Sunday, August 16, 2009

Shaping Your Characters

As you write, keep in mind that your characters are people. They’re shaped by their experiences, just like we are. None of us popped out of a mold as we are today. And that shaping is a big part of who we are, what we believe, what we do, who we befriend, where we live, what we eat, who we trust or mistrust, what movies we prefer, and on and on.

To make your characters come alive on the page, you need to think of them as real people, shaped by their lives and their experiences.

If you accept that we are indeed shaped by our past and our experiences, then it holds that our surroundings, beliefs, friends, jobs, homes, and other things in our lives reflect those pasts and experiences.

And if you accept that your characters are people, then it holds true that the things you show about them in the book - their cars, jobs, friends, callings, propensity to get into trouble, mysteries, romances, and so on - are reflections of them.

So, rather than plunk your protagonist in a Mercedes, you have to stop and ask, would she drive such a car? Instead of putting a Monet on your antagonist’s wall, you should ask, would he even be an art enthusiast, or what kind of art would this psycho have on her living room wall to hide her safe filled with stolen money?

Look around your own office or bedroom or kitchen. Do the things there reflect you? Here’s a mermaid I have in my office. This was a present from a close friend, Terri Schexnayder. It was my first mermaid. I’ve since added two more. It clearly reflects my own past experience. Think of your protagonist. What most reflects her personality or problem? Have you included that in the book?
TweetIt from HubSpot


  1. Wise words! And let's not forget that a character's basic personality tyoe will add to the conflict and further shape him or her as a real person.

    L. Diane Wolfe “Spunk On A Stick”

  2. Great points. In creating the characters that fill my fiction I always write snippets of back story on each of them. Little slice of life vignettes that in small ways define the characters.

  3. I once had a worksheet for mapping out your character's finer nuances. I wish I still had that. It's probably online somewhere. It was great for these things.

  4. Totally agree, Diane. We can't forget personality.

    That's a good idea, Travis. Knowing back story, even if it will never be mentioned in the book, can help you see what defined that character.

    Stephanie, maybe you could create your own. (And share!)

  5. Good questions to ask, Helen. There have been books I've read where the characters act/react in completely unrealistic ways. Maybe that was the author's way of making the plot interesting, but all it really did was make the characters flat and, well, dull--because I couldn't accept them as people.

  6. I sure hope I have but I like adding the little details and wish I had more. I plan to keep that in mind for the next one!

  7. "It clearly reflects my own past experience."

    So, you used to be a mermaid? That's so cool. Should have figured it from your Twitter name. ;)

    You are so right - they need to be full blown characters, which means they have history, likes, dislikes, and little all those little idiosyncrasies that make them unique. I always develop a back story for my characters, even the minor ones.

    One thing I think a lot of people forget to do is develop a back story for their antagonist. What drives the bad guy to be like he is? I think that's very important too.

    I love your little mermaid. Cute.

  8. Great post! A story falls flat without well thought-out characters. I interview mine. Sometimes they surprise me.

    By the way, one of my protagonists drives a SLR McLaren Roadster. He wouldn't drive anything else. :)

  9. I've heard authors say they interview their characters. Do you have a particular list of questions you ask them, Laura?

    It's jarring to be reading a book and suddenly have a character act "uncharacteristically," isn't it? I agree Jack.

  10. I write biographies for my characters - their up-bringing, their schools, their families, etc. It helps me understand each of their personalities and how each would react in certain situations. Names are important. If I saddle the character with the wrong name I find them impossible to write. The biographies may play into the plot, they may not. But it certainly makes my people easier to understand.

  11. My characters grow from an organic mixture of one part the picture of their background that I bring into the story with the other part the reactions I need them to have with a certain situation. In other words, if they do something, I ask "why?" Then, if I don't have a reason, I'll try to make sure the action is indeed in character, and if it is I'll create a bit of their backstory and make sure it meshes with the idea I already had.

    John Allen

  12. As a firm believer in karma and reincarnation I suspect you were a mermaid in a past life and that has helped "shape" your character. lol

    Good points here, as usual. :)

    The Old Silly

  13. I hate it when I read books where characters do entirely unmotivated things, or act completely out of their character (not on purpose, of course).

    So thanks for the heads-up!

  14. I find it quite interesting that most of you create some kind of back story for your character, be it a full history or bits and pieces. I do that as well. I wonder if it's common with most authors.

  15. When I reread bits I've written I sometimes feel like the character's looking over my shoulder saying "Come on, you made that bit up." Then I know I have to change it, so I walk the dog. Gives the characters time to argue their own case.

  16. Great post! Another thing I like to remember is that shaping occurs during the course of the book, as events in the plot cause our characters to change. What they think/say/do early on may not be in character for them later.


  17. Very interesting thought. My main character has a red dress that she loves but never wears. Other than that... But I love to interpret what people are like from the things they love.

  18. What your characters hate is just as important as what they like and the reasons for their dislikes are often more deep-seated than the reasons for their likes.

  19. Excellent advice! I think it's also a good idea to allow the characters to come up with their own quirks. In the early years of my writing career, I over-did it with the character profiling and didn't allow them to grow and develop in the way a REAL person would. I controlled everything! In real life, we control very little, therefore, our characters shouldn't be able to control everything, either.

    It's great fun to toss a character into an unexpected situation and see how s/he reacts. It also tells us, and our readers, about their personality.

  20. Ahh, Mark! You took away my post for next Sunday. I was going to show a picture of liver. Kidding, of course. You've made an excellent point, thank you.

    Linda, it is fun when you get to know your characters so much that you know how they will react or they tell you what they would do.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...