W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 09, 2005

No 2. Creating Characters


When I was doing an M.A. in creative writing at the University of Glamorgan, I wrote this great scene where Jane, a timid American, arrived in Paris to visit her much more sophisticated friend Diana. Jane discovered she had crabs, a gift from her unfaithful husband. Diana had to rush off to work, leaving Jane to explain to the pharmacist what she needed. Since Jane spoke no French and the pharmacist spoke no English, the scene with her trying to describe her problem was funny.

However, my mentor Siân James, a Welsh writer, didn't like it. Siân and I had had many a battle on what she felt was too blatant sexual. She looked at me and said, "I know you think I'm being prudish, but my dislike has nothing to do with the subject. Diana would never have left her friend in a situation like that. Even if it's funny."

Siân was right. The scene might have worked as a short story, but it was part of a novel and it didn't ring true because Diana was acting out of character.

Alice Walker said that while she was writing The Color Purple her characters giving her back talk about how they should or should not act.

So how do we as writers develop believable characters? We can't always wait until one sits on our couch and rebels by saying, "I don't care how you write it, I ain't doin' it, no way, no how."

Some writers create complete biographies for every one of their characters: birth date, siblings, report cards, first sexual experience, wardrobe, job history, height, weight, medical history, birthmarks. Only when they know more about the character than the character would know about him or herself, do they set pen to paper or finger to key board. Others wing it letting their character develop with the story.

However, whether you develop the character completely or partially, they do have a life beyond your use of them. Writer Kim Edwards says, "For a character to be convincing, what's on the page must somehow evoke knowledge that extends beyond what's strictly visible." It's like when we meet people at a party. This may be our only contact with them, but they have existed before we meet them, and they will exist after they leave.

We can define characters in many ways.

Clothing - There's a photo of Richard Nixon walking on the beach wearing a suit and tie. Anyone else would be in a bathing suit or at least jeans and a sweater. I suspected Nixon slept in his suit and woke up with his trousers creased.

Place - A man working on a farm will have a different character from a man stuck in a corporate cubby.

Time - If your story is about a sixties hippie in 1969, he would be reacting to the War. If he is still a hippie today, he might have sparse gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. If he'd gone corporate, he might be in a three-piece suit and drive a Miata.

Speech can reveal education and age. And sometimes it can show much more. Think of Laertes's speech in Hamlet. "Neither a lender or a borrower be…" it shows him as a pompous man much more than a wise man. The contrast between his character and words is a classic.

Speech needs to be education specific. A person with a doctorate might use slang, but a person with an eighth grade education would probably not give a lecture on comparative economic systems. Slang also needs to be time specific. "Stoned gas" would work for the 60s and "Been there, done that" for the 90s.


- This is where I messed up with my scene in the French pharmacy. The rewritten scene shows Diana talking to the pharmacist herself and claiming she had the crabs. Their actions matched their character in the rewrite. Not as funny, but it did helped cement their friendship even more. Had I wanted to allow Diana to go so far out of character I would have to explain it in someway, not just to keep Siân happy, but to be true to Diana.


Within seconds of walking into her house Karen tore off her navy blue suit, kicked off her heels and shook out her hair. As she padded into her bedroom, she looked around. A pile of dirty clothes stood in the corner. She sniffed the sweatpants she'd worn the day before. Good enough for a quiet night at home. A whole weekend alone awaited her. Yes. Her colleagues were headed for the pub for yet another Happy Hour. She'd OD'd on her law firm. She'd pleaded an engagement, not wanting to tell anyone, that her fondest dream was to do the laundry, put on the CD she'd bought at lunch and let Bach's harpsichord provide a background as she attacked the canvas waiting for her. Two whole days without having to listen to any husband trying to do his wife out of her share of their joint assets.

From these details what do we know about Karen's character?

  1. Karen is working as a lawyer. She needs to escape from her work.
  2. She lets her clothes pile up, so she isn't a total neatnik, but she does do laundry.
  3. She likes classical music.
  4. She probably lives alone and likes it.
  5. She doesn't reveal herself to her coworkers.


Create two men by the following methods:

Formal: This a 32-year-old man. We want to know the following


  • Name
  • Birth date
  • Birth place
  • Parents occupation
  • School history including grades and activities
  • Description of childhood home
  • Siblings and their ages
  • University, Armed Forces, drop out whatever is appropriate to the above list
  • Good or bad relations with parents and siblings and why


  • Favorite color
  • Favorite foods
  • Favorite sports -- play or watch or both
  • Preferred style of address as a youth, adult
  • Preferred music
  • Other pastimes
  • Reader and if so what?

Love life

  • Age of first sexual act and with whom under what conditions
  • First love
  • Current relationships


  • including high school jobs if any


  • Smoker? and if so what brand
  • Drinker? and if so what
  • What does he like to eat?
  • What does he read if he reads?
  • Other habits that show what he is like


  • Height
  • Weight
  • Hair color and if he is losing it
  • Eye color

Current living situation

  • Marital status
  • Parental status (if he has kid what kind of parent is he)

Philosophical considerations

  • Political party if any
  • Religion if any
  • Attitudes toward life in general


  • Describe where he lives and where he works
  • Neighborhood


A man is about to take his eight year old son fishing and the phone rings. Write two paragraphs that show the man's character clearly.


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