How to Create and Develop Characters

How to Describe a Character

Story: “Walking Stick” by Kelli Ford, published by Drunken Boat

The best character descriptions do more than only show the reader a character. They reveal something about the way the world works or the way a character interacts with that world.

How to Create Your Narrator’s Voice

Novel: Big Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale, excerpted on Facebook

No aspect of writing fiction is more mysterious than creating a unique voice for the narrator. We often begin by imitating a voice that we love–Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, or any of the voices dreamed up by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Kraus, or Gary Shteyngart. Or we try to write the way that someone we know talks. As we fail, the elusive voice becomes like a magic trick that we should know how to perform but have forgotten. So what do we do?

How to Reinvent a Stock Character

Novel: Light by M. John Harrison, excerpted at Amazon

The problem is not to invent a story that’s never been written but to reinvent an age-old tale. This is what M. John Harrison has done in his novel Light, the first in a science fiction trilogy. The book features space ships and aliens, but Harrison moves far beyond the typical versions of these things.

How to Show the Narrator’s Evolution

Story: “White Wedding” by Nina McConigley, published by Memorious

When someone asks what your story is about, your answer might sound like this: “It’s about this guy, and at first he felt this way, but then he realized he felt this way?”  A story like this can present a problem: if the character’s interior life is the story, how do you show any of it? Most of us want to avoid writing this sentence: ”Now he felt different.” Here’s how.

How to Write about a Character’s Experience of Self-Discovery

Story: “Water Liars” by Barry Hannah, published in Garden and Gun

The narrator has discovered that his wife slept with other men before him, and not only does the news bother him, he’s also bothered by the fact that he’s bothered by it. As a result, the story becomes less about his wife and more about the narrator trying to understand his reaction to his discovery about her.

How to Set the Rules that Characters Must Live By

Novel: Minutes Before Sunset by Shannon A. Thompson

Every story has rules. In comic books, the superheroes have certain powers and not others. In horror stories, monsters can be killed only with silver bullets or certain chants. In romances, the heroine falls for certain kinds of men and not others. The trick, as a writer, is to show those rules without disrupting the narrative.

How to Introduce Characters to Each Other

Novel: Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht, excerpted at Necessary Fiction

Notice what Specht does not do: she doesn’t let the characters say, “Hi.” They don’t shake hands or make chit-chat. They don’t eye each other from across the room. The introduction just happens. Here’s a breakdown of how it works.

How to Use a Single Detail to Create a Character

Story: “Filler” by Anthony Abboreno, published at American Short Fiction

When creating a character, we tend to think about the entirety of the character—asking questions like, who is this person, really—but sometimes all we need is one good detail.

How to Convey Emotion Indirectly

Story: “What We Left Behind” by Mũthoni Kiarie, published at Narrative Magazine

Sometimes the best way to approach important moments in a story is indirectly. To that end, the writer John Gardner gave his students this exercise: Write a paragraph about a farmer grieving after his son’s death. But you can’t mention the son or his death or any words that signal emotion. Instead, you must describe the barn and, in the details you choose, convey the farmer’s sense of loss. This can be a difficult exercise because we realize how dependent we are on direct treatment of everything in a story. If you try to describe the barn, though, and if you continue to find indirect approaches to key information in fiction, you might be surprised at the effect on your writing. You’ll also begin to see the strategy everywhere in stories.

How to Create a Monster

Story: “The Monster” by Ali Simpson, published at The Southampton Review and Electric Literature

Everyone loves a good horror story. But anyone who tries to write such a story quickly discovers that it’s not enough to simply create a monster. You must also create a reason for the monster to exist. Or, to quote the great Albert Camus, who would have turned 100 this year, “A character is never the author who created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously.” In all great horror stories, literary or otherwise, the monster is often a manifestation of a character’s inner monstrosity.

