Character Building

The thing that separates the professional writer from the amateur writer is the strength of their characterisation.

Have fun with the following – as you start to build the characters in your short story or your novel.

Characters – where to start?

You may recall characters who live on outside the story where they were born:
Think of Bill Sykes and Fagin
Think of Elizabeth Bennet and Rupert Bear
Think of Hannibal Lecter and Scarlett O’Hara
Think of Molly Bloom and Paul Morel
Think of Huckleberry Finn and Holly Golightly


The characters in a story are the most important element.

  1. They are the colour and the depth In your narative,
  2. They carry the story forward in their wake
  3. They are the medium and the message.
  4. They are the parts and the sum

Points to remember.

1. The character may share many of your insights and experiences but s/he is not you.(This is, of course, very liberating….)
2  Only boring characters are all-good, or all bad.
3  However outrageous and outlandish a character’s actions and sayings are, they must be within the logic of this character. There is some kind of inner explanation for everything, even if you don’t explain it within the story. 

You, the writer, are becoming the expert in these people. 

Naming your Character
Names can give us personal, regional, national, historic and idiosyncratic clues to character. Do not choose a name lightly. If you choose not to name your character it should be a deliberate artistic choice, not a copping out.  (Read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the narrator is not named.)

Seeing/Feeling/Smelling/ Hearing your Character
It could be that you  never mention the appearance of your character in your story, but you need to see him or her in your own mind. Characteristics will filter into your storytelling.     Close your eyes.  SEE!

For instance

  • Is s/he tall or short? Tallish, shortish?
  • Is s/he thin with thick ankles?
  • Is s/he fat with beautiful legs?
  • Does s/he smell of cinnamon or chicken-fat?
  • Lavender or old sweat? Machine oil or patchouli?
  • Is his or her skin smooth or rough to the touch?
  • Does s/he have spots or old boils, Tattoos or needle marks?
  • Is it golden, white greys, brown, black, pink or sallow?
  • Does s/he have large or small hands?
  • Are they clean or dirty?
  • Are they used to manual work or non-manual work?
  • Are they masculine or feminine hands?
  • What do you know from the way he or she speaks?
  • Describe the timbre of her voice
  • How does s/he make you, the storyteller, feel?
    Where did you first see her/him?
    How does s/he speak? Does s/he have speech mannerisms?

Interesting characters are often perverse. Think of the vegetarian butcher, the gentle torturer, the plain seductress, the beautiful loser, the mild murderer, the loving betrayer, the rich thief, the fit invalid, the superstitious scientist, the child hating teacher …
Can you add to this list?

Try-Out Your Character!
NB, No matter whether or not you mention any of the above characteristics, they will be implicit in the prose you use in these try-outs.
Try …

  • Write ten lines in the first person about your character’s fifth birthday.
  • Write their own view of the star sign under which they were they born
  • Write a sentence written by them about a scar they have on their body.
  • Write ten lines about the view from their window when they were (or will be …) 25 years old.
  • Write three lines from their school report when they were thirteen. What do their teachers say?
  • Write five lines of dialogue between them and their father or their mother.
  • Write a first person account (ten lines…) of the first time they fell in love.
  • Write a first person account (ten lines …) of the first time they broke the law.
  • Write a monologue of them trying to make someone give them a job they desperately want.
  • Write a monologue of a friend trying to describe them to a very interested police officer.


NOW! Put them in your story.

© Wendy Robertson 2016



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: