Sunday, 6 March 2011

On discovering your characters

While working on a WiP, most authors wait for that “it” moment. That eureka. That exact point in time when finally, finally, she discovers her protagonist.

Some authors discover their characters as soon as they see them in their heads. For me, it took many drafts, character bio pages, and daydreams to discover my protagonist for my earlier work, BLAZE. And when I say “discover”, I mean knowing her so intimately and precisely that she finally became a real person in my head; someone I knew as well as I know myself.

For anyone working with original characters, this normally doesn’t happen in the first draft. The first draft is more about plot and events and just figuring out what the darn story’s supposed to be about. It’s only during later drafts that you’re really trying to feel out your characters, and it’s very important to reach that stage, because determining your protagonist determines your story’s voice.

The things you should know in order to discover your characters:


Put your characters in all kinds of crazy scenarios and see how they react. What kind of people push their buttons? Who are they infatuated with? What are their favourite pastimes?

If you’re writing literary fiction, fantasise about your story in terms of your original plot then throw a dragon in and see what happens. If you’re writing a high fantasy, imagine your characters in our world and watch how they react to everyday things.

Throw them in the past. Pitch them forward into the future. Have your protagonist fatally ill and see what the other characters do. Give another one of your characters time in the spotlight and see how they fare as the protagonist. How does your protagonist react when she isn’t in the main role?


Get the details right. I mean exactly right. About a decade ago, I used to find images in magazines, but obviously the web offers so much more. If you have an image in your head but can’t find one online that matches it, try a character generator.

Don’t just tell the reader your character’s hair and eye colour. Give us those subtle details – a crooked front tooth, a dimpled chin, high eyebrows. Do something special. Unique. In GONE WITH THE WIND, Mitchell introduces Rhett Butler with this charming description: There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humour in his mouth as he smiled at her… It’s different, it’s imaginative, and it tells us as much about him as it does about Scarlett, whose eyes we see him through.

Sometimes finding images gives you ideas for quirks you’d never imagined for your character before. And once you have that character image in your head, moving on to personality profiles will be a lot easier…


Your protagonist can’t be a coward if the plot calls for someone to march forth and slay a monster. Or, better yet, they can be, but they need a secondary character to push/encourage/trick them into it. This is always a good tactic when you want to show character growth over the story.

Think about your plot. What kind of character does your protagonist have to be to make it through to the climax? What kind of characters does she need to bounce off in order to move the story forward? Can a well-developed secondary character help you with a certain trait in your protagonist? What message do you want to send to your readers?

For example, if the love interest in your story is a strong, capable male, do you want your protagonist to match him in strength and capabilities? It could lend to some decent conflict in the story. On the other hand, if you decide to make your protagonist timid, it gives her the chance to grow throughout the story and find her own self-worth before getting together with the love interest. Maybe it takes her until the end of the book to see what the love interest has seen all along. Again, it depends on what the plot needs at the beginning to move the story forward.

So where can you get personality types from? Well…


No, you don’t need to start following the stars or visiting Tarot readers. Marissa Meyer mentioned in a blog post that “choosing astrological signs for my characters helps to pinpoint their general personality archetype”, and that’s always a great start. But if you need some extra help, why not keep going?

If you’re having trouble giving your character real depth and precision, work out their numerology and check the personality description for that number. There are plenty of websites out there to give you ideas, but I found a book a while back that had ultra-detailed descriptions for every single birthday in the year. It could have been a great character profile resource if it had occurred to me at the time.

Birth trees, the Chinese zodiac, and online personality tests are also good tools for getting personality descriptions and temperaments, but basic personality profiles are just the beginning…


Don’t just jot down the likes, dislikes, and family status of your character. Write up a proper bio – parents, childhood, most influential moments, most painful memories – be as thorough as a psychiatrist. You can work backwards, too. If your character needs to be scared of water for some reason, delve into their past and find out why that fear is there. It adds an extra dimension that, while may not be explicitly written into your story, will still help you as the author understand your character on a deeper level.

