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Creating Well-Rounded Characters

by Lori L. Lake

Whether you’re writing commercial/genre fiction that is primarily plot-driven or literary fiction that focuses very little on plot, the essence of every main character in a novel is critical, and minor characters matter, too.

Characters move the plot. Characters make things interesting. Above all, it’s usually the characters with whom readers identify, so as writers, creating living, breathing story people is vital. From protagonist to sidekick to villain to the minor characters who round out your tale, you are called upon to imagine and illustrate people with a variety of traits and features, and if you don’t differentiate well, the story won’t fly.

So when you think of creating personalities, what works best? In my experience, a combination of techniques can help.Create From Real Life

Transport someone you know, and include the special eccentricities that make him or her interesting. Add imagined characteristics or quirks from someone else. Perhaps choose different hair color or background information, but change enough details so the story person takes on her own life and you start to see her as someone entirely separate from the person you originally based her upon. Keep track of those qualities you ascribe to her so you can eventually tell the original apart from your Frankensteinian creation.Appropriate From Unreal Life

Choose templates from the entertainment world. Use the looks, the peculiarities, and derring-do of an already existing character. Start out with any distinctive and interesting person as a prototype. For instance, if you want a character of great depth, you could borrow the desperate traits of Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes (or Kathy Bates); try using the cool intelligence of TV’s Seven-of Nine (or Jeri Ryan); or cadge from personalities like Cher or Madonna or Pink. Perhaps you need a rough-and tumble hero. Indiana Jones (or Harrison Ford), Rambo (or Sylvester Stallone), Jason Bourne (or Matt Damon) would all do. Borrow generously from looks, kinks, strengths, and weaknesses of the actor/actress or from the actual well-known personality, and then go on to add more detail to gradually make your invented character someone readers won’t recognize as anything other than unique.Envision From Scratch

Perhaps you need a New Yorker with an inferiority complex or an elderly, snoopy Floridian. Maybe your plot is seriously influenced by a thief, busybody, explorer, mailman, or store clerk. You can make up these characters from scratch. Build a background by writing down reasonable information about his or her nationality, class, race, gender, year of birth, birthplace, parents’ occupations, childhood school, religion, morals, education, youthful goals, grownup goals and ambitions, fears, frustrations, flaws, quirks, taste in sexual partners, morals/ethics, occupation, family status, etc. Work to visualize this person until he or she comes to life. Look for photographs in magazines or on the Internet that feel like the character you are trying to create, and hang those up around your computer so you can gaze at them every so often until you could swear he or she lives and breathes. Devise Specifically for the Particular Events of Your Book

Most often, you need secondary or even minor characters to serve a purpose: they deliver news, convey information about the protagonist or plot, and end up as a sort of cardboard backdrop for the main action. The one-time, walk-on patrolman who reports to your detective hero might be stereotypical, but is there some detail you can ascribe to him to make him more interesting? Maybe he has a yellow mustard stain on his blue collar or he’s much shorter than a typical cop. Maybe he’s limping and that gives your protagonist a chance to comment on an injury she is bothered by. Or, say your main character buys flowers for her girlfriend every weekend. Perhaps the flower seller also traffics in Cuban cigars on the side and winks about it.

There is a limit to how much you can develop minor and secondary characters, but a few well-placed observations about them and their surroundings can do wonders to fill out your story and make both major and minor characters more compelling and believable.Mine Your Dreams

If you are lucky enough to dream lucidly and have clear memories of the odd folks who people your dreams and nightmares, write them down. Because you are frightened by the boogeyman who springs from your unconscious mind, when you write of him, the readers will be spooked, too. Many of the peculiar people who come along in dreams would make excellent characters. Use whatever the dream world offers you.Name Them Well

A good name can make a character. Idgie Threadgood, Long John Silver, Hannibal Lector, Xena of Amphipolis, Atticus Finch, Scarlet O’Hara, Kinsey Millhone, Easy Rawlins—these are memorable names that just seem right for their possessors. John Smith, Sally Jones, Mary Fredericks don’t really "sing." The names are perfectly acceptable, and we may, in fact, know real life people with these names, but in fiction, names must be more distinctive, while at the same time not too bizarre.

A name like Kate Shugak, the main character in Dana Stabenow’s Alaskan mystery series, suits well. "Kate" always seems to be used for women of power and distinction, especially in mysteries (for instance, see Laurie R. King’s Kate Martinelli series or Katherine V. Forrest’s Kate Delafield). "Shugak" is very different from most run-of-the-mill names and reflects the character’s Native American heritage. The name is well-chosen.Make Names Distinctive

Strive to vary name choices, too. If your main character is named Mike Marsten, and his dad, Mike Sr., is referred to throughout the book, and another character is named Marcus Manning, you’re in trouble. At the very least, your main character(s) should be easily differentiated from the rabble that make up the secondary and tertiary characters. It makes a huge—though sometimes subtle—difference to the reader.

Here are three books I own and highly recommend, all of which are focused on creating characters with memorable traits:

Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities that Keep Readers Captivated
By Nancy Kress

Creating Characters: How to Build Story People
By Dwight V. Swain

Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively
By Rebecca McClanahan

© Lori L. Lake, 2003
Associate Editor: Just About Write,
Author:  Different Dress, Gun Shy, Under The Gun, and Ricochet In Time.
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

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