characters / writers tips

Know Your Character

people-43575_640If your story sounds stilted or fake, the first place to look is your characters. Whether you write character-driven or plot-driven novels, readers engage when they want to travel with the characters you created. It’s not the plot. They all boil down to a handful of approaches. Variety arrives in the form of your unique character. This could be the 247th thriller with terrorists who want to blow up America, but if your guy is Jack Reacher, you’ll plunk down $20 for the hard cover because Reacher is a fun guy to travel with.

Readers don’t like when these new best friends become predictable, boring, or–horror of horrors–act out of character. That means you must know them intimately. There are a lot of ways to do that, but here are a few of the most popular:

Profile them

Before beginning your novel, profile each character. Not just a few paragraphs, but pages–as many as you need to become their best friend. Know height, weight, hair color, eyes, age, astrological sign.  If your character has a phlegmy voice, know if it’s from smoking or an injury. what motivates them? What do they want from life? Know where they grew up because that will shape their speech patterns, morality, sense of surroundings. Include odd traits that people will remember–their eyes are different colors, they drink coffee with salt in it, they watch reruns of soap operas. The main character in my current WIP drinks coffee in the shower. I tried it out. Oddly, it’s a great idea.

Keep it where you can access it so your character’s eyes don’t change color when her new love is gazing into them.

Make a list of traits

Make a table in Word, with each character’s name. List traits, potential traits, identifiers in a column beneath their names. For example, here’s my list for my former SEAL-turned-paleoanthropologist:

  • intellectual
  • patriotic
  • bias for action
  • caring
  • damaged
  • family
  • jaded
  • gut instincts
  • loyal
  • focused
  • problem solver
  • conservative
  • protective
  • brave
  • bold

Then, select five that fit best (mine are in red). Keep those by your computer as you write so you can incorporate them into every action. If the antagonist is self-absorbed, how would that make them think and act when he talks to others, jumps into a new experience, or reads a book?

The list must include a flaw. We all have one that explains a lot about our reactions, biases, thoughts.

Write a story about them

This is along the lines of ‘it takes three books to get published’. If you’re writing a serial, consider the first book how you get to know your characters. Throw them into situations and see if you can predict how they would act, based on everything that makes them what they are. When you’re done, don’t print this book–print the next. Later, edit as a prequel

Less time-consuming and almost as effective is writing a story that encapsulates the novel’s plot and lets you see how your characters act in a microcosm of your planned story line.

What’s their typical day

I’m big on this one because it works.  From the time your character gets up in the morning, what does s/he do?  Start with getting out of bed and cover as much detail as you can.  Are her/his slippers under the bed? Is coffee perking, set the night before? Does s/he have to let the dog out before pouring coffee? You’ll learn all kinds of interesting things.

Interview them

Ask your character questions about his/her life as though you were a journalist.  This can be especially helpful to jar loose secrets, conflict, and motivation. Here are a few I found on Google:

Find a picture of them and paste it to the wall of your office

I have one for each character in my story. I keep them in front of me, to remind myself Eitan has a huge head that new people can’t fail but notice. Zeke has piercing eyes. Kali has raw beauty that she cares nothing about. If your character is six-four, he’ll have to accommodate that height everywhere he goes.

How do you get to know your character?

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog,Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculumK-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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18 thoughts on “Know Your Character

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  4. Very true, I always create a bit of a character bible on each, writing down as many pieces of information about them that I can. The one thing you have to be careful is to info dump all those pieces of information into the story; it may slow the plot down because the reader picks up useless pieces of information that they try to remember.


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  6. Hi Jacqui
    Just like the Australian beer advert [in the uk] – yours is a ‘good call’. Fantastic template for a real Character builder. I love it as I had learn it the hard way and create a template of character creation in my Creative Writing course with one the UK’s best Creative Writing Courses [I would say that, wouldn’t I?]. Like a parrot I say, Thank You Jacqui for sharing your writing brain with us.
    PS : Your ‘new’ photo-shot is fine but I’m an old fogie [old forlk] who likes all things old. Best. Arun


  7. If I don’t ‘care about’ a character I lose interest in the story. Even if that character is the meanest person on earth, I have to care about what happens to them (ie – they get jail time?). I usually do character interviews with hubby or a friend. They interview me as one of my characters and as soon as I don’t know an answer to one of their questions I realize I don’t know enough about the character to write about them – and it’s back to the drawing board!

    Changing eye colour in the middle of a story – I’ve seen that happen and it’s very off-putting! 😀


  8. I have a spreadsheet-chart with over 200 entries for each character. I don’t always fill out every single one, but by the time I am done I have a very clear idea of who that character is, what they like and how they think. It makes writing go a lot more smoothly.


    • A girl after my own heart. My spreadsheet has about 20 entries–and I always find things I don’t know popping up in the story. Are you going to share that spreadsheet on your blog?


      • I got it from another writer’s website, and while I’ve adapted it to fantasy, I wouldn’t feel comfortable… though maybe what I should do is make a ‘Resources’ page with links to that original chart and some other good tools I’ve found. Thanks for the idea!


    • I understand that. I try vociferously to avoid unwitting plagiarism. It’s sometimes difficult to see the line. I reblogged a great tech ed post on my other blog and got a take-down notice from the original author. I gave credit, but that wasn’t enough. So I did. No questions.


  9. So true. Characters really are the heart of a story. Love the idea of trying out the traits – what better way to write about something than to experience it? Coffee in the shower…I might have to try it.


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