JWAM reader request no. 5: Characterization (updated)

Today I attempt to tackle questions about how to write the peoples in your novels. I believe I mentioned in the initial post for this month of questions that I don’t have all (or even most) of the answers. Today’s post will demonstrate that with bells on. You have been warned.

Julia says:

How do you come up with interesting believable characters? Without them seeming flat, or ridiculous, or confusing, or just completely lacking in personality?

Tim says:

Justine, I was wondering whether there is anything in particular you do when developing the voice of your character (ie. the way they speak)? Is there anything you do to try and keep this as consistent as possible throughout the story?

Monica says:

I am pretty new to novel-writing, but I’ve heard a lot about “interviewing your characters” to get to know them better. Is that something you do?

I’ll take Monica’s quessie first since it’s the easiest:

No, I have never interviewed my characters and find the idea of doing so deeply bizarre. However, if it works for you—go for it. That’s the thing about writing advice. Every writer writes differently. Some really do have conversations with their characters, and come up with astrological charts for them, and take them to the movies, some of us most emphatically do not. There’s no one right way. When you’re a beginning writer try anything and everything. Some of it will work and some of it will not.

Actually, Tim’s is pretty easy too.

Is there anything in particular I do when developing the voice of my characters (ie. the way they speak)? Is there anything I do to try and keep this as consistent as possible throughout the story?

No, there isn’t. My characters just talk to me and I transcribe what they say. Kidding! (Sort of.)

Any one else got a more useful response than this for Tim? Diana? Maureen? Anyone? (I apologise for my crap answer.)

Now for the tricky question:

How to write interesting characters

So far, I’ve already thought a lot about the questions I’ve answered for this month of writing advice. But I’ve never thought about how I write characters. Not once. Thus trying to give you tips and suggestions is breaking my brain.

I suspect the problem is that writing people and dialogue have always been my writing strengths. I spent a long time learning how to plot, how to write action scenes, transitions, exposition etc. etc. because I was crap at them. (They’re still not my strengths and I’m still learning.) Thus I can talk about how to do those till the cows come home. But the peoples?

Being asked to describe how I write ’em is like being asked to detail how I breathe. I dunno. I just do.

So I did what I usually do in this situation I talked to Scott.


    “Don’t yell. I’m brushing my teeth. I can’t hear you.”

    “If you can’t hear me then how come you’re answering?”

    “Can’t hear you!”

    “Can to.”


    “They want to know how to write characters!’

    Scott emerges from bathroom with extremely clean teeth. “Tell ’em about Aristotle: ‘Drama is character revealed through action.'”

    “Aristotle. Right. What about your funny hat thing?”

    “Fine. Tell them about funny hats. But Aristotle’s key. And choices. Your characters have to make choices. When they make a hard decision, your reader invests in them, because they’ve lived with them through that difficult time. Also zombies.”

You all got that? What Scott said.1

You’re probably wondering what funny hats are. Scott says that when he begins a book all the characters are essentially funny hats: the girl with the big hat, the boy with red hair, the woman who lisps and so on. But eventually they become more than a funny hat, they take on other characteristics, opinions, ways of existing in the world of the novel. As he writes they grow. He does not, however, explain how he makes them grow.

Hmmm. The only simple tip I can come up with2 is to try and avoid writing stereotyped characters. Does the boy who like fashion have to be gay? Does the footballer have to be straight and a thug? Is your protag a reader and super smart and beautiful, but not in a conventional3 way? If you’ve written characters like that are they that way for solid reasons? Do they make your story better? Or do they seem tired and unoriginal?

I really hate it when a character, midway through a book, turns out to have a relative (mother is a surgeon) or hidden ability (black belt in karate) solely because the plot requires it. How convenient. If your mum’s a surgeon or you’re a black belt it would affect who you are. You’d be used to your mother not being around a lot. Being really good at a martial art, or sport, or some other intense physical activity changes the way you move and think about your body. Those are not things you can suddenly pluck out of the air for your characters in the middle of a book.

