When creating a character, how in-depth do you delve into
their motives for doing what they do? How far should you?
Every writer brings their own degree of understanding of
the human psyche to their characters but do they convey
that knowledge on paper?
There are three points to consider when creating an life-like
How far can you go?
How far should you go?
Are you successfully portraying your character's
personality and motivations?
How far can you go is answered in part by your own
personal experiences and understanding. If you have a
difficult time understanding other people's motives then
it will be more difficult for you to explore characters
that feel or think differently than you do.
Consider: If you are in a
monogamous relationship, would you have an affair for any
reason? Why? Why not?
If infidelity is a concept you cannot imagine for
yourself, can you empathize with your cheating character
well enough to portray him/her accurately? Conversely, if
you find having an affair to be second nature, can you
write a faithful character without slipping into an
uptight, narrow-minded stereotype?
This is only one scenario. The possibilities are endless
for conflict between your own beliefs and your characters
(No, I'm not asking for personal accounts nor do I or the
other editors condone or encourage criminal activity.)
If you've ever cheated on a test at school could you
expand on your reasons and use them to understand why
your character might feel the need to cheat on their
business records or significant other? People cheat for a
variety of reasons. Fear of failure, fear of
disappointing a parent or mentor, fear of the trouble
they might get into if they fail: ie: criminal
prosecution should their company go bankrupt.
We all have needs that must be met for us to function in
life. These can be as simple as food, shelter and
clothing. The basics. Or they can be as complex as having
our feelings validated by those we love or consider
important. How our needs are met are different for each
person and should be different for each character you
How far should you go is determined in part by your
target audience and your own personal writing style. If
you're writing an action packed thriller, then the
antagonist's motives won't be as important as if you're
exploring the inner workings of Hannibal Lechter's mind
in Silence of the Lambs. Even within the same genre, in
this case, thrillers, there is a wide range of character
However, while most genres allow for a broad variety in
writing styles, the literary novel or short story relies
heavily on exploring the characters' inner thoughts and
motivations. External conflicts aren't as important as
the internal conflicts within your character's mind. For
the literary writer, understanding how and why your
character is going to react (or not react) is crucial.
While all genres depend on a well-told story with
characters that make sense to the reader, other genre
stories can be plot driven and still sell well and be
critically acclaimed. Literary is limited in that
characterization is the driving force behind the story.
So if you have difficulty in empathizing with other
people and their struggles, does that mean you shouldn't
write literary stories? No, but it does mean that it may
be more difficult for you. What you hope to accomplish
with your writing should help you decide if you want to
pursue this challenge or not. If you enjoy reading
stories that delve into the inner thoughts of the
characters and that is the style you've always dreamed of
emulating then don't let a lack of empathy deter you.
Like so many others before me, I am going to stress that
it is very important to read the genre you hope to write.
If you think you would enjoy writing fantasy, then read
it. If you want to be the next literary giant, then read
all the literary stories you can find the time to read.
Why? Because if you want to be published then you need to
have an idea if the story you're writing is going to fit
into your target market. If not, then will it fit into
another and has it been done before? Eventually you'll
finish the story and if you're going to seek publishing,
then you will need to know how to market your work. If
you write simply for the pleasure of it and you don't
intend to let anyone read your work, then write whatever
you want and have fun with it. Genres are a marketing
you successfully portraying your character's personality
How do you know if you are or not? The only way to find
out is to allow someone else to read your work and give
their opinion of what they've read. (That's an entirely
different article) Once you're allowed someone to do that
and they've said your characters need work, you're going
to have to take a close look at how you're portraying
Actions speak louder than words. You can say your
character is nervous all you want but if you put them in
the thick of the action and they successfully overcome
their problems without breaking a sweat, then you haven't
developed them well enough. This is where show vs tell
becomes critical to your story telling.
How do you bring out your character's traits without
telling the reader: Mary is a nervous person? Consider
the people you know. How do they portray nervousness?
Biting nails, fidgeting nervously with the strap on their
purse, rattling change in a pocket, or running a hand
over their head or through their hair? Some people will
nervously shred a stem of grass or pluck leaves from a
tree or shrub. Still others will tap their feet or clear
If you can't think of a way to portray your character's
unique personality, do a little people watching. If
you're looking for a way to show that your character is
actively looking for a sexual partner, go to a local
nightclub or if you need a more demure character,
consider a religious social. (Watch the stereotypes, some
people are blatant in any setting.) What do you see?
Flipping hair, licking lips, lingering stares, standing
closer than the social norm?
Showing a character's aggressive nature can be done in a
lot of subtle ways too. Don't forget dialogue. Aggression
can be shown in abusive or overly sophisticated language.
Physical posturing is important as well. Does the
character ask others to sit while he/she stands over the
other person? Do they only confront others in an office,
where they can sit behind a desk in a seat of power?
Think back on the bosses you've had. There is often a
wide range of power plays going on in the work force and
this is an excellent place to start observing that
dictator for your historical novel or futuristic science
fiction battle scene.
Phobias are also an important part of how a person
behaves. Everyone is afraid of something. Some people are
so terrified of certain things that their fear becomes a
phobia. Imagine your arachnophobic character reacting
normally to the presence of a huge spider in the room.
"Normally" in this instance would involve
screaming, running from the room and being unable to
continue a conversation until the thing that person fears
A character's deep-seated fears have the ability to
expose a little of his or her history and emotional make-up.
Introducing those fears into the plotline is also an
excellent tool for creating further tension in your story.
Don't forget your own family, both immediate and extended.
What sort of personalities do you see and what is it
about their behavior that makes you feel the way you do
Even an introverted person can watch and take mental
notes of how other people act. As a shy teen lacking in
social skills, I used to go watch other teens at my local
mall. While I didn't talk to any of them, I observed the
way they talked, walked and acted. I learned a lot about
flirting even though I'm not the type of person to play
many social games.
If you have a difficult sympathizing with other people
then you might find doing a bit of role-playing makes it
easier to write your characters. Put yourself in their
situation. Be warned though that this can limit your
characters to extended versions of yourself. You don't
want every character to react the way you would. You want
them to be as varied as the people you meet and talk to
far can you go?
Stretch your thinking power for this exercise. Examine
your characters and note the way they move, the way they
respond. Are there similarities between your characters?
What are you doing to dispel those similarities? Are you
using your abilities to portray their unique
far should you go?
Examine the story you want to tell and how important it
is to detail your character's little traits. Remember,
everybody acts differently under stress, so not all of
your characters will have the same reactions. Do a word-check
on the amount of times you use the words 'grin' and
'frown' and 'smile'. You'll be surprised how often they
show up. Break them down and give your character a unique
attribute. Don't forget to look at the little things they
do that can build suspense and tension to your story.
you successfully portraying your character's personality
A person's history and upbringing play a large part in
forming the person they will become. In fiction, however,
it is not vital to give the background of every single
character you introduce. Instead, you can give the reader
hints about the character's history in small portions
throughout the story. Sprinkle in the details, so the
reader gradually becomes aware of why the character is
behaving the way he is.
You may have to seek outside input to know if you are
succeeding in showing. But before you do that, you can
edit your work with the thought of how your characters
act, speak and think.
Copyright 2002 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved