Building a Character – Word by Word

A continuation of last week’s post (found here), on building a character that will stand the test of time, this week I’d like to talk about how you actually sit down and build a character one word at a time.

Photo by William Hartz via Flickr
Photo by William Hartz via Flickr

Tip #2: The Devil’s in the Details (Write it Out!)

As we discussed earlier, a good character is a round character. A round character is a character that is wholly realistic, behaving and speaking just like a ‘real’ person would, complex and increasing in complexity as the story goes on. Now, creating a round character is often easier said than done. Usually, when a character first pops into my mind there is one trait in particular of theirs that sticks out for me. They’re the character who’s really good at fighting, he’s the main character’s best friend, she’s the sorceress they need to ask for help, he’s really tall while his boyfriend’s comically short, etc.

Characters might start of as flat, but by building up word by word, you can come up with someone truly unique! (Photo by Âtin)
Characters might start of as flat, but by building them up word by word, you can come up with someone truly unique! (Photo by Âtin via Flickr)

In order to force myself to round out the character before I start writing any scenes with them, I sit down and fill out a character trait list for them. Now, it’s important to note that the character I end up with is almost always different in various ways from the sketch I draw of them in this list. This is what you want to happen. Building a character is a long, dynamic process; don’t be afraid to change aspects as you go! You can find lots of examples of these character building charts on the internet, but here is the one that I use:

Name: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet is all well and good, but I personally don’t feel like I’ve completed building a character until I pick out a name for them. This is often the last thing I do, because it’s hard to know what name suites them without knowing who they are and where they come from.I use three main sources when picking names:,, and The World’s Best Baby Name Book. I’ve made lists several pages long of names that strike me for one particular character and have been known to spend days wheedling it down. I try to always give my characters, no matter how minor, a first, middle, and last name.
Age: Both how old they are in real-time and how old they act or feel. Age is just a number, but it’s important to know where your character is in their life’s journey, relative to themselves and their society’s concept of time and maturity, of course.
Gender/Sex: Not necessarily the same thing, I put them in the same row most of the time anyway. Remember, your character’s gender and their sex don’t have to be the same – one is a self-chosen designation and one is biological. And depending on how different types of genders are treated in your story, this section may be more or less important.
Ethnicity/Nationality: See the section above on gender/sex. A person’s ethnicity and nationality are not automatically the same thing – you can be Jewish and a Spanish citizen, for example. This is also a good section in which to highlight whether or not your character’s human, as might be the case in a science fiction, fantasy, or horror story. Once again, depending on how different types of ethnicities and nationalities are treated in your story, this section may by more or less important.
Hair: Hair may or may not be important to your character, but even if it’s just ‘on their head’ that tells you something about them, something that’s different from a character who has perfectly styled hair even straight out of bed. Do they dye it? Is it natural? Do they take time with it? Etc.
Eyes: The window to the soul, I generally keep this section pretty simple. Shape, color (trying to be as descriptive as I can without being cliché) and perhaps the placement on the face or shape of lids/eyelashes. Whatever you do, please don’t give your character a ‘unique’ eye color unless it is really, really important to who they are or the story you want to tell about them.
Face/Facial Features: The shape of the face and how everything is generally laid out. Think about it as if you were describing your character to a police artist – do they have a high, sloping forehead? A widow’s peak? Are their eyes close together? Do they have a thin nose? Paint a picture for yourself, even if you mention details here that may never come up in your actual story.
Body Type: Describe the rest of your character’s body in as few words as possible. Are they tall, but muscular, rounder hips, stumpy legs, broad shoulders, etc. etc.
Distinguishing marks: This includes things like scars, tattoos, birthmarks, anything that would go under this heading on (once again) a police report. What, visually speaking, would make your character stand out from a crowd? If they don’t have any, don’t feel the need to ‘invent’ some features to make them interesting. To have a character with no distinguishing marks says something about who they are and the kind of life they have led just as much as the opposite.
Habits: Everyone has at least one, and it probably something they’re not even aware of. I find this section to be one of the most helpful when I’m building a character. It’s the physical manifestations of their subconscious that can let you know what’s really going on inside them. They may say they’re brave, but do they flinch every time they hear a loud noise? Are they constantly drawing attention to themselves by cracking their knuckles? Do they always have to stop and pick a flower as they walk? This can be a great area to get and give some insight, for both you and the reader.
Family: An often overlooked aspect of character development, in my opinion. Even if they never come up in your story, you can infer a lot about a character by what type of family they did (or didn’t) grow up in and what family they still have.
Personality: Here I usually put the first word that pops into my head when I think about my character. Self-obsessed, meek, kinky – even a noun, like ‘a rock’, or ‘northern star’. Then I build on that word until I can’t anymore, sort of free-writing about who my character is, what they do, and why I think they are the way they are. This is usually one of my longest sections.
Flaws/Negative Traits: I don’t always include this section, but if I get to the point where I’m ready to write, but still feel like my character is a bit flat, I’ll force myself to ‘verbalize’ what makes them unappealing as well as appealing. It’s hard to admit to things we don’t like or that others may not like in our characters, just as hard as it can be to do that about ourselves, but that’s just the point – no one is perfect!

By the end of this process, you should have more than just an idea of a character – you’ll have created a person readers will care about, enjoy spending time with, and eagerly follow.

Filling in this chart may seem like just an exercise, but you'll be amazed by the character that reveals themselves to you (Photo by Kevin Dooley via Flickr)
Filling in this chart may seem like just an exercise, but you’ll be amazed by the character that reveals themselves to you (Photo by Kevin Dooley via Flickr)

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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