Writing character—whether a fabricated one in fiction, a remembered one in memoir, or an imagined historical figure in a poem—can be daunting.
Often, we focus too much on how the character looks. We write them as if we were giving their physical details to the police after we’ve been mugged: Chester was 6’2” with brown hair and dark eyes and a mole on his left cheek. He wore a Nike ball cap, and though he was thin, he had muscular arms that could be seen through his ripped army jacket.
Those details do help us see Chester, and if you were a sketch artist then you could draw a reasonable facsimile of him so people in the community could be on the lookout. But for your writing to really sing, your readers need to see beyond Chester’s looks and recognize the fully developed sentient creature, not just the sketch.
Below are the things that I like to know about major characters before I create them, remember them, or re-invent them. The knowledge gleaned from answering these questions informs how I describe them, how they move through the prose, how they speak, and how they react when things do (or more likely don’t) go their way. By knowing the particular details of the lives they inhabit and writing some of those elements into the character, the reader gets to know them better too.
1. What do your primary characters want?
Not just what do they want in the context of the story (to win the basketball sectional, to be admitted to art school, to crack the safe at the bank in the one-horse town), but what do they yearn for? What desire has shaped their lives as they’ve tried to attain it? (In all likelihood, this yearning might be more abstract: knowledge, love, respect.) What are the characters willing to do to get that thing? What happens to them when that desire is thwarted?
2. What is this person afraid of?
Sometimes our fears drive us as far or further than our desires, so with that in mind, what does your character do to avoid or embrace that fear? Does anyone else know about this fear? Are there nightmares? Prescription medication or deep-breathing exercises to help contend with it?
3. What is the character’s biggest secret?
It needn’t be related to the desire, and if you are writing something true, you may not even know that there IS a secret, but you should ponder the possibility of one. What might it be? Who else might know about it? What’s the big deal anyhow—why go to so much trouble to keep it under wraps?
4. How do they move through the world?
Do they have perfect posture? Do they slink? Do they fold in on themselves hoping no one will notice them? Do they have good manners? Do they exercise? Are they content in their own bodies?
How do they speak? Are there pet phrases or clichés they rely on? Can you tell when listening to them how they were raised or educated or what their line of work might be?
5. What populates their world?
What is in their refrigerator? If they were called away for the weekend, what would they throw into a suitcase? If you walked into their house, would you see a mess? Evidence of a hobby? Evidence of what they cooked for dinner last night? Evidence of whether they are loved? Have friends? Have a pet? Have an addiction?
Obviously, in some ways this is easier if you are inventing these details about a character because you have no limitations. But if you are writing a known-to-you or a historical figure and thus have facts you must work with/around, then reflecting on what you do and don’t know about your mother (or Abraham Lincoln) can offer structure and enhance the writing. For example, were I to write a poem or essay about Lincoln, I might not know what his darkest secret was, but the fact that he was both a lover of animals and an accomplished wrestler might help me create the setting that develops around him. More importantly, it might raise intriguing questions about a character who is both nurturing and competitive.
There are many ways to develop character—observing folks on the bus, answering a Proust questionnaire as your character, attempting to identify their personality type (Enneagram, MBTI, Strengths Finder), etc.—but if you reflect on the questions above and cobble together some answers, your characters—real or imagined—will come to life.
Beth Slattery moved to Seattle after eighteen years of teaching creative writing and literature at Indiana University East. Since her relocation, she has been writing and editing. Beth is currently working on a collection of personal essays about her mid-life marriage to a Zimbabwean, a move from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, and a reluctant acceptance of the call to adventure. Her most recent publications appear in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and Southern Women’s Review. Beth’s recent editing work includes being a “beta” reader for an author with a multi-book publishing contract, content and copy editing of a personal essay collection, and providing comprehensive editing services on an edited academic volume that was later published by Oxford University Press. She has an M.A. in fiction writing from Miami University and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine—Stonecoast.