How to Write a Story Whose Main Character is Everyone

Story: “Millions of Americans are Strange,” by Nicholas Grider, published in Guernica

The traditional novel and story are biased toward individual experience. This claim may sound odd, but it’s true. In most stories, the world and everything in it is filtered through the point of view of one character at a time. Even if the POV is omniscient, it doesn’t convey all that it knows on every page. Instead, the voice comes down from the skies to narrate what is happening to this character or that one. But what if you wanted to write a story from a larger perspective? Is it possible to write a story whose main character is everyone in the world? In America?

How to Create a Villain

Novel: Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler, published by Scholastic

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves.

How to Ground Ecstatic Experience in Human Motivation

Essay: “Down at the Cross” by James Baldwin

One of the great regularities of human existence is that many of us, at one time or another, feel as though we’ve become the conduit for some superhuman energy. The source differs: God, the artistic muses, love, sex, drugs, and probably a host of others. When writing about such experiences, our language must necessarily match the intensity of the moment, relying on metaphor and on diction and syntax that transcend the everyday or commonplace. But when the moment is over, when the essay or story must move on, how does the language (and, therefore, the essay/story itself) come back down to regular life?

How to Describe a Character’s Mental State

Novel: Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun, excerpted at Evergreen Review

Our tendency as writers is to focus on describing the emotions of the characters closest to us: our narrators or, in the case of third person POV, the character we’re following. We become a Henry James-in-training, trying to capture the minute shifts of perception and feeling that occur inside the characters’ heads. But what happens when we need to describe those shifts of emotion inside a character whose head is closed to us? How do you describe an internal thought process when all you have available is the character’s exterior appearance?

How to Write Active Character Descriptions

Novel: A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post, published by Pandamoon

When we first start describing characters, there’s often a tendency to aim for a perfect representation, the equivalent of a photographic portrait. So we state the character’s body type, hair color and style, and clothes. But does even the most exact detail add up to something interesting? It’s often the case that a good character description, rather than being a snapshot, is more like the magical moving photographs that hang on the walls of Hogwarts. They’re active and dramatic.

How to Create a Character Foil

Story: “Aviator on the Prowl” by Kalpana Narayanan, published by Boston Review

In high school literature classes, students are often taught about character foils—a yin-and-yang concept in which characters tend to be polar opposites of each other, as in the nursery rhyme, “Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean.” As a story device, an opposites-attract approach often works. But it isn’t the only way to develop character conflicts. In her story, “Aviator on the Prowl,” Kalpana Narayanan creates two characters who are remarkably alike rather than different.

How to Make Characters Uncomfortable

Novel: In the Land of Steady Habits by Ted Thompson, published by Little, Brown

Fiction should not be nice to its characters. As soon as a character reveals some preference (I like this but hate that), the story has an obligation to force the character into that hated thing. It’s a tried and true strategy that can produce some of the best moments in a story, regardless of genre (remember snake-fearing Indiana Jones facing a pit of snakes?). So, how do you set up a situation in which a character must face the thing he or she detests most?

How to Write Energetic Character Descriptions

Novel: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, published by Anchor

It’s startling how much Achebe packs into this description. It starts with a fight, moves to a physical description that focuses on eyebrows, of all things, and then moves to breathing, the way he walked, the way he talked, and his relationship with his father. It’s an incredible jumble of information that makes absolute sense. So, how does Achebe pull it off?

How to Write Complex Characters

Essay: “Too Poor for Pop Culture” by D Watkins, published in Salon

In fiction and essays, it’s tempting to write about characters and people so that they’re merely vehicles for a larger point. The piece begins to feel like an allegory or morality play. When it comes to race and ethnicity, categorization leads to the flattening effect of the oldest stereotypes in our culture. These caricatures may seem familiar and right to us, but they’re inevitably too simple, and the story or essay, as a whole, suffers. So, how do we write more complex characters? One answer: give the characters and people in your fiction and essays a chance to be as smart and funny. Don’t let the work become a monologue by you, the author. Instead, let the characters and people speak for themselves.

