Jan 31, 2007

Character Development

by Debbie Reeves

When a story starts to formulate in my mind, the characters speak to me first. Sound odd? Probably not if you’re a writer yourself.

Author Phyllis A. Whitney writes:

"One of the most common faults to be found in the beginning writer’s manuscript is that of poor characterization. Poorly drawn story people have names, they have eyes, hair, feet, hands; they are tall or short, thin or fat, and they talk and go through various motions. But they have about as much resemblance to living human beings as do cookie cutouts. Lacking life, they move the reader to no emotion and leave him uninvolved.”

One of the main characters (usually the heroine) starts to form: a personality, then a face appears and then the conflict. Once I have a vague knowledge of him or her, a story starts to evolve.

One of my first critique partners shared her CHARACTER PROFILE with me. At first, I thought it was a waste of time, but when one of my characters had blue eyes, which later switched to green, I tried her character profile.

By taking the time to fill out the Character Profile, (as you get to know your character), you will save you tons of work later. You may not use all of the information on the sheet, but you will get to know your characters intimately.

Do remember, though, that to create real characters, you need more than a description of them. You must care about them if you want your reader to care what happens to them.

When, Under a Lakota Moon (unpublished) came to me, I found a picture of a strong, Lakota brave which resembled what Lone Wolf looked like in my mind’s eye. I put the picture next to my computer to help bring him to life. By clipping out pictures of people who resemble your characters, you can create interesting descriptions.

If you’re still having problems getting to know your characters, have them keep a diary. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can find out what your character wants to tell you.

Sometimes your character can evolve only to change later. Examine the changes. Do the changes make a better character? Are they taking off in a direction you never thought of previously? Nothing is set in stone at this stage. You can easily change any inconsistencies in the re-write. Just make sure the changes make a better character.

Show, Don’t Tell. Many writers take the easy way out and like to tell how a character feels. This not only cheats the reader, but cheats the writer as well. The writer has a chance for the character to come to life in the reader’s mind. For example, Rosalynn, in Under a Lakota Moon, is afraid Lone Wolf will treat her like her ex-husband, Jeffery. I could say:

Rosalynn feared men because of the way Jeffery had treated her.


Rosalynn felt her stomach tighten and her heart race with fear when Lone Wolf came near.

The second sentence gives the reader a clearer understanding of what Rosalynn is feeling (therefore, who she is). The reader doesn’t have to guess, which may take them out of the story.

Secondary characters can be another useful tool in getting the reader to become compassionate about the main characters. Don’t add them to just fluff up the story. Secondary characters can be friends, family members, deceased, children, and even animals. To me, by adding secondary characters, it brings the feelings of the main characters to life by giving them more dimension.

Here’s the Character Profile:

Age: Shape of face:
Height: Weight: Skin tone:
Special physical characteristics:
Most attractive feature, according to him:.
Lives where: Occupation:
Clothing style: Work:
Play or relaxing:
Favorites: Color: Food:
Literature: Drives:
Leisure activities and hobbies:
Bad habits:
Father’s profession: Mothers:
Relationship with parents:
Brothers or sisters:
Happy or broken home:
Married: Spouse’s name:
Background and personality:
Career: Happy? Income:
Goals or plans for changes in life:
Unexpected changes and their effects:
Special gifts, talents, knacks, skills:
Good traits
Bad traits:
Friends: Male:
Attitude toward money:
Relationships with others:
Present and previous relationships with opposite sex:
Consequences of those relationships:
How does character relate to others:
Who was the most influential person in his life?
How does character view the hero/heroine at first?
How does character view each of the other characters in book? Why?
What is his worst characteristic and why and will reader agree:
Is character an introvert or extrovert and why:
What regrets does character have:
What are character’s vulnerabilities, and does he see them:
What are character’s prejudices, and does he see them:
How does character perceive himself? One sentence.
One word:
What does character want more than anything in this book?

Writer, Deborah Hale, (www.deborahhale.co) has an interesting “Character Flaw/Problem” sheet on her website. (PM me if you want a copy of it for your files). By using this method of character development, I was able to create believable characters with true to life flaws and problems in Wild, Irish Rose (unpublished).

Deborah Hale explains, “Figuring out your character’s problem will take you a long way with your story. It’s the basis for your character arc and internal conflict and quite possibly the Deep Dark moment, too.”