The detail is where you discover the motives behind your character’s actions and attitudes during the story. I can’t stress this part enough. The detail is where I had my “ah ha” moment with my protagonist from BLAZE, and it was such a relief when she finally revealed her true nature to me. I knew she had parental issues that were the root of her main motivations, but it was her attitude towards school that I’d forgotten to take into account. The story starts with her adjusting to a big school, when originally she’d come from a little country town school with a graduating class of seven students. I was so busy with her parent-saga, I hadn’t factored in her feelings of being overwhelmed and crowded and claustrophobic after the move. Once this sunk in for me, I discovered my character.

Don’t panic if your characters don’t reveal themselves to you straight away. It’s a slow, ongoing process. Let them come to you gradually, and before you know it, you’ll be experiencing that “ah ha” moment for yourself.

What experiences have you had with original characters? Can you "discover" your protagonist immediately, or does it take work? How do your characters become living, breathing people on the page?


  1. This post is filled with so much great information! One of my great regrets is that I never got to take a psychiatry class in college, but I still think about signing up for one at the community college someday. I think having a basic knowledge of psychiatry is one of the most useful tools for building realistic characters (particularly villains!).

  2. Villains are definitely hard work. Did you read James Scott Bell's latest blog on creating bad guys? He only just tweeted about it!

  3. This is a wonderful post and extremely helpful as I know I'm going to be soon trying to build, at the very least, an outline for my characters in the next month. Book marking this so that I can refer to it again later.

    Excellent job <3

  4. That post rung so true with me. I remember writing my nano novel and wondering about one of my MC's motivation, and then I read a review of "Story of a Girl" by Sarah Zarr, where the reader pointed out how teenage girls tend to use sex as means to satisfy their need for attention and intimacy, and it all clicked.

    Great post. I guess I'll be researching numerology.

  5. Meg - thank you! You were one of the people I was thinking of when I wrote this post.

    Brouillions - interesting thought about girls and sex. Guess that's where the psych knowledge comes in handy...

  6. I love the idea of getting to know your characters. Thinking about all the time you'll be spending together, it's best to make friends with them, definitely. And, like any relationship, it's good to know their personality and who they are.

    Of course, it's a whole different thing when you're MAKING your character's personality. I think all of your tips here are really good in solving that problem! I know I'll definitely be referring to them as I figure out my own character's personality. ;)

    Just a note though. I believe Psychiatry is different from Psychology, and based on what I know, Psychology is the field of study that deals with personalities and how people think, etc. Psychiatry is... under clinical psychology, I think? >.< Might want to double check that. (My brother's a Psychology graduate. I shall ask later. XP)

    Otherwise, great article! <3 Thanks for sharing~

  7. Kihanadulay - @.@ I didn't realise there was such a distinct difference. I just knew one needed a medical degree, and one didn't. There you go!

  8. Kihanadulay & Tamara - you've both got it partly right. Psychiatry is the one under medical school though (think the study of prescribing meds/antidepressants/antipsychotics), and psychology is the general study of personalities, behaviour, etc, including clinical psychology. So 'PSYCHOLOGY 101' actually fits with what you mean.

    Other than that, great post! Some great ideas here that I would love to try, like bios, astrological charts, personality tests... I confess the greatest difficulty I have is with googling images for my characters though. I tend to have a vague idea of how they look in my head, but there is just no way to google images the same way you google text. What kind of character generators do you use? I've never heard of ones that can help you find images for them.

  9. Haha, I use all kinds. Go to the link I provided in that section - there's plenty of dolls there to choose from (and a Sailor Senshi generator!).

  10. Here I am thinking I'm way too meticulous with my characters. I'm a firm believer in adhering to astrology signs. It's great way to build a character. And psychology is a must. You've got to know what makes them tick. Doll makers aren't bad either; there are some really good ones on deviantary.

  11. Sounds like you know what you're doing then! :) Any other tips you can add?