Friday, May 13, 2016

How to Write Real, Rounded, and Memorable Characters

Revision time!

One of the best things about writing (and reading!) is good characters. It can also be one of the challenging parts of writing. Below are some ways to brainstorm and work with characters to get the most out of them on the page. I also do a lot of these exercises with my students in my creative writing classes, and we always end up with characters we can’t quite forget as a result.


Making lists. This is something I often do during first drafts, or even before starting a project. The idea is to keep the list going for longer than feels natural, at least 20-30 minutes straight. It is HARD to fill the time, but you can't stop. List every single attribute you can think of for the character. Everything. From the physical to lifestyle, to favorite color, food, childhood memories, fears, anything (*for a list of ideas to get you started, see end of post). The point is to keep listing and listing, and listing, even when you run out of things to write; that’s when some of the most unique attributes will surface. Characters will come to life, and become rounded and real on that list. Even if his/her favorite movie or the three mile a day treadmill run she hates or that time his dad threw away his favorite stuffed animal as a child never makes it into the book, the author knowing those details will inform the character and the writing. If they are rounded out/real in the author’s mind, it’s much likelier they’ll transmit to the page that way. Now you aren’t dealing with just a name on the page, but a real live person with likes, dislikes, a history, and a future beyond the book.

Pinterest board. I make a Pinterest inspiration board for each book I'm working on. Getting visual can really kick start the brain and get me in the mood and feel of the book. I pin any pictures that have anything to do at all with the book, even minor things from small scenes. For example, I may pin lots of beach pictures if that’s my setting, and even character inspiration for physical attributes, but I also may pin ice cream sundaes or outfit or hobby pictures that my character would like. The idea is to get in the character’s head and world.

The art of writing letters. I often write letters from or between my characters.  They can discuss things that are going on in the book, or things “behind the scenes” that never make it into the book. This “off the screen” communication will inform the characters a lot in the writer’s mind.

Similarly, the interview. Interviewing the characters can be a lot of fun and so very helpful. Have an “interview” sheet of questions. Have each character “fill it out” in their own voice/words. This will help distinguish them from each other. The characters that the author has spent time positioning and moving through dialogue and actions in the novel can now have a voice of their own outside of all that. Again, it’s a really fantastic way to make them feel like their own person/a real person, outside of being a book character, as well as a helpful way to keep multiple characters from sounding too similar.


Happy weekend, friends! And happy writing!

Xoxoxo, Jenn

*Some ideas to get you started with your character lists:

Start with details, these are easiest - physical description, lifestyle, job, favorites (food, color, memories, etc.) family, friends, religion, hobbies, education, perfume, clothing, bad habits, sensitivities, pet peeves, fears, how they take their coffee ... the list goes on and on.

Then you can go a little deeper:

History/Backstory - absolutely anything that happened to this character as a child, adult, etc.
Physical appearance
Dialogue (how do they speak and what does it reveal)
Actions (how do they act and what does it reveal)
Lifestyle
Race
Ethnicity
Age
Sexuality
Economic status
Ability/Disability
Relationships - Family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances
Ambition
Motivations
What does this character care about?
What does this character want?
Defects/flaws
What types of things do they do when no one is watching?
Innermost thoughts
Personality traits - selfish, caring, self conscious, proud, this list can go on and on.
What contradictions do they have?
Circumstances
Aspirations, hopes, dreams
How do other characters act around your character?
How do they react to your character?
How does your character treat others?

Okay, I'll stop there, this was supposed to be a footnote, and I got a little carried away. I could keep this list going forever, because once you get started, the possibilities are endless!

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