How to Describe an Entire Society

Novella: Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, published by Amazon Crossing

Some stories are about individuals, and the drama between them is so intense that the backdrop could be the Death Star or a blank wall and it wouldn’t matter. In other stories, the backdrop matters. Take it away, and the story vanishes. Whether the story is about a society as a whole or a particular town or neighborhood, the challenge is to establish the backdrop as quickly as you’d establish a character.

How to Develop Character Amid Large-Scale Conflict

Essay: “Under the Aegean Moon” by Selin Gökçesu, published by Tin House

Stories about large-scale conflicts like war can reduce the characters involved to the level of those faceless henchman found in action movies, characters whose only purpose in the film is to get shot and die. Did they have friends? Family? Personalities? Who knows? It’s not important. Yet if a story is to be dramatic and engaging, its characters must have lives and personalities that do more than reflect the conflict around them.

How to Give Characters a Frame of Reference

Graphic Memoir: Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart, published by St. Martin’s

When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.

How to Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others

Profile article: “The United States of Bus Travel” by Tristan Ahtone, published in Al Jazeera America.

The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?

How to Give a Character a Job

Novel: The Pathless Sky by Chaitali Sen, published by Europa Editions

Writers (for instance, Henry James) have often been people with wealth, who never had to get a “real job,” and so their novels reflect their lives of leisure. The opposite approach is to give characters low-paid, backbreaking jobs that reveal the oppression of society, as in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. It’s true that jobs carry social connotations and political implications (today as ever), but this is not the only way to view work. What if the character likes the job? Or, what if a job is neither terrible nor great but, simply, part of the fabric of the character’s life? To write about work in this context, we need a different approach than ignoring labor altogether or using it as a metaphor for society.

How to Portray a Relationship with One Well-Chosen Detail

Essay: “A Bedtime Story” by Michelle Serros, published by Huizache

It’s probably not surprising that good writing avoids abstraction. But abstraction doesn’t only mean terms like justice or goodness. For example, take a relationship or a marriage. We talk about these things as if they are as actual and real as, say, a gala apple, but that isn’t quite true. When you see a relationship, you see two people. When the relationship seems to be going well, or when it’s headed south, that judgement is based on various cues that we pick up—and those cues often involve specific behaviors or conversations, not generalizations about the relationship as a whole. As a result, when writing about not-quite-tangible details like a marriage, it’s useful to replace something complex with something simple.

How to Write Descriptions that Cut Both Ways

Novel: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal, published by Pamela Dorman Books

When describing characters, it’s tempting to attempt the literary equivalent of a mug shot and try to capture an exact likeness. A description of this nature will rely on precise details: height, weight, hair color, eye color, clothes, and shoes. But what does this really tell us? My father likes to describe a person with a particular body type as being “built like a brick shithouse.” This delightful statement tells you as much about my father as the person he’s describing, which is often the effect of good writing. An effective description will reveal essential qualities of both the character being described and the character doing the looking.

How to Help Readers Connect with Characters

Story: “Mark Wishewas” by Erika T. Worth

When I teach characterization, I often tell people to begin with statements like, “She’s the kind of person who…” as a way to move beyond basic description to attitude, routine, and potential action. But, of course, it’s still a strategy that tends toward generalization, and the characters that stick with us as readers don’t feel generic. They feel fully realized and complex, and, as we read about them, we forget that we’re reading. That’s the Holy Grail for writers—to create characters who no longer feel created. The difficulty is that they are created and that the creation often starts with generalizations. So how can writers move beyond them? How can characters begin to take on a life of their own?

How to Introduce and Name a Cast of Characters

Novel: Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown

One of the questions that will drive writers—and not just beginners—crazy is whether to name a character right away. You’ll hear and read different takes on this. Some journal editors say that they’ll put down a story that begins with he or she and not a name. But naming a character right away can feel odd. The reader doesn’t know this person. Who cares what his name is? The right answer (there isn’t one) is actually part of a larger problem of introducing characters. Do it well, and nobody cares if you start with he. Do it poorly, and that’s an easy way to write off your work.

How to Give Depth to Character Descriptions

Memoir: The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Beginning writers tend to approach character descriptions in a pretty straightforward way: what does he look like