Developing your Characters – What do you recommend?

26 May

Much of what we do as writers is invalid if our characters are not strong. The text becomes difficult to follow, and the plot, no matter how dynamic, gets lost in the confusion of who’s who.

I have been lucky enough to be asked to offer feedback on another writers work. Gav and I have studied together, and I have been fortunate to read through the text from the original concept, up to what is now chapter ten. I have read the full synopsis, been privy to discussion about how the plot develops – and how it has altered when Gav was told, ‘I’m not sure about that.’

For me this has been, as with many people who have sat within writing groups, an experience to learn from. Writers will make mistakes, and it is down to the trusted few to help point out where improvements could be made.

Yesterday, I read through chapters 6-10, and provided my feedback. I decided, as our relationship can withhold brutality, to give my gut reactions, and not taking time to digest and consider my words sympathetically. The overall theme to my feedback was that the characters required further development. In this case, the plot is amazing. I am not just saying that, I mean it. It is engaging, intriguing, and twists hit you like an uncontrolled machine gun. But the characters (of which there are many – something many writers shy away from) had you writhing in awkwardness. Who is this person? Why are they relevant? When one even got killed I didn’t care! There just wasn’t that connection.

So how could this be improved? I have several tips.

  • Post it notes for plotting. I suggested before using post it notes to plot, with a different character in each colour. This way you can see where the characters need to interact with each other, and what strengths their need personalities to withhold their roles within the plot.


  • Character bibles. Using each of these strengths, makes notes of who each character is. If they are timid, with mousey brown hair, glasses and stammer, will the reader believe they are able to take on the government? If the answer is no, will we see a development in their persona to make it more believable, or have we just got the wrong man for the job?


  • Dialogue. Get your character talking. Again, if they are timid, would they have a deep voice? maybe so, but would that deep voice tremor with nerves?

One of the tests I used on myself to make sure I wasn’t being too harsh in my feedback was that I decided to describe the characters to Gav as I had envisioned them. Out of the seven main ones that featured within these four chapters, I was able to describe briefly two of them. When I said I imagined one character like a ‘Libby Kennedy’ of ‘Neighbours’ the response was: ‘No,my character is Spanish.’ Sure I had picked up on the name, but it hadn’t registered that it symbolised her origin.

Taking time to develop your characters is essential. I do not have all the answers, and would never presume to. Have you got a tried and tested method that has made the characters come alive? Have you ever read a book that left you feeling uneasy with your relationship with the protagonists?

* Just a quick note, one of my favourite authors is Jilly Cooper. Now there is an author that likes many characters and at times, this can leave you somewhat confused. However, each of the stories need a large amount of personalities, they just wouldn’t work if it was felt it would be too confusing for the reader. Cooper overcomes this by providing a couple of sentences about each character at the beginning of the book. This is a great source for referral, and allows you, the reader, to continue reading without too much cause for interruption. I for one detest having to flick back though and re-place a character and think that this is a fabulous idea that we should all use.

(If you would like to know more about Gav, visit his blog (he is just getting started), or pop by and say hello on Twitter @RebelliousGav.


9 Responses to “Developing your Characters – What do you recommend?”

  1. submeg October 31, 2011 at 6:55 am #

    Post it notes will be my next expense. Big, colourful ones! Get ready with a big piece of cardboard and stand back!

    Almost ready to start my character bibles; I figure once I have written them I would have written another story in just bibles!

    • Ellie October 31, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

      Ooh does this mean we could end up with a series of books all based around the same characters, each taking a lead role?

      • submeg November 2, 2011 at 7:15 am #

        I hadn’t thought of that, but that is a great idea and fits really well!

  2. Jessica May 28, 2011 at 3:38 am #

    Well, everyone is probably going to think I’m completely out of my mind, but here goes…

    To help keep my characters in character (ha-ha!), I scour the Internet looking for the right face for each of them. Then, I research different styles until I found an outfit that fits their character type. Next, I look at psychological tendencies and assign three to each character. The final step is to pick out an item of food that best represents the character (a rotting banana, for instance — just kidding).

    Then, I just keep those little initial findings in a folder, so if I ever feel like a character is losing touch with, umm, reality, I can quickly get a feel for their “essence” so to speak.

    Am I absolutely NuTz? Probably! 😀

    • Ellie May 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm #


      We have missed you!

      And no you are not NuTz. Strangely enough me and Gav discussed doing the very same thing as a way of firming the character in our mind. Though not the food thing…but hey alwasy open to suggestions – I will run away from a character that i lable potatoe, far too boring. Now an aubergine, thats gotta be really interesting…Oh my I LOVE this idea!

  3. Charlotte May 27, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    Post-its is an interesting idea. I don’t know.. with the recently drafted wip, I started with a character concept actually and the plot came later. As did protagonist number two, whose character to begin with was as flimsy as a dishrag and it completely let that half of the story down… eventually I had to rewrite almost all of it once I’d reworked the character into someone who could carry the story. I completely agree, therefore, that strong characters is important. Actually I think it’s the most important thing. I’d sooner forgive a weakness in the plot than put up with unconvincing, dull heroes and heroines.

    I don’t really have any tips to share, all I can say is that my method is to try to logic it through. If I put this woman into such-and-such situation how would she reasonably react? What makes sense? It has pitfalls because human beings don’t make sense all the time, we love to be self-contradictory, but on the whole it works for the moment.

    I like the idea of character bibles. I may give that one a try when I begin editing.

    • Ellie May 28, 2011 at 8:10 pm #

      Character bibles was the first thing we were ever told to do in my writing module. At the time I didn’t see there merit – how could I know how they would develop? Would it be too restrictive?

      Turns out the first mistake I made in writing was not listening fully. Each piece I have written has been let down by at least one character – when i felt a bible wasn’t required. I like the idea that you can explore the person, list their foibles as well as note their defects….and then never refer to them in your work. Just because your character never wears open toed shoes may just seem quirky – the real reason is because they have one toe longer and it bothers them.

      I think the way you are working through your characters already displays a bible as such – it is probably much more thorough than what I would do, as you are seeing them as a real person with thoughts right from the start.

  4. Candice L Davis May 26, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

    Post-It notes are a great idea! I recently started using them to track the progress of all my projects (an idea I got from another author’s blog, but can’t remember which). It has helped me tremendously to have the visual of where each task is on its journey to completion.

    Sometimes I’ll do a freewrite with a character to get to know him/her better. I take the character and two random words or images and let the character riff.

    I’ve also pulled magazine pics for my character bibles.

    Your suggestions are right on.

    • Ellie May 28, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

      Post it notes are something we have discussed before. AM Kuska’s blog discusses there use also.

      I like the idea of a free write. I may just give that a go with a teenage male character I have going on at the moment. He presents a real dark and nasty side, but is actually quite harmless – it’s all a front. getting the balance right is proving quite difficult.

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