Posted by: Matt Q. McGovern | July 19, 2011

Bringing your characters to life

If you were to ask any author how he or she develops characters, then continue to ask the same question to a bunch of authors, you will most likely find vastly different approaches.

True, there are bound to be some common themes, but the way an author brings his or her characters to life can be as unique as the author’s own personality and experiences.

Some authors blend the development of their characters with that of their story.  As they revise their stories and polish them, they do the same for their characters.

Another approach that I love hearing about is drawing up character sketches completely separate from the story writing itself.  This is a favorite approach by a number of authors I’ve spoken to; it’s no surprise that many of them are role-playing aficionados, where creating a character sheet is part of the game.

A typical character sketch would include the character’s basic traits.  Can they handle themselves in a fight?  If so, how?  Are they particularly strong, or not necessarily strong but fast if they had to run for their life?  What’s their social characteristics?  How do they look, and are they the life of a party or more introverted?  How about their mentality?  High IQ or just good common sense?  Book smart but maybe lacking in common sense?

Now the character sketch gets specific.  Here is where you list the individual skills and specialty know-how the character has.  Good with a computer?  Trained in martial arts, capable with a gun, good at music or dance, etc.

You’ll usually finish with something personal about the character.  What kind of person are they?  A good person, or  rather one that is perfect for your bad guys.  Do they want to be good but can’t be?  Examine their flaws.  Most great and lively characters have lots of flaws.  Nobody’s perfect.  What does the character do with those flaws?  Even good characters get themselves into trouble.

By this time, you should have let your imagination run around, and you’ve probably asked yourself questions about this character you didn’t have when you started.

Personally, my favorite exercise is to do a very informal variant of the above character sketch.  I write longhand in a journal about the story, with emphasis on the characters and what they want out of life.  There’s something about writing longhand (gotta have a good pen for this for speed) that lets your mind race ahead of what you’re writing on the page.  This is good because there are times you’ll answer questions you ask while your pen catches up to you.

After I’ve written enough about the characters, I’ll start outlining my story in the same way.  Questions come up about the story and where it might go.  Then I’ll begin writing on the computer.  But I continue to have my sessions with the longhand journal, because things change, and the characters become more alive.  Indeed, many of my characters have “become” themselves after I’ve written more of the story and I find out what they’re really like.  I’ve even changed their names if they’ve changed enough.

There’s definitely something to be said about telling the story and finding out about the characters as you go along.  One of my favorite quotes from an author (and several have made the same statement) is that “they keep writing because they can’t wait to find out what happens next”.

All of the best characters are those that you feel you know in real life.  That author probably knows them as such too.  I remember when the news came out that J.K. Rowling had said that Dumbledore was gay.  One of my friends asked me why she said that.  I replied, “Because he is.  Someone asked her, so she answered them.”  J.K. knows more about her characters than what we read in the stories.  And Dumbledore’s character was as real to me as if I had met him on the street and had a pint of butter beer with him.

A lasting impression of any character is made by his or her dialogue.  The conversations this character has with others needs to feel real.  Read the dialogue aloud, preferably in the voice you envision for the characters.  All of your characters are unique, so make them sound unique.

Regardless of your approach, bringing your characters to life is as important to the success of your work as is the story itself.


  1. There were several panels at the PhilCon over the last several years that were on my mind as I posted this. Of all the great topics that are covered every year at the PhilCon, this has always been my favorite.


  2. Terrific piece. It’s always been a challenge to differentiate my characters. I’ve felt more comfortable doing so when they are vastly different (socioeconomic levels, etc). Very helpful.


    • Thank you, and I agree that the more range you have between the characters gives you a boost. It’s like the characters want to tell you how unique they are.


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