Check out some bad books with unconvincing characters. Try to figure out why those characters don’t work. Are they too stereotyped? Predictable? Boring? What is it about the way they’re written that doesn’t work for you? Too much description “violet eyes”? Not enough?

I know many of you are going to hate me for this, but when I think of unconvincing characters, I think of science fiction. Especially the science fiction published in sf magazines of the 1920 through to the 1950s. Talk about your two-dimensional characters. Those stories are all plot and no real peoples. They are a nightmare to read.

Why are they so crap?

I suspect part of the answer is that many of the writers, like Isaac Asimov, for instance, were extremely callow and didn’t know much about people. It’s hard to write people if you don’t know many or understand the ones you do know. It’s possible that part of why some writers struggle to create convincing characters is that they too don’t understand people or can’t empathise with how other people think, which makes it very tricky indeed to come up with believable characters.

It could be that as they get older, meet more people, travel more, go through different friendships, work relationships, love relationships, marriage, they’ll learn more about people and find them easier to write. There are many characters in my work that I could not have written twenty years ago.

Another part of it is, of course, practice. But if you’re struggling with writing convincing characters, writing lots of stories may not be that helpful. Why not re-read your favourite books with your favourite characters? But instead of getting caught up in the plot, read closely. Try to pinpoint the moment where you start liking the character. Now figure out why. What has the writer done to win you over? I know I fell for Elizabeth Bennett before she even comes on stage:

“But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account, for in general, you know they visit no new comers. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him, if you do not.”

“You are over-scrupulous, surely. I dare say Mr. Bingley will be very glad to see you; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying which ever he chuses of the girls; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy.”

“I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”

“They have none of them much to recommend them,” replied he; “they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”

Even though this is still the first chapter of Pride & Prejudice, Mrs Bennett has already been established as a fool, and Mr Bennett as a man of sardonic humour. If Mrs Bennett doesn’t like Lizzy, and Mr Bennett does, then this reader has high hopes for Lizzy.

I hope there’s something in this post that will trigger something for you. But likely not. It’s a topic I need to read and think more about. My apologies for its inadequacies.

I’d really love to hear from other writers. What are your tips on writing believable characters?

Update: Sarah Monette has chimed in with a most excellent post answering many of these questions particularly Tim’s one about developing the voices of characters. Do check it out! (I am so with her on being kind of appalled by what I think of as the acting-school of writing. But as we both say it really works for many writers.)

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. He didn’t really say zombies. But I’m sure he meant to. What would cause your characters to reveal themselves in action faster than zombies? []
  2. and, actually, I stole it from a friend []
  3. Oh, look, she has red hair! []


  1. Diana Peterfreund on #

    That’s great advice! I especially like the bit about twisting stereotypes. That’s a classic. (Think of the “noble troll” of Shrek or Valiant, or the “brave mouse” of Prince Caspian or the Tale of Desperaux.) By turning the expectation on it’s head, you create something interesting.

    But if you want your fashion designer to be gay or your football player to be a thug, that’s okay. You can use other tricks. One I like to use is to force characters who have absolutely nothing else in common to have a common goal. That way, they work together and are forced to — if not like one another — at least respect one another, which requires finding hidden depths to what you understand about them. One example of this is Han Solo and Princess Leia in Star Wars. She’s a princess, a politician, a leader. He’s a smuggler, untrustworthy, a scoundrel who flies by the seat of his pants. But they need to escape the death star together. So they discover that they each have grace under fire and courage.

    Like Justine, I rarely interview my characters. They reveal themselves to me as I write. If they do come up with something halfway through the book (like their mom’s a surgeon, etc.) then I go back and make sure that aspect of their character is woven through from the very beginning.

    One time, I was writing a character and about 90 pages into the story I discovered that she was terrified of the water and didn’t know how to swim. This was a big revelation to me. Sometimes you need to write a lot about a character before you really know who they are. that’s why many writers write several chapters of a book then go out and cut out the first few chapters — it’s not really part of the story, it’s just them getting to know their characters.