By using Deborah Hale’s Character Flaw/Problem Chart below, I was able to flesh out my main characters, Roisin and Blaise.

CHARACTER: Blaise Cameron

FLAW/PROBLEM: Learning to trust in God. Learning to rely on others and have faith.

CHARACTER TRAIT: Strong willed - used to getting his way.

ROOTS IN PAST: Lost his faith during the Civil War. Even before the war, he wasn’t as close to his family as he would have liked. His father in particular. He felt as if his father was more concerned with making the Cameron name a powerful name in California.

RECENT REINFORCEMENT: Roisin’s faith intrigues him. He starts to wonder what it would be like to be loved and show that emotion.

PREVENTS FORMATION OF LASTING RELATIONSHIP: His pride keeps him from trusting and giving in to his fears. When he finally is able to trust, he must keep his feelings secret to protect those he loves.

NEEDED CHANGE: Blaise needs to take a leap of faith and pray (make things right with God). He needs to trust his growing feelings for Roisin. He needs to learn that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness.

To make your characters more believable, they must have believable flaws. As a writer, you need to dig deep into the character’s back-story. You need to know what made them into the people they are today. Once the reader realizes your characters have human flaws and feelings, they can relate more to the story.

Some writers take a more scientific approach to creating believable characters by using astrogical signs. Others use the character’s back-story to create the personalities of their characters. Even in real life, our emotional baggage from our past makes us who we are now.

You need to know how they think about the rest of the characters. If you give your characters strong obsessions and fears, this will cause tension. As the story unfolds those fears, excreta, will change. If not, the story line may deteriorate. Your characters must grow and find new fears and conflict to move the story along.

In a romance novel, the main character flaws (or problems/conflict) must keep them from forming a lasting relationship. In my opinion, that can be either internal or external conflict, or both. By using the Character Flaw Sheet above, you can firmly identify the needed growth or change for the main characters to live happily ever after.

This above all; to thine own self be true.” Shakespeare

Shakespeare said it all in that one line when it comes to character development. You need to ask yourself: are your characters true to themselves? What, you may ask, does that mean? It simply means you can’t be your character. You can’t ask yourself, what would I do. How would I feel? You can’t have your character step out of character. You have to have them be true to themselves. In other words, they must react according to the way you created them. You can’t have this sweet, loving character all of a sudden murder out of spite. It would be out of character, unless that was part of the plot line.

Have you ever watched the T.V. program M.A.S.H.? The actor, Larry Linville, who played Frank Burnes, said he was often asked, “Why is your character so mean and spiteful? Why can’t you make him more caring?” He simply explained that he couldn’t change the character’s personality. In other words, he would have been out of character to play the part any other way.

I hope I haven’t ramble too much on character development. I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg. I hope that you have learned enough to get you started on your next project. Here are some helpful sites/books to get you started.

www.faithinfiction.blogspot.com (He has a great article on naming your characters).

Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham
How to Write Romances by Phyllis Taylor Pianka
Writing Romance by Vanessa Grant
The Writing Journal
Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon


  1. Deb,
    Thanks for all the info on character developement. I am working on expanding one novel and pumping up another. One of the things I am concerned with is making sure the characters are real. Your ideas will help.
    I was thinking about Roisin the other day. Have you submitted the manuscript anywhere? You truly have created real characters, and I hope they make it to print, so others can enjoy them.
    Terry Deighton

  2. Hi Terry,
    Phyllis A. Whitney wrote a book called, Guide to Fiction Writing. She has great advice on characters. I bought my copy on ebay.

    Nope, haven't submitted Wild Irish Rose yet. Cold feet, I guess. I'm also still working on the ending.


  3. I meant to mention that Ms. Whitney is still living. She'll be 104 this year! WOW!


  4. Debbie,

    I do appreciate your sharing this great information. I'm heading right to this posting the next time I have to do the Writer's spot at our ANWA meeting. Good stuff.

  5. Debbie,
    As I was reading about character development I immediately thought of one of works in progress. I discovered that my main character's problem was not finding the right wife, but falling out of love with his car so that he could find the right one. I know sounds crazy, but once I realized that, it makes the story so much more fun to write.
    Funnier still...is the fact that after I developed his character I met the real life one, and boy was I excitedly surprised to find someone real...just like my character!

  6. Betsy, you have me intrigued. LOL Sounds like a good 'blog' story (hint, hint) to me. hehehe



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