Building Real Characters: How to Bring Them From the Page and Into Your Heart

I’ve read many articles and blogs dealing with character development. Each has taught me something I have used to aid me in making my characters real. Though I must confess, it is impossible to create a lovable character – or one you hate – without doing several ‘passes’ over your MS. But before you reach the writing stage, you have to know who it is your birthing into your ‘world’. Whether your genre is sci-fi, paranormal, or contemporary, the ‘world’ your character inhabits needs real people in it. Creating characters that are neither cardboard nor two-dimensional takes time. Just like getting to know someone in the real world, or cyber world,  if you spend as much time on Twitter or FB like I do.
So, how is it done?
Google character building and you will find tons of research articles to point you in the right direction. Today, I decided to share a few things that I’ve learned, as well as few tricks I’ve pulled from my own hat to make them even more realistic.

The Physical:

One of my critique partners showed me something one day that I could never, ever write without. She had a picture collage she put together of actors, actresses, and models that fit the physical description of the way she saw her characters. Not only is it a great way to actually ‘see’ your characters in the real world, it’s a great way to reference them without mixing them up with their sidekicks or other family members.

My favorite thing to do when writing is pull up pictures of my h/h side by side and look at them. I’ll imagine what expressions they’ll make while having a conversation, sort of like animators do when drawing a cartoon character. Bringing the characters to ‘life’ is so much better than just imagining them in my head without a visual reference.
Character Charts:
I’ve mentioned them before on a previous blog, (The Importance of Writing Outlines, Part Two), but there’s no harm in mentioning them again. Every writer knows the type of story they want to tell and can envision the types of characters that inhabit that world. But who are they?
Unsure of what traits to give your characters? This book by Linda N. Edelstein, PH.D is a great place to start!

My first attempt at writing a character chart focused on the basic information: name, age, height, weight, race, parents, you know the drill. Pretty much the average questions we all answer when writing a bio for our FB accounts. But does that say who we are? What our life experiences have been? What events in our lives make us who we are?

Nope. But we need these things in order to create real characters. Who is in their family? What was their first job? What are their beliefs? What would they be willing to fight for and can’t live without? What dirty little secret sits in the closet and threatens to ruin their life if anyone found out?
Being able to answer those type of questions – even if they are not relevant to your story – will help you fill in the blanks as you write. Establishing these things is like having the character sit next to you as you type and say, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t do that. This is what I would do.” Oh yes, that wonderful moment when your character interrupts your train of thought as you write a scene and hijacks it. Next thing you know, they’ve taken over and what you imagined would be brilliant looks like dog crap next to what they’ve shown you.
That type of moment can’t be found without having the correct tools to get to know them.
A year ago, I was pointed in the direction of this writer, Charlotte Dillion’s, website.  There I found the most detailed character outline chart I’ve ever seen. I’m sure we’ve all ran across them in books on writing, but this one, in my opinion, took it a few levels deeper. You have to check this link out: Character Charts. (Besides this character chart, she has a wealth of other writing information to share. Stick around and check it out.)
At first glance it’s a little daunting. When printed out, page, after page, after page of questions. My first thought was, “How am I supposed to answer this?” I knew then I had no idea who my characters truly were.  I spent the next two weeks getting to know my hero and heroine. I invited them to move in with me and my family (yeah, the kids thought it was kind of weird, but hey, they’re fictional, at least they didn’t need food or a place to sleep!) and spent a week getting to know each character. I interviewed them, learned about their family history, bad dating experiences, dream jobs, and things they hated the most. When the two weeks were up, I knew them as well as I know myself and could understand why they’d fall in love. I also understood how they would react to the issues I threw at them. My hero took one look at the original ending of my story and flat out told me he wasn’t a punk. I needed to give him some balls or else he was gonna walk. I took a look back at the interview we’d done, looked at his convictions, and beliefs and said, ‘Yep, your right. You’d definitely kick his butt.’ And from there came a perfect ending to their story. Okay, okay, now I sound like I have a multiple personality disorder. But lets face it, all serious writers are look over our shoulders for that little white truck with the ‘special’ white jacket that make you hug yourself from time to time, right????