    Another bit of advice I like is analyzing character you like and figuring out why you like them and when it happened. This is most helpful when it’s a character who, when you write down her attributes, you probably shouldn’t like. Pick someone like Scarlett o’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND or Cher from Clueless (Emma from Emma, same thing). Say, okay, this person is vain, selfish, manipulative, shallow — what is it I like about her?

  2. mb on #

    I guess this is mostly a reworking of Aristotle, but I always remember what my college painting teacher had written on the walls of his studio: “Don’t draw what it is, draw what it’s doing.”

  3. Bill Gathen on #

    Joss Whedon said something that’s sad but true… “Stories about happy people make for boring television.”

    Stories where people you like get everything they want are snores. Make them fight for it. Deny them things. Then you’ll find out who they are, because no two people solve a thorny problem the same way. They may win in the end, but if they aren’t dinged up, it probably wasn’t much of a story.

    Something else: people with powerful passions/desires are engaging. We root for them because they’re laying it all on the line, sacrificing security and approval and short-term happiness in service of some greater goal. For those of us whose days are endless streams of boring minutia, that sort of focus and intensity is intoxicating. It’s the core of why we get so heated-up over spectator sports. The goal becomes important to us because it’s so important to them.

  4. AliceB on #

    Sometimes I try to figure out what a character really doesn’t want anyone to know about him or her, and then write about that.

  5. Patrick on #

    I think we all know Scott wasn’t brushing his teeth. He was brushing his unicorn that he keeps in the closet.

    Yes, we all know that Scott is a closet unicorn brusher.

    And that’s why there was no zombie.

  6. Julia on #

    Thank you. This is very helpful. 🙂

  7. Sarah Monette on #

    I chipped in my two cents over here.

    (Also, I have the lowering suspicion that you’re right about Asimov.)

  8. Carrie Ryan on #

    First, Patrick it was Justine brushing HER Unic*rn — her hatred is all a front! (Justine, I believe I did promise to tell the world you cavort with the U’s after you wrote this post and gave no credit…)

    Second, I wholeheartedly agree that zombies reveal character.

    Third, excellent post Justine! You has all the answers! For me, when I’m writing a character I tend to sometimes question the first traits or goals that come to my mind just to challenge myself to write someone who’s not a stereotype. So maybe the football player will be a thug or maybe he’ll be into fashion but the key is for there to be a reason for whichever choice.

  9. Dahlia on #

    I actually find that writing characters is easy when you start with a stereotype. I sort of use it as a template and then start tweaking things about the character until they’re interesting, original and fun to write about. I work very hard to make sure they’re not stereotypes in the end, and it usually works… I think.
    I also think it’s best to start with the characters past, writing about what happened to them before the beginning of the book really helps to shape who they are throughout the story.
    But I’m no prefessional (not even published… yet).

  10. Jocelyn on #

    Wholeheartedly agree about the annoyance of books that pluck things out of thin air for plot convenience.

    Writing questions are so hard to answer concretely, aren’t they? I really admire you for trying! I’ve been loving your posts. And, in the spirit of awesomeness and telling you how much I think your blog rocks, I just wanted you to know that I listed you for an award at http://teenbookreview.wordpress.com/2009/01/11/premio-dardos/.

    Thanks for being awesome!

  11. Tim on #

    Thank you for your answer Justine. I know you don’t think it seemed like much but it was actually quite helpful as I find the same thing happens to me when I write. Often I hear of people meticulously planning every aspect of their story and it can lead one to presume that one is doing something wrong when the words just sort of… come.

    I find your advice really refreshing because it’s usually prefaced with something like “This is the way I do it, but it mightn’t work for you because there’s no one way to do it.” It’s reassuring to know that whatever works for us is what we should be doing.

    Thanks again!

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