Building Great Characters

The first duty of a writer is to create believable characters. There are no hard and fast rules but there are many approaches. Here are some options.

Details, revealing details, are essential. Behaviors set people apart. Names should be memorable. All these elements, as well as others, are woven together to create a personality that will stay in your reader’s mind even after the story is finished.

Characters should have a history. You may not have cause to reveal all of the history in your story but, in your mind, his or her life should be as concrete and real as your own.

What vegetables does he like? Where did she go to school? Did she want to be a cheerleader? What are his political opinions? Does he hate Rush Limbaugh? What is his medical history?

List or describe all the minute details you can about this character. Even if you never use all of them in the story, they will make your character real in your own mind. That is the first place he or she must be real.

Write a resume for your character. Include his or her friends, family, education, medical history, interests, hobbies, job skills, occupation, social class and attitudes about politics, money, death and divorce. This exercise may actually suggest situations and story lines.

Names are important in creating a character. Elspeth McKay is unforgettable. She is a character in Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body.

He said of her that

“she was as fair as highland heather,
and her heart was as bold
as a bright guinea of border gold,

It was she who established on Georgia soil
Wingate honor and Wingate toil
When John and his father’s neighbors stood
At sword’s point over a county feud.”

The description uses metaphor, action, attitude and emotion. She is memorable and her influence in the story continues.

Many threads are woven together to create your characters. Speech patterns are revealing.

How he talks must be consistent with his background. If he didn’t finish grammar school, don’t let him speak in grand prose. If he is a Ph.D., make sure he uses good English. You, the writer, must know enough about the character’s field of expertise to talk about it.

You might try this exercise: Create a character with the resume mentioned above. Now make him a cowboy and explore how he trains a horse. Then make him a financial expert and explore his dealings in the stock market.

Can you write a story about his high school prom? Or can you make him an old man facing death? What difference would it make if he were rich? Or poor?

Write on.

Gayle Haynes enjoys writing, reading, research. She writes short stories, Christian apologetics, poetry and history. She is venturing into publication, but she finds it slow going.