing prompt, Tiyana! Hard to resist. I’m not sure I should get in character for this or not but let me tell you a little about my main character from my first novel.

    His name is Smooth Charles, it ain’t the name he was born with but it’s who he is now.

    He’s iconic. He’s a little bit of John Shaft, a little bit of Conan and a whole lot of cool.

    He’s the man. The man who is up for any challenge. If he’s worried or churning away inside, you’ll never see it on the outside. He’s in control.

    He’s got good instincts. He doesn’t know everything but he doesn’t need to in order to act. Intution guides him and it has kept him alive on the mean, mean streets of Seattle in 2052. He might do the right thing, he might do the wrong thing but he will do something.

    He won’t back down. He can handle himself and any situation he finds himself in. Anyone who tangles with him winds up with more than they bargined for. He’s not the toughest, he’s just tough enough.

    He has a code. He’s a violent man and he’s not a good man but he’s trustworthy. If he says he’ll do something, whether it’s run an errand for the mob or avenge his family’s death, it’s done. But he won’t flex on you, never puts his gun on anyone who isn’t in the Game. He lives up to his word and expects others to do the same.


    • So Smooth is definitely a man of action, eh? Sounds like he’s pretty confident in who he is, as well.

      Thanks for sharing, Mark! 🙂


  2. What I like to do, to help me develop my characterization, is to write a story about the character – but a story that won’t appear in my actual manuscript. Like you do, here, I often put it in first person, because that allows me to get inside the character’s head, even if the actual book/story I am working on is in third person.

    How long a story I write about my character will depend in part on how long the story the character is supposed to appear in will be. For a short story, my character exploration piece might only be a paragraph or two. For something longer, I might write up a whole page or two (single space).


    • I think that’s a great way to explore characters. It keeps you from wandering aimlessly through the first draft of a novel when you do start it–something I unfortunately did on my first attempts, lol (detailed here).

      I think you bring up a good point about the length of the story. I don’t write short stories out of habit, so I imagine it would make more sense to do less prepratory character exploration for those than you would for something longer.

      (When you first start writing a story, do you always start it off single-spaced? I know manuscripts are supposed to be double-spaced when you submit them, but I personally prefer the look of single-spaced pages when I start writing and also as I edit–which neans I’ll have to go back and re-format mine as double-spaced later on, of course. I just don’t like reading stuff double-spaced, and I wonder if anyone else is the same way.)


      • Yes, I write in single-space. For much the same reason. There’s so much white-space when you double-space that… it makes the words look like they’re swimming in a blank ocean, cast adrift, alone, forlorn, forgotten.

        Double-space is only any good if you’re expecting comments in the spaces and margins (or subtmitting to a market, professor, or what-have-you that asks for double-space). Published stuff is rarely if ever evidently double-spaced.

        Yeah, the length of the expected finished work is a big determiner of the amount of prep-work – including character development. I don’t do a lot of detailed world creation for a short piece. So I don’t do a lot of detailed character creation, either. But I want enough to know the feel of the character for myself and to communicate that to the reader. So I don’t need to know what my character’s deepest childhood fears were, where his/her first kiss was, or other details like that – unless they’re specifically relevant to the story I want to tell. If it’s not relevant, it’s not worth exploring. (You’ll want more detail for a longer work both because you’ll be spending more time with the character and need that character to capture reader interested for longer, and because the longer work means more details about your character will actually become relevant in the story.)

        This does sometimes mean that the writing and character development can be an iterative process. It’s happened that over the course of writing a story I discovered that new details about a character’s past were relevant, prompting me to go back and revise my original character exploration pieces with the some line or two about this newly relevant detail.


        • That happens a lot with me. I’ll randomly wake up at six in the morning like, “Oh, wow…that part of so-in-so’s character would make so much more sense if I changed/added this!” Haha.

          I love early morning/random epiphanies.


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