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Developing Realistic Characters
by Tina Morgan
Creating a believable, three-dimensional character requires you to know
them inside and out. If you don't know your characters then how can you
convey who they are to your readers?
Now, unless you have a natural ability to create phenomenal characters
at will, you are going to have to put some work into it.
When developing a story idea, the first step is to decide what type of
character you need to make the plot work. A romance novel will require a
different sort of hero from a war novel. Once you have your story idea
in mind, it's time to flesh out those characters.
One of the ways to do this is with a character interview. The first time
I heard this term I was very skeptical. Interview my character? 'But
he's not real! You've got to be kidding.'
No, my instructor wasn't kidding. She was very serious. A character
interview is a good way to develop a character. Before you start to do
the interview, answer a few questions about the character.
What does your character look like? Taste in
clothes, physical flaws, birthmarks, tattoos, etc.
How does she behave? Does she have pet expressions, gestures,
mannerisms? Is she quick to anger or does she withdraw from conflict?
How does your character speak? Writing
dialect can kill a good novel if it's too hard to follow, but this is
more than just accent. Does your character use flowery prose to describe
the simplest of things? Does he use a minimum of words?
How does your character interact with other
characters? Is he kind and giving? Does he allow himself to be walked on
or is he prickly and standoffish?
Once you've determined a few of these things, you can move on to the
interview. To demonstrate, the following is a writing exercise I did for
Sciencefictionwriters. (Many thanks to Mary Lacro, moderator, and
Bettina Lege, owner, for allowing me to reprint the exercise.)
Brief introduction to my character: Captain Danaar is 6'2", dark
shoulder length hair, dark brown eyes, beard and mustache neatly
trimmed. Athletic, excellent at hand to hand combat. Has magic
abilities. Doesn't know how to use them very well, but he can heal
wounds and kill with his magic. He works as Lord Michael's captain of
the guard; however, he's not happy about his lordship's bizarre behavior
The interview is done as if I were talking to the captain. This
character would never talk so intimately with someone he did not know.
However, for the purpose of exploring his personality more, I have to
overlook that trait.
I stop at Captain Danaar's table in the Firewalk Inn. The captain is
sipping a tall glass of ale. He frowns when I ask if I might trouble him
with a few questions. He motions for me to have a seat. He seems relaxed
but he reminds me of a predator lounging in the sun; ever alert and
ready to pounce.
1. Do you like
your job? Why or why not?
A muscle twitches in his jaw and he leans back in his chair. He crosses
his arms over his broad chest and stares at me. He's watching the other
patrons as well.
"It's what I do. Why do you ask?"
2. Do you have any
friends? Significant others?
"That's none of your business." Danaar crosses his right foot over his
left knee and pulls a long dagger from his boot.
3. What is your
idea of success?
"Surviving" He begins to clean his nails with the knife. His eyes are on
his work but his shoulders are tense. The questions are making him
4. What do you
"Stupid people" He raises his brown eyes to stare at me. His look is
dark and intimidating. There is no doubt which group of people he thinks
I belong to.
5. What do you do
in your spare time?
"Practice surviving." He turns the knife over slowly in his hand,
examining the blade.
6. What did you
have for breakfast?
He pauses, his brows drawn together. I get the impression he doesn't
remember. It's not important to him. "Meat. bread, whatever's handy."
7. Did you ever
have a pet? Describe it.
8. Do you believe
in luck? Why?
"I make my own luck." He tosses the knife into the air and catches the
blade by the point with his thumb and forefinger. His dark eyes sparkle.
He's practiced the parlor trick.
9. What is your
favorite scent? Why?
"The smell of hot metal when the smithy forges a fine sword." A flash of
white teeth show when he smiles. It's a rare site but one worth waiting
for. His face lights up. He's passionate about the subject of weapons.
10. What is the
strangest thing you have ever seen?
His eyes narrow and he flips his dagger into the edge of the table. For
several slow heartbeats, he stares at me. Leaning forward his voice
drops into a low whisper. "A perfect wolf print on the trail to Rahard
He sees the disbelief in my eyes and he leans away. The rapport between
us is broken.
11. What is the
most frightening thing that has ever happened to you?
He raises one eyebrow and I can see that the interview has ended. He
will not tolerate my doubting his words. He is certain of what he has
While doing this exercise, I left the questions exactly as Mary had
written them. You can do the interview between two characters. You can
change the questions, ask different questions, tailor them to fit your
plotline. What do you need to know about your character's personality?
Do you know how your character would handle a belittling experience?
This is a character I have worked with for a long time so I know who he
is. I know what happened in his childhood, what his talents are, who he
loves and who he hates. I know what his social standing is and what his
life goals are. And perhaps, most important of all, I understand his
sense of humor. Humor and the ability (or lack of) to laugh at oneself
can be one of the most telling traits about a person.
When you know all these things about your character, you don't have to
worry about writing something contradictory to your character's nature.
When you can picture your character as a living, breathing, larger than
life person, then you can make him/her jump off the page. The more real
a character is to you, the more real they will be to your readers.
© Copyright 2001 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved