Character Building

Note: When writing here about characters, when the gender isn’t specific, I won’t use the awkward phrase “him or her” or constantly repeat “the character.”  I’ll use the female gender, but please know that I’m referring to either male or female.

Character Building

My favorite job as a writer is creating characters. I need to know and understand them and what goes on inside their heads, so I can make them authentic and memorable.

Many elements go into creating a rounded character. I generally start writing the first draft, not knowing a lot about my protagonist. I put her in a situation and watch her act and react. I get to know her as she deals with her problems. As she develops on the page and in my mind, I create a backstory for her. What made her afraid of dogs? (Was she attacked by a dog as a young child?) Where did she learn empathy? (Do her parents own a funeral home, so her parents demonstrated empathy every day? Or did she have siblings who were hard on her, so she knows how it feels to be bullied?) Why does she always want to be outside? (As a young child had she been ill and didn’t go outside for months at a time? Or does she love to run? And is the running a way to keep her calm, or does she have some ADD and needs to get rid of extra energy?)

One way to fill out a character as you work on her is to create a list of likes/dislikes, habits, and quirks. This is fun and something writing students generally enjoy. Answer the questions below about your character. (If you like, add your own questions to this list and then answer them.)

1. About what physical feature is she most self-conscious?
2. What does she never leave home without?
3. What hobbies does she enjoy?
4. What is her biggest fear?
5. What is her biggest secret?
6. She simply can’t believe __________.
7. What does she value most in a best friend?
8. Does she have a pet phrase? (For instance, “Holy beans!” or “You gotta be kiddin’!”)
9. Does she regret something she did in the past month? What is it?
10. Where does she go to be alone?
11. What does she do when she’s nervous?
12. When she is sad, does she want to be left alone, or does she need people around her?
13. Does she like school? What is her favorite subject?
14. What is her least favorite subject?
15. What is her relationship like with her parents? (Are they close, or constantly butting heads?)
16. Is it hard or easy for her to make new friends? How did she meet her best friend?
17. Is she athletic? What’s her favorite sport as a participant? As a spectator?
18. Does she have a talent that she’s developing?
19. What is her pet peeve?
20. If she could live anywhere, where would it be?

In a classroom situation, a fun way to introduce the idea of these character details is this: Have the students desks arranged in a circle. Each student has a sheet of paper and a pencil. Ask students to draw a picture of character. Tell them it’s okay if they can’t draw very well; a stick figure is fine.  Tell them they have one minute to do this. Then ask them to pass their papers to the person on their right.

Now tell them to look at the picture in front of them. Give that character a name. Pass the paper again to the person on the right.

Now go down the above list and have students answer each question. Always pass the papers to the right after each is answered. When the papers return to the student who drew the character, give students time to scan the answers on their page. Which are most interesting? Which might suggest a scene? A story?

Have students write a scene or story that deals with one of the answers.

An extension of this exercise is for students to pair up in twos. Have them write a story together that uses both of their characters.

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