Sunday, June 20, 2010

How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

Have you ever read a book and come across a character that doesn’t act or react the way you thought they should? I have and at times I’ve even found myself arguing with the book. “That’s ridiculous. She’d never do that!” Usually when this happens it means that the author hasn’t portrayed the character accurately.

Let me give you an example. The writer may have set up the main character as shy and retiring and then has a scene where she’s up on stage and comfortable. This is an obvious flaw, but I’ve actually seen writers make this mistake. So how do you avoid this? You must spend time prewriting—evaluating who your character is and what your character’s motivations are.

These are the things you must determine.

First, what is your character’s greatest fear? Knowing this can set up your book’s climax by forcing your character to face her fear.

Second, what does your character want most in life? This will allow you to give your character believable motivation.

Third, how does your character see herself? Is she a rescuer or maybe a peacemaker? This will help you keep your character true to herself.

Fourth, why does your character see herself in this role? Is there a defining event in her life that led her to this determination?

Fifth, how does your character need to grow? What does she need to learn?

You should answer these questions for all POV (point of view) characters. This will help you write well rounded characters, as well as give you a wealth of possibilities for plot points and subplots.

There are several writing books on this topic that I highly recommend.
Getting into Character
By Brandilyn Collins

From the Inside Out
By Susan May Warren & Rachel Hauck

Let’s play with characterization. DON’T mention the book, but share an example you’ve found where a character didn’t act right.
Based on Darlene's comment, let's also talk about books that did characterization well!


  1. This isn't what you asked, but I have been impressed yet again by the depth of characters in James Lee Burke's books. (Currently reading Rain Gods) All the "good guys" and the "bad guys" have tremendous depth and reasons for acting as they do. He can make a sadist understandable and even ... pitiable.

  2. Darlene,
    Great comment! I ammended the post to suggest others add the books that did characterization well.

  3. Great discussion, Edie. Thank you! A book I read most recently that did characterization well was A Tailor-Made Bride written by a new author Karen Witemeyer. Each character had complete opposite views and felt they were each correct scripturally. Really, throughout the story, I could totally see each character's side. Their issues and concerns were believable. By the end, they each made a change in their views, but it was a realistic change that the reader could accept. On top of that, it was a fun read. :-)