Writing Wednesday - characterization

Characterization: the creation and convincing representation of fictitious characters. (dictionary.com's definition) Characterization: making the voices in my head come alive on the page. (erica's definition)
I've got a few different WIPs going on (don't we all?) and the main characters are TOTALLY different. So, how do I go from being a well-behaved-just-falling-in-love-for-the-first-time-17-year-old girl to a 12-year-old-ghost-hunting boy? Or the ghost-hunter to the baseball-player? Or the baseball-player to the teen mom?

I'm not talking voice here (well, not completely) - all the characters have different voices as does the narration in all of our books. I mean who our characters are. What they did before the book started and what they might do after it's over.

Here are some tips for creating good characters (note: these are not things that should end up in your book. they're yours to keep to yourself forever and ever. or, when you get rich and famous, you can release them as a prequel. and thank me on the acknowledgements page, of course):

Write a quick biography. What was his defining moment (for one of my characters, it was the day he dropped the baseball in a big game)? What's one thing he wished he could do over (for another, it's following the old man into the apartment building)? What's his biggest dream (getting a book published - oh, wait. . .)? Who was his first kiss/date/lover?

For adult characters, write a resume. Where did he go to high school and was he the "most studious" or "class clown" or "most likely to go to prison"? Did he go to college? Community or ivy league? What was his first job and did he like it?

Write a journal entry, or several. It could connect to one of the above events. What did your character write in her diary on the day her dad died? On the day they graduated? When she found out she was pregnant? When she lit the fireworks to announce her book deal (I'm getting off track here, but hey, maybe one of you could use that as a book idea and then I've at least accomplished something)?

Give them one trait that's different from the other characters. Maybe it's a catch phrase. Or a facial tick. The tendency to get lost a lot. Why does he do that and when did it start?

Don't forget your secondary characters. Books I've read spend a lot of time on the main character (and rightly so), but barely mention what motivates his friends and family (which I find a bit annoying). Even in first-person narration, we should have some idea. Why is your character friends with this person/set of people? What's their best characteristic? Their worst/most annoying? Why is the mean girl mean? Why did his ex dump him?

How about you? How do you come up with your characters and what do you know about them before you start writing?


  1. These are great tips thanks! I like to fill out character questionaires before I start the book. It helps me get into them and learn about them. Great point on secondary characters, I think I'll start filling them out on them too!

  2. These are good tips. I try to spend some time thinking about all my characters too. The more I know about them off the page makes them more realistic on the page. I hope.

  3. Awesome tips! (fingers crossed for your publication!) I usually know the back story for the characters first. But little else.

  4. Don't forget Lisa and Laura's recent tip for really knowing your (male) characters: what term does he use to refer to boobs? ;0)

    Or another tip we recently linked to that I'm too lazy to look up (can't remember who said to do it): create a playlist of songs for each character to learn their preferences.

    great post, erica!!! :0)

  5. Super late start for me today. Great tips.

    For me though, I never write anything down. I keep all characters personalities/backgrounds in my head. As I write, something comes to me on how the character's personality will develop and how they interact with the mc.

    If I do many characters, then I will write them down so I won't mix them up. This is especially true with writing fantasy. All the elves, fairies, gnomes, etc. can get confusing if you don't jot them down.

  6. Good post. I create my characters as I go. But once I have the basic idea, I do have a reference book to help enhance each one and create more conflict. 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  7. Great tips! I tend to choose my necessary primary personality traits and then assign them an appropriate Zodiac sign, then use THAT to fill them out a little... just so I have details to fall back on that fit and that can give me how they would react to a new situation. I also set them fairly intentionally in a social structure. Heroes are more interesting who are a bit alone, but WHY? Are they shy or rebellious or has something HAPPENED? I totally adore all the social stuff (I don't have a social psych degree for nothing) and the ways our interactions can change our perceptions and motivations is my very favorite stuff, but I do it more by feel than writing it out. It's.... sort of what I do, so it feels pretty natural...

    And FYI--I posted on Voice today at Burrowers Books & Balderdash--I thought of you as I was writing it as you'd brought it up recently.

  8. Good points, everyone. While I agree that a lot of this can be done in your mind, I have to say I lost mine years ago. ;) I also like to longhand some of this to get a feel for the character, so writing is a given. Another thing I have worked on is a written family tree - useful in case you forget how everyone is related!!


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