Fleshing out characters in a story


Today I want to talk about fleshing out characters when writing a story.

The thing with characters is the same as a story plot – it’s a great idea to flesh out your character and understand what drives them – their strengths, their weaknesses, their predilections, their history – in essence, create a back story for them. Write it down in a notebook – or type it up on a separate word document on your laptop.

Now keep in mind, you don’t have to use all of your characters’ back stories or even most of it in your novel. You definitely don’t want to bombard your reader with several pages devoted to the straight telling of a character’s back story – you want to keep in mind two things: only add what’s relevant to the story. So in your back story, you know that your character hates her straight hair, loves dogs but hates cats, got straight As every year in high school except her second year because that was the year she moved to a new school and had to readjust, and can’t stand the smell of oranges because they remind her of an embarrassing moment in kindergarten. Now you don’t have to put all of that in – just the bits that help make the story go.

The second thing to keep in mind is to show, not tell – if your character stutters and is afraid of lightning, don’t write, “Jack has a bad stutter and is frightened of lightning.” Write Jack’s dialogue to reflect his stutter. Put him in a situation where he has to encounter a thunderstorm. When revealing a character’s traits, you want to drop a few tantalizing hints here and there, some telltale sentences or actions; you might even want to keep a few things back as a twist later on for your readers – however, do try to a lay a bit of groundwork for this surprise twist earlier on in the story so it doesn’t come off as a total deus ex machina.

We invent the character’s back story so it can linger at the back of your mind as a useful road map as you flesh out the plot of your story. It’s also useful as a guide when you’ve run out of plot or if you’re stuck at a literary roadblock. What happens next? What’s XYZ going to do next? What cool/scary/funny/surprising/exciting thing is going to happen next? Understanding your character would give you a better idea of what should be happening next in your story – of where your story should be going.

Stories can be classified as either a plot-driven story or a character-driven story. What I find though is that a character’s personality traits can often drive the story. Is he/she a scared rabbit type that is always running from their problems only to find themselves in even bigger problems? Or is he/she an impulsive individual, always rushing in where angels fear to tread? Are they a stiff, proud sort of person or the happy, chatty, friendly type? When has their personality traits led to misunderstandings in the story for them? It’s also a great way to figure out if what you’re writing is plausible – why is he/she doing this? Do their decisions make sense in light of what their personality is like? What are their reasons, what are they thinking as they’re doing something, what are they feeling? Why are they acting this way? Should they be acting this way? Is that in line with their character? What would be in line with their character? Are they doing this because they are angry? Why are they angry?

When I take the time to flesh out my characters, to try and figure out just what they want and what they’re all about, I find I get a ton more ideas about where I want my story to go. Enriching my characters leads to the enrichment of the story I’m telling about them. Do they have family? Friends? If so, how have these family and friends changed the way they think about the world? If not, why so and how has that shaped who they are? Do they have enemies? What is it about them that has led them to butt heads with these enemies?

A quick and easy guide of fleshing out your character would be to figure out what is the main thing that drives them and then figure out what characteristics and quirks they would possess that would add tension or conflict to their story and stand in their way as they try to attain their goal/s. For example, Pat Gardiner, the protagonist of L.M. Montgomery’s Pat of Silver Bush, is driven  mainly by her passionate love for her family home, the Silver Bush farm. What adds tension to her story is the fact that she really, really hates change, yet change is always inevitable in life. She is also sensitive and proud and feels things very strongly – these are the characteristics will influence the way she behaves and the way the world sees her.

Some quick questions to ask about your character when getting to know them:

1) What is the thing they want the most?

2) What characteristics do they possess which stops them from attaining this goal?

3) What are their strengths?

4) What are their weaknesses?

5) What is their worst nightmare? (ideally, this is something they should have to confront in the story)

6) What is their idea of paradise?

7) What is the thing they like best about themselves?

8) When was the last time they cried?

9) What is the one unexpected trait they have that no one, perhaps not even themselves, would suspect them of possessing?

Go the psychology route: Imagine you are a psychologist and your character is on the sofa. Ask them questions about themselves. What are you feeling? Why are you feeling this way?

Include all characters in your story: Don’t reserve the practice of fleshing out your characters solely for your heroes. Do it for your villains and your supporting characters too. Everyone has a story so don’t deprive them of the chance to tell it, even if they only play a small part in your story. Like I said, you don’t have to devote chapters, pages or paragraphs to their back story. One quick sentenced muttered in a quick aside under the breath could lend a whole new depth of meaning to a story or a character. Don’t make your villains evil just for the sake of being evil. People don’t usually buy that these days. They’re interested in knowing what makes a villain so evil. Why are they so unhappy that they want to make everyone else unhappy?

Finally, I thought I’d add a link to Chuck Wendig’s Zero-Fuckery Quick-Create Guide to Kick-Ass Characters which I’ve recently been using, not just to gain a better understanding of my main characters but also of all the side characters in my current WIP. Not only does it had the added side bonus of helping me flesh out more of my story and come up with more ideas to add to the plot, it also helps me figure out if I should keep a particular character who may or may not be adding to the story or to drop ’em. And, of course, it’s really fun – and let’s face it, nothing’s worth doing unless it’s fun. Right?


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