Tip:If you find yourself stumped on how your characters would react in a situation, try researching astrological signs. It’s a great way to discover the way people react to different situations. I don’t follow them, but I have to admit it did help discover my characters. Also, try checking out psychology books that delve into typical character traits. The book I enjoyed was, Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, by Dr. Laura Edelstein.

Careers, Homes and That All Important Fragrance:
To get to truly know my characters, I had to do research. was a rich resource for learning about what it took to get the job my characters wanted.  Google pictures of the house they lived in, geographic maps for the town, even Craigslist was a great source for ideas on what type of car they drove. Magazines with pictures of model homes, housing floor plans online, and my all time favorite, perfume and cologne samples. Yep, nothing puts you in the frame of mind of writing your h/h’s significant other than the fragrance they wear. I must say, Polo Black, by Ralph Lauren, is sexy and smells perfect for my first male lead. I think I’ve actually fallen for Brian after smelling that scent. I can only imagine how Ebony feels every time she sees him.
So, that’s a few of the things I’ve done to help my  along my writing journey. How about you? Got any tips, tricks or things you do that you will like to share? Leave a comment!
Until next time: Write Well!!!

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15 thoughts on “Building Real Characters: How to Bring Them From the Page and Into Your Heart

  1. Great advice and I truly used to do the character interviews, character development arcs, romance arcs, and all that pre-writing stuff. Somehow, though, with my current series of novels (the first I've published), all I had to do was plunk Adam Montague into a dirty Chicago bus station two weeks after his wife died of cancer and decide what he needs to rescue him and get him back in the game of life before he's plunked into another war zone. (He's a Marine.) Along came a 16-year-old runaway with neon-pink hair who was being hit on by a pimp–and Adam finds he still has what it takes to fight for what's right. The story just flows from there–no outline, but with a few plot points of scenes I want to write. Then even more scenes occurred to me as the characters took over.I don't always know their deepest thoughts and entire back story. I get that in dribs and drabs (when they're read to reveal it). There's a huge reveal for Adam in book three of the series that I had no idea was coming, even though I thought I knew all there was to know by now. But that's what you talked about above–when the characters start to talk to you and take over your story (and ALWAYS do a much better job at telling their stories than we ever could). Maybe after writing a few practice novels, I just internalized the pre-writing stuff I used to have to do. But now I just jump inside the characters' heads; see, touch, hear, smell, taste, and experience the world as they do; and see where they take me. It's magical–and what a wonderful ride!I hope all authors experience that with their writing!Kally

  2. Thanks for the comment Kally!Yes, like all things, the more you've done it, the less physical work needs to be put in because it becomes second nature. It's a matter of first discovering your writing process, doing it, and then the more you do, the less stuff has to be done by and then in your mind. I guess it's like cooking with a new recipe. The first few times you have to read it over, measure out the ingriedients then cook. Over time, you no longer have to look at the recipe or measure, you just know what to do. You know when to add more or if you can skate by with less. What's the saying, practice makes perfect? That goes for all things. This is my first novel. I'm getting started on my second and already know there are a few 'short cuts' I can take that will still yeild he same results. Man I love writing!MJ

  3. Such an interesting blog, MJ. With my first novel, I realized that I was getting to know my characters very slowly, a little more with each draft. I think that next time I'll do it differently, though. I can't just wing it, although the result, in the end, would be similar…but if you really get the hang of the characters, it's so much easier to "feel" your way through and get it right a lot sooner. I do find, however, that having pictures of how the hero and heroine would look would help tremendously, as well as basic character traits that can be deepened as the situations in the plot become complex. Thanks for sharing! What a thought provoking post…

  4. Glad you enjoyed it Angela. I try my best to share what I think others could learn from or be reminded of the most! My only regret is now that my first book is done (until my editor send it back!) my pic of Paul Walker is gonna have to go. At least my next hero is just as hunky. LOL…I'll share that one one day!

