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Thoughts on Character Creation

October 20th, 2017

In real life you’ve probably at some time met someone who has become a friend. Only gradually do you get to know the person and even after months or more you may be surprised by some revelation about them.

A character in fiction will be gradually revealed but as the writer you must know your  characters fully before you start the story.

It’s a good idea to make a detailed profile of your main characters. This helps you to be consistent and to know what they would and wouldn’t do, and not to provide sudden changes in behaviour which would be out of character and unbelievable to the reader. Occasionally a sudden change may be justified, for instance, if the character has suffered some tragedy or trauma, but as the author, you should have prepared for this.

Character is revealed in four major ways: behaviour and actions, background, speech, and thoughts. Appearance may contribute to character but not always. Characters and the reactions of others to them may occur if the character is very beautiful or very ugly, although sheer ordinariness could have an effect.

The method of narration also decides how characters are portrayed. A third person, omniscient narrator will not display prejudices towards characters. They will be presented in terms of the four factors mentioned above and the reader will assess them on these factors. On the other hand a first person narrator who is also part of the story can be highly prejudiced. They may love or hate another character, despise or admire another.

Returning to the four major aspects of character, first think about action and behaviour. Clearly things a character does demonstrate his or her personality. It may be  owing to his reactions with others, his attitude to his job, what he or she does in times of calm or stress. Sometimes an action may express a previously dormant aspect of personality. Bear in mind that like people, characters are usually complex. The murderer demonstrates viciousness; he or she may also love someone.

Speech is a part of a person’s make-up and you should try to make characters speak differently to you (the author) and different from other characters. The Irish novelist, Roddy Doyle stated what I believe is a great truth. He said: “I see people in terms of dialogue and I believe people are their talk.” In reactions to others, is your character’s speech kind, sarcastic, ironic, hurtful, arrogant, funny, etc?

Background and childhood in terms of family relationships may not be an integral part of your story but they have probably affected a character’s behaviour in later life. All of us are at least partly who we are because of our backgrounds. Even if a character has rejected part of their past, that past has caused their attitude of rejection.

In third person narratives, the writer often reveals what a character thinks as well as what they say and do. Thoughts can be as much a part of a character’s make-up as the other factors. Some people express their thoughts, many suppress them but suppressed thoughts can say as much about a character as what they do – and the suppressed or innermost thoughts may lead them to take some action.

So create your characters profiles with these things in mind – and  possibly some you think have been omitted.


Colin Bulman latest books are “Fiction: The Art and the Craft” (Compass Books) and “Creative Writing: A Guide to Fiction Writing” (Polity press). He is a Writers Bureau tutor.

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