Creating Living, Breathing Characters

When asked what makes a story tick, Jack Canfield, co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, said he’s noticed a common tread. “More dialogue and more character development. It’s the way somebody is described, often in only a few words, that makes the character stand out.”

Here’s an example from The Travels of Jamie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor: “When it came to balkiness of disposition, there wasn’t scarcely anything to choose from between her and a mule. Not that she wasn’t sweet; I think probably her sweetest expressions were when she was having her bullheadedest notions.” In just two sentences we already know quite a lot about this character.

Author Rita Mae Brown compares creating characters to distilling liquor. She says we take bits and pieces of people and boil them down into a composite that becomes a character.

An exercise I give my students is I hand them each a card with a couple of sentences about a character I’ve stolen from books, television, history, or movies. By the time my students have written a page based on the few words on the cards, you’d never guess where I’d gotten the characters. So remember, part of writing is creative theft.

Once you conceive a character you have to flesh them out, and reveal them through action, dialogue, and conflict.This is where my 50 question Character Profile PDF comes in. A lot of the questions have to do with what the characters do and where they go, especially numbers 15 and 20 through 24. This is how they SHOW their personalities. Do they camp on their vacations or do they go to an amusement park?

Number 6 asks about their style of speech and their favorite expressions. This gives the reader an idea of the character’s background, education, age, and state of mind. Do they have a low self-esteem? Are they ex-hippies? Do they project themselves on other people? All this can be shown through dialogue.

The plot of the story can be taken from the answers to questions 29, 30 and 31. What does the character really want, and what gets in the way? The essence of character is their ability to care about something. The protagonist cares about their goal, and the antagonist cares about keeping the protagonist away from that goal. This is one way to build conflict in your story, and conflict in turn strengthens the plot.

Another way to provide conflict is to show how character react to each other—see question 38.

Answer these fifty questions for each of your main characters. When looking over the results of the profiles you need to carefully select the details to go in your story. What will cause action and reaction? Don’t try to use all the information from the profile or you’ll overwhelm your readers. But every answer to the questions is valuable because it will remind you who your character is.