  5. Great advice!I also work with physical images of actual people – that helps me to 'see' the characters in the scene and how they're 'acting out' their parts.But to the point of sounding snooty, my characters always come to me fully formed. Exactly like meeting someone already existing, when I imagien them, I also see their whole past and quirks and foibles at first glance itself. I have no clue how I do that, lol, but I guess it comes from mulling over the story and the characters all the time. When they come, they come fully formed and fleshed. I just 'know' them. 🙂

  6. Great tips, MJ. We all need to do this, and for all important characters, not just our protagonists. I often have arguments with my characters, asking them to justify their opinions or actions. (This usually happens after someone in my critique group asks "Why the bleep would that character do that?") If the characters can't explain themselves, well, then I tell them that something's gotta change. Well, dang…I guess that means a rewrite of some kind, doesn't it? Better get back to that.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Pamela!Glad to know I'm not the only one who 'hears' there characters! Thus the reason for that great deep character outline. When done right, you can avoid a lot of the 'arguments' before having someone else read it!

  8. I love this! I have a notebook that has all this and more inside it. I'm not sure why I chose to do a notebook, but I did when I first got my idea. Now I'm searching for a computer program that I can just plop things into. I'm toying with trying out Scrivener now that it is available for Windows. Is there a computer program that you use or do you work by hand?

  9. Charlotte Dillon has some of the best "how to" material out there. I love her query letter examples. In fact, despite not liking Historical Romances, one of her query letter examples not only sold the book to a publisher, it actually sold ME as a new reader! It was Terry Anne Warren's "Trap" trilogy (hilarious stuff with incredibly well-done characters and the period part of it which usually creeps me out didn't bother me much at all)MJ, I'm getting a deja vu moment here. My leading female character, Shayla, "looks like" Chrishell Subbs if her eyes flashed a blue-white glow when she gets riled (haha) Check out this face for a mix of strength and vulnerability. She's exactly it…almost 😉

  10. Oh and I not only hear my characters, embarrassed to have to admit, back in the 80s when I was first writing the stories in the Phoenician Series, I actually forgot these people weren't real. I got home from work with some exciting news and wanted to call someone and thought of one of the characters in the book. Until I was searching through my addressbook and puzzled that I couldn't find his phone number, I had completely spaced the fact THIS PERSON'S NOT REAL! It was hilarious. Still is 30 years later.-Friday (aka webbiegrrl)

  11. MJ wrote I guess it's like cooking with a new recipe. The first few times you have to read it over, measure out the ingriedients then cook. Over time, you no longer have to look at the recipe or measure, you just know what to do to which I say I have goose bumps. You are my lost sister from another mother 😉

  12. Marjorie, I have enjoyed your comments! So glad you understand what I'm talking about. And the rushing to look for their number in the phone? Classic! In the middle of a conversation with my family I have found myself quoting my characters lines from the book, or referring to them like real people. The funniest was after a deep long writing session and my family asking if I was okay, I had to tell them that I was deep in my characters head and the scene I was working on was a very emotional one. I see my characters through the eyes of an actor. I step out of my body and into theirs to see the world and react the way they would. I guess I forgot to take it off before being asked my opinion about something because after my response, I was asked, 'So was that M.J. or Ebony?' LOL….guess I should expect my family to call the crazy bus soon huh?

  13. I've read this post several times and each time I read it I come away with new insight.When I wrote "Sinner's Ride" I WAS Sinner, Daniel, Ms. Anne, etc. I said and sometimes did things they might say/do. My daughter and grandson thought I'd gone and lost my mind! I find myself behaving the same way with my current WIP but they now have a better understanding (I hope!) of my process and are supportive. Admittedly, it is scarier this time around because of the subject matter, but your insight is very helpful to me.Thank you!

  14. Pingback: Protagonist and Antagonist Are People Too! | M. J. Kane

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