Authors Answer 138 – Developing Characters

Characters are central to a story. They need to be well-developed and believable to be considered good characters in a serious story. It’s important to make sure their behaviour is consistent. We’re going back to basics this month, talking about the development of stories. This week, it’s characters.

Question 138 – How do you develop the characters of your stories?

H. Anthe Davis

Jeez, I don’t know… I’m five books into a series, so at this point when I introduce a new character, I usually I have a vague idea of what I need from them (antagonist or ally? from which faction? which gender, which skills?), and then I spin details off of that base, trying not to duplicate traits from other characters. Then I write them into scenes with other established characters and figure out how they interact, and either expand upon them if it’s an interesting dynamic, or keep them sidelined/backgrounded if that’s all they’re good for. As for my main characters… Hell, I don’t know that either, since I first made some of them over twenty years ago. I guess it’s just basic traits + personal quirks + character interactions + developing history and psychology as I go along, until they start to feel like real people.

Tracey Lynn Tobin

To be honest, I base most of my characters on real people I know, and sometimes on TV/movie characters that I’ve watched for years and feel I know practically as well as a real person in my life. From there I base the progression of the characters on how I imagine their real-life counterpart would actually react to the situations I come up with for them. Obviously it’s all conjecture, as I couldn’t possibly know how anyone would actually react to something like zombies or being transported to an alternate universe, but it helps me develop my characters by picturing the events happening in real life and running with how my imagination views things playing out among the people involved.

Jean Davis

As a tried and true pantser, I start writing a male or female of whatever age is fitting to the story and figure out who they are along the way. I like to get to know them in context rather than on a character sheet beforehand. Though, I did try that once. It was too restrictive. I ended up picking a couple characteristics from the whole sheet and just running with that. He became a pretty cool and loyal supporting character.

Beth Aman

In my opinion, characters are composed of details. So I build characters by assembling details, sometimes from my imagination and sometimes from real people (generally strangers, not friends). Every human is a jigsaw of details – nervous habits, catch-phrases, dressing choices, speech patterns, favorite books, topics they talk about again and again, etc. My favorite characters are the ones that feel like real people because they have things that make them them. So that’s what I strive to do with my own characters.

C E Aylett

Research. Lots of it. I research where they come from, read blogs if I can find them of where they live or grew up to find local knowledge and build a picture from there. I also use character questionnaires to really dig deeper. There’s other tricks, too, but those are the main ones.

Paul B. Spence

My characters grow organically. Main characters get backstories written before I begin. Others get what I come up with on the fly. It is usually just a matter of asking who is right to see this story through, and going from there.

D. T. Nova

Not very deliberately. The original concept can be sparked from anywhere, and once a character exists in my head they have a life of their own. Characters created for one simple reason turn out to have depths I didn’t know, or adopt attributes that I had thought belong to someone else. I run scenarios through my head and pay attention to what never changes, and that includes situations I don’t have a reason to write.

Linda G. Hill

My characters often come to me. In my recent release, The Magician’s Curse, a ghost showed up at the door. I have no idea where she came from, but she told me who she was, and ended up being a favourite of some of my beta readers. It’s like that for just about every main or secondary character in my stories. Sometimes they’re inspired by an accent (Stewie’s, from Family Guy for example), sometimes a speech pattern (don’t got no example for that), and sometimes it’s a physical trait in someone I’ve seen in real life. In my current work-in-progress I have a character with a nose so sharp it could cut a cheesecake. I saw him at the mall and thought that immediately.

Cyrus Keith

I’ll be honest, I start with a vague, general sketch, and let the characters just kind of develop themselves as the story progresses. Sometimes, I’ll get a “whoa, that’s awesome!” kind of revelation halfway through, and then I have to go all the way back to the beginning of the story and edit those qualities in. That way, the story and the characters grow together. Besides, I’m way too lazy to generate complex character tables.

Gregory S. Close

I create a thorough backstory for all of my major characters, and try to get at least the basics in for supporting characters. Then, as the story unfolds, the characters reveal interesting bits about themselves that I incorporate into the narrative. Sometimes little of the original background remains, sometimes a lot. The important thing is to be true to the “voice” of the character – don’t try to force it.

Jay Dee Archer

I get pretty detailed about my characters before I even start writing. The main characters all get a biography. Not only do I write out their life history, I make note of their appearance, personality, major life milestones, age, birthplace, political stance, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, and more. For dialogue, I want to make sure I have their mannerisms down. This needs to be consistent. They need to sound like they’re all different characters. That’s a major problem for some authors. They create characters that all sound the same. For minor characters, they’re developed as I write, mostly. But sometimes, for both major and minor characters, they take on a life of their own. They go a little different direction that I first intended, but this usually works out and makes them more realistic.

How about you?

If you’re an author, how do you develop your characters? Let us know in the comments section below.

6 thoughts on “Authors Answer 138 – Developing Characters”

  1. Shortest answer: It depends on the character, and most of the time I can’t trace EXACTLY how they developed anyway.

    ‘Somewhat longer but still not a book in itself’ answer: People are complex, y’know? Even fictional people. YOU can’t say there’s a just one thing that made you who you are, so why should your author’s other imaginary friends say it? (That’s a joke… mostly. 🙂 )

    Alandra, the main character in a few short stories I’ve written, first “appeared” in a fragment of narration in her voice. I didn’t even know who this person was when I wrote it (while sitting in the teachers’ lounge at the high school where I taught art at the time), nor did I know the greater context of what was happening. But the character’s personality and background grew out of following that fragment and seeing where it led.

    Geoffrey (it sometimes seems that he is or will be in EVERYTHING my twin and I write) didn’t have a name when he first showed up in a story, either. After a major case of “Backstory Revision Syndrome,” he’s not quite the ordinary university student he was when he existed only to have his favorite shirt stolen by another character, but I don’t think he was EVER completely ordinary, so the difference is only a matter of degree.

    …And then there’s Jason. A little bit of wanting NOT to imitate the great writers of the genres I read, a little bit of watching too much of a sci-fi television series (CAN one watch too much of a series that had only a single season?) at an impressionable age, a little bit of pure contrariness, a little bit of having nightmares from a near-stranger’s anxiety attack one winter night and then drinking coffee as I sat awake until dawn…

    I can say that I DO NOT make lists of any character’s personality traits, appearance details, etc., or write out their life history and such, before writing about them in a story.

    1. It’s interesting how characters come to life. One of my most recent characters wasn’t even planned when I started writing. But he is a tool, somewhat inept at what he does, as he’s not very experienced, but he is being used as a tool. And he’s oblivious about it. Let’s just say he won’t be around long.

  2. I estimate that I interacted with over three thousand teenagers and adults during the years that I was a high school teacher. When I want to create a character, I just write about someone I know. I don’t write a detailed backstory or history because once I know the character, I pretty much know their story. (There are no secrets in high school.)

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