Four Methods to Help Create and Develop Your Characters

J.J. WhiteJJ White has penned five novels and over two hundred short stories. He has had articles and stories published in several anthologies and magazines including, Wordsmith, The Homestead Review, The Seven Hills Review and The Grey Sparrow Journal. His story, “The Nine Hole League”, will soon be published in the Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Volume 14. He has won awards and honors from the Alabama Writers Conclave, Writers-Editors International, Maryland Writers Association, The Royal Palm Literary Awards, Professional Writers of Prescott, and Writer’s Digest.

JJ was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize for his short piece in The Grey Sparrow Journal. He enjoys writing, surfing, golf and tennis. He lives in Merritt Island, Florida with his understanding wife, editor, and typist, Pamela.

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Authors usually have a good idea of what their characters look and act like. In most cases, their protagonist turns out to be a clone of themselves, though not necessarily a physical clone. Still, if you’re like most writers, your life is not all that interesting and so it’s necessary to embellish your character, perhaps with a superb mind, body, and wallet. So how do you come up with an interesting, character that readers will like and root for throughout the book? Here are four methods I use to help create and develop my characters. These are my personal favorites, but there are many others out there and you may even come up with a few of your own.

1)  Interrogate your characters. Ask them questions to find out who and what they are. Not the usual questions about race, height, weight, gender, hair color, etc., but hard-hitting personal questions that delve into their psyche. Close your eyes and put your characters in an uncomfortable chair with bright hot lights beating down on them. They’ll tell you their deepest secrets and fears. If that doesn’t work, Waterboard them. Here’s a few examples:

  • Have you ever cheated on your spouse? Did you feel guilty? Would you do it again?
  • What do you want more than anything else in the world?
  • Tell me something about you that you’ve never told anyone before?
  • Who did you like most, your mother or your father? Why?
  • Have you ever committed a major crime? What was it?
  • What frightens you?
  • Which one of these motivates you the most? Money. Justice. Revenge. Fame.
  • Do you stop and help others in need?
  • What is your opinion of the homeless?
  • Do you believe other races are inferior to yours? Why?
  • Do you like children?
  • Do you like pets?
  • Which one of these is most important to you: God, Country, Family, Self.
  • What makes you sad?

2) Describe your character creatively in your narrative. Don’t write; He was tall with broad shoulders, narrow hips, great abs, long blonde hair, green eyes, and a great smile.  If you do that you’ll lose your reader before Act 1. Use your imagination or better yet, let the reader use theirs. Here’s an example of a more creative way to describe that same character: He was NBA tall and comfortable without a shirt on anywhere other than church. Girls usually flinched at his long blonde hair but relaxed when he smiled at them with green eyes. This gives the readers a chance to use their imagination to determine what he looks like. And don’t use the old trick where the characters describe themselves by looking in a mirror. This tells an agent or publisher that you’re either a novice writer or just lazy.

3) Use dialogue to develop character. What type of character do you envision when you hear the following dialogue? “Listen, Doll. You and me—a flicker—then chow. Let’s make it a night.” Kind of a tough guy, right?  A crude customer? Maybe a little dangerous?  This gives you a pretty good idea of what he looks and acts like with just simple dialogue. Here’s another example? “Shall we give the cinema a go, love? Say, Fellini at the Grand?  Then to Jacques for a lovely sole and a carafe of white.” Dignified, right? British, rich and Prodigious Savantrefined. Many times dialogue alone can give the reader a great deal of information about the characters without author intrusion or those interminable data dumps so prevalent now in contemporary fiction.

4) Use first and last names. You can define your character by either using their first name or their surname in narrative as well as dialogue. Say your character’s name is Frank Daley. If he is the protagonist, it might be best to use his first name. Example: Frank took Mary’s advances as a compliment, but she wasn’t like Susan. No one was like Susan. By using the familiarity of his first name, you’ve established him as a good guy with high morals. Now if he were your antagonist, you might want to use his surname. Example: If Daley played his cards right he’d be finished with the girl and rested before Susan got home. This is a bad guy with bad morals and easy to hate.

Like I wrote earlier, these are just a few of the many methods used to come up with and define your characters, so use them or some of your own, and you’ll have a pretty good picture of your characters’ mental and physical make-up. Hopefully, so will your readers. Now, get out the pliers and knives and start interrogating your characters.