Amatuer writer: How do I learn character development?

I’ve been an amateur writetr for a couple of years and my biggest problem is developing characters. I’m not very good at it, but I know that I have to learn it in order to be a better writer. Unfortunatly, I’m not very social and I have very few friends in the area who I can actually be around physically, so that doesn’t help much.

My problem is, how do I do it? I’ve heard reading books with good character development can help, any suggestions on what books would be good for this would be appreciated?

The books I normally read are not really the type to have a lot of character development. Sci-fi, Fantasy, Horror. Even the classics I tend to like aren’t really big on character development that I can recall.

Howard P. Lovecraft, is that you?

Um, if you don’t have people that you can base it on (even psychological examination of your own aspects & potentials counts for something) maybe you should stick to incoherent horror stories about the unknowable inhuman.

Seriously, reading how other people do it is a typical method.

Also, you could get a subscription to Psychology Today. They write a lot about personalities, & it may give you insight into how much variation there is in how people think. This still needs to be balanced by observing real people, but hey, observing can be done in a quiet, low-impact manner. Many writers frequent bars or coffee houses just to watch people & start making up stories about those they see–that is, who those they see could be, not who they are.

Of the Elderitch nature of the horrifying beyond, I cannot tell, but I am prepared to return to my chronicles of the inifinite unknown.

Actually, my sister does have a subscription to that, so I’ll see if I can’t get ahold of some of those.

Truth is, a lot of good writers were shy, bordering on reclusive. You don’t need to cultivate lots of friendships to be able to write. You do need a powerful and sympathetic imagination, though. You also need to enter your stories with some idea of who your main characters are and what the situations in the story will mean to them. One of my writing tutors taught us to ask ourselves, “What’s at stake for your hero?”–it could be something entirely intangible, it could be material, it could be a bit of both. Another way to think about it is, what opportunities does your story present your characters to change and grow (positively or negatively)? How do your characters react to those opportunities?

  1. Read. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Read biographies. Read magazines. Read absolutely everything you can. I don’t think you’d be able to find a published writer in the world who wouldn’t say that the best way to be a better writer is to read, read, read, read, continue reading, and when you’re done that, keep reading.

  2. Watch people. Go sit in the food court of a mall or something, where there’s a lot of people. Watch them. Write (mentally or on paper) little backstories for various people: Who are they? Why are they there? What are they doing tonight? Try to see everything about them, just by watching.

The important thing is being able to understand your characters. I listen to what my characters are saying: every sentence (and sometimes single word) they say gives clues to their personality. Character development is the ability to expand on the things they say until you reach a point where you as the author can say “my character would never say that.”

Once you have that, move on logically from there. It’s OK to add a few twists to the personality, but they all have to be consistent with everything the charactr has said up to that point. If you discover you need a personality trait that seems inconsistent, go back and edit so that it no longer seems so.

I’ll admit my characterization tends to be more organic and instinctive than thought out. That’s why you hear authors say, “The character got away from me.” It’s a pretty silly thing to say (I remember Tim Powers pointing out how it would sound if a furniture maker said, “The couch got away from me.”), but it does have a good deal of truth.

A character’s actions may not be what you planned when you started the story, and won’t fit into the plans you had for it. This is a good thing. It’s be a much better story if you change it to match the character.

There are artificial ways to add characterizations (most commonly, giving the character a quirk or habit), but the best way over all is to listen to the character.

Pick one trait for the character and use it as often and as heavily as possible. Pound that trait into the ground. If the character’s religious, make every bit of dialogue a mini-speech complete with scripture. Make him kill the scientific character in a frenzy of hate- and panic-filled fervor. If the character’s a scientist, make him cold-blooded and sadistic, willing to drop people into lava pits just to see what happens. Don’t let anyone tell you your characters are one-dimensional; they obviously just don’t get the message that you’re trying to cram down their ungrateful ignorant throats.

This actually works more than you’d think.

Hmm… The technique I like to establish a character is to take a good look at him or her. Pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes, and tell your readers what is the one detail about your character’s dress, manner, or looks that seems to indicate something about them. It can be really shallow, but with a good detail, you’ll imply far more about your character in one sentence or event than any amount of exposition would deliver.

Granted, the name Titmouse isn’t exactly neutral, but I suspect simply from that one line you’ve got an image of Mr. Titmouse that is more complete than the image you would have if I’d said that he was five foot, 8 inches tall, and wore a dark charcoal suit. I don’t have to mention anything more about him, now to give you the impression of someone who’s trying to make an impression, but who doesn’t always pay as much attention to his surroundings as he might wish to. From that detail it would be completely in character to have Mr. Titmouse go on through the interview to be a bit flighty, jumping from one thought to another, or following an obviously prepared list of questions and points. You can’t simply leave such details, but build on them. Let them rough out the character’s shape and then fill it in with dialogue or action.

I am a frustrated writer too , with a couple of hopeful books in the making . Character development is particularly important to me , I want my characters to come alive for me . I do get to that point where I know exactly what they would or would not say and do . There is a point in my writing where they just … take over , I find myself at their mercy , writing whatever they tell me to write . It’s at that point I know I have a fully developed personality on paper , and it’s a wonderful feeling .

One thing I used to do and that might help you , is to write a little prequel for your story or book , something never intended to be seen by anyone but you . I used to fill up notebooks doing this . Write a list of unusual questions (if I can find my list I will post it here for you) and answer them , in depth . One example I remember was : Does your character have any scars ? If so , how did they get them ? Don’t just say ‘he has a scar on his knee’ and leave it at that . Tell how he got that scar , what age , what was he doing , what did he say when it happened . It may start out as a physical description , but believe me , after you delve into it , you will know your character a little better .

The most important thing I can suggest is to let them talk to you , and more importantly , take time to listen to them .

Anna (Who loves to talk about writing :smiley: )

Clive Cussler, is that you?


Look at books with characters you like, and think about how that is accomplished. I’m thinking here of Joss Whedon, who, among many others, studied Dickens. Dickens likes to give characters catch-phrases or mannerisms that he pounds into the ground (to use a previous phrase), but he also gives his people a personality, and these things work together to make a memorable character.

(Just one quick method–there are lots of ways–sit down and write out what you know about how writers you admire do this.)

Describe your character in 100 words. Draw a picture, or have one done for you, or use magazine clippings, etc.

Roleplay as your character (either in an actual game or just through talking to yourself). This gives you a more concrete feel of how your character talks and acts.

Toss your character into a different setting. Or, give them an alternate history. Or, switch their gender, age, or culture. This helps give you an idea of what is or isn’t part of the character’s essential qualities.

For me, the most exciting thing is to experience a character “coming alive”, as if they might actually exist somewhere outside of my twisted imagination.

Exactly… couldn’t agree more. I was going to post something similiar. Fiction, yes, but good fiction. btw HPL: amateur writetr first mistake. Don’t think like that. You’re a writer. period. End of story- or hopefully, beginning. Another good ‘tool’ is to combine different aspects of people you know, and make them into characters. Or just imagine yourself as ALL the characters, but in different ways, and take it from there. Several well known, and well respected have told me- just keep writing. And believe it. If you don’t, no one else will. And, don’t write for anyone else, or an “audience.” If you do that, you’re screwed. Write for yourself. go from there.

ciao. goodnight. Great advice NC. :smiley:

Here I was thinking it was Dean Koontz :smiley:

dotchan’s point about knowing how a character talks and acts is valuable. Nothing saps a character faster than too much authorial description. Over reliance on authorial description is a real peril of genre fiction. (Pretentious fiction goes to ridiculous lengths in the opposite direction.) Characters aren’t just convenient labels–brave, tall, creepy, quirky, stalwart, seductive, etc.–that wander through a story. Gives an entirely new spin on paper dolls, huh?

As a reader, dialogue sinks most novels, IMO. Ideally, it should move the story forward while pulling the reader through the characters. People don’t sound or react the same.

Every chance you get, just listen to people, eavesdrop even. Doesn’t matter to whom or why. (You’ll probably earn a reputation as great company in the process, mostly because so few people listen at all.) Lecturers, gossips, droners, grumps, authoritarians, flirts, flakes–they’re all processing their life dramas in their own ways own voices. Listen to the way they do it. Play with what they’re hiding and revealing.

I use the term partially because that’s how my namesake referred to himself, and partially on my lack of…sucess.

As a FWIW comment; Patricia Highsmith (The Cry Of The Owl, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and of course, Strangers On A Train) is, despite many strikes that can be marked against her, excellent about this. Although her tales are told almost exclusively in semi-omniscient third person (which often leads to a lot of overdescription) she manages to offer up just enough description, both of the appearance and internal state of the characters to feed the readers impression and advance the story or set a scene but without describing every last button and out-of-place hair. She moves through the exposition quickly, often passing days, weeks, and even months within a single paragraph when additional description would do nothing but interfere with the momentum and break the mood.

Douglas Adams had a passage in So Long And Thanks For All The Fish that summed up this observation very well:

The reader (and the writer) will get to know the characters far better by what they do than how they look or even think. Check out Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies For Fun And Profit, which is a compendium of some of his colums for Writer’s Digest and is quite an easy read. (Much more so than John Gardner’s informative but ponderous and pedantic The Art of Fiction, though that is well worth checking out as well.)


  1. Your characters will always be YOU, in some way. Listen to those voices you hear in the dark, and when you’ve had way too many beers. Those are characters you can use. They are actually other yous. They are people you’d like to be, if you had the balls. They are people you hate. They are people who screwed you over. They are people you admire. Listen to them. And write down what they say.

  2. Let each character write a monologue of five pages, in their own voice. Let them say where they come from, what they are afraid of, what excites them, why they do what they do. They will soon take up the pen and finish it for you.

  3. Give them good names.

I’d advise caution in reading pyschology – too many writers depend upon a cliched and simplistic notion of personalities being developed by key childhood experiences or whatever. Intuition and instinct are far better tools for creating characters than quasi-scientific information. Trust your instincts. Think of your characters as real people instead of as characters. Try to hear them in your head. It’ll come to you.

I got interesting feedback on a story last week - a reader was convinced that I *must * have been writing about the situation (a man and woman break up when he can’t forgive her for giving up their son for adoption, and he and the boy are reunited ten years later) from personal experience, because it rang true for her, since that had happened in her family when her husband finally got custody of her step-son after several years of being kept from seeing him; her real life family dealt with issues very like the ones I wrote about.

I’ve never been married, had a child, or even had my parents break up. But I can imagine what people would feel like in those situations. It’s nice to hear that the characterization rings true for someone who has really experienced those things!

A lot of good characterization is putting yourself in your character’s shoes. Say you’re writing an end of the world story. How would you feel if the world ended? Okay, how would you feel if the world ended and you had dependency issues and were left on your own? How would you feel if both those things were true and now someone smaller and weaker was suddenly relying on you? You have to know those things, and not try to distance yourself from the character. Like Ainak said, all characters have a bit of you in them, so don’t fight it.

It helps, of course, to know all about your characters so you know how they’ll react. If I get stuck, I like to pull out my copy of What If? and turn to the chapter called “What do you know about your characters?” which is a list of questions for you to answer about the character in question. Not all your answers are germane to what you’ll write, but it’s still good to know about who you’re writing about.