Breathe Life Into Your Characters

Cheryl Wright

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As a novice writer, I was told I had two choices when writing fiction; my stories could be character driven or plot driven. No one ever told me they should be both.

I began to weave really strong plots; I put as much depth, and twists and turns as I possibly could. In the process I totally ignored my characters. After all, they weren’t important – the plot would carry the story. Right?


Characters are in essence, people. Just as we have our own personality, so do they. We have fears; they do too. Birthdays? Yep, sure do.

When I decide to write a piece of fiction, whether it’s a short story or novel, I delve deeply into the world of my characters. I spend a lot of time on this very important aspect of the story – anything up to a month for a novel. Seriously.

They tell me about themselves so that I can portray them in their true form. That’s because they know if I don’t understand them completely, I will try to make them do things they won’t want to do. As a result, they won’t be true to themselves.

When creating characters, have plenty of paper available; I normally get huge sheets – something similar to butcher’s paper is perfect. Or if you prefer, a large whiteboard will work just as well. But first things first; what is your story about? Your characters must fit the story – no matter what.

Think for a few minutes about the story you want to write. Is it a romance, or maybe a mystery? It could be a woman in jeopardy story, or love gone wrong. Perhaps it’s a case of mistaken identity. It might be a time travel or fantasy; whatever it is, building your character/s around the story is crucial.

Now that you have your story in mind, we’ll begin working on your character. We’re going to create one main protagonist (or lead character). I’m going to call him Charlie.

Start by listing some of Charlie’s personal details:

*Family (sisters/brothers/parents)
*Living (yes/no)
*Charlie’s Occupation

Now I want you to build on those details:

*If any family members are deceased, how did they die?
*If murdered, why, or how?

*Is Charlie’s occupation related to the story?
*In what way?

For instance, if Charlie’s father was murdered, Charlie might become a police officer. Or maybe he was very traumatised by the murder, so could go on to become a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Keep asking questions about Charlie:

*Does he socialise well?
*If not, why not?

*Is he aggressive in any way, or does he have a laid back personality?

*Is he helpful to others, or stand as a barrier?

*Does he like animals, or is he cruel to them?
*If the latter, ask why, and in what way?

*What is his biggest achievement in life?

*What is his greatest failure?

*If he found a drunk unconscious in an alley, what would he do?

*If he killed a pedestrian with his car, how would he react?
*Would he leave the scene of the accident or stay?
*Would he shrug it off, or would it plague him for the rest of his life?

*What is Charlie’s star sign?
*Does it relate to his personality in some way?

These sorts of questions may seem irrelevant, but will assist you in the pursuit of Charlie’s true character. You need to know absolutely everything there is to know about him.

If any of your questions remain unanswered, or don’t appear complete, ask more questions from the answers you’ve received.

For instance: “What is his occupation?” could bring up more questions than answers:

Let’s pretend Charlie is a detective, we could then ask what made him decide to join the police force. If the answer is the car-jacking and ultimate murder of a cousin, then you also have motivation. This in turn will result in more questions.

A lot of the answers you will discover about Charlie using this exercise may never be revealed to the reader of your novel, but they will help you – the author – to build a more realistic character. You will therefore write a more developed story; one that will be both character and plot driven.

Cheryl Wright is an award-winning Australian author and freelance journalist. In addition to an array of other projects, she is the owner of the website and the Writer to Writer monthly ezine for writers. She is also the author of a series of ebooks for writers. Her romantic suspense novel “Saving Emma” was released January 2005 by Whiskey Creek Press. Check out Cheryl’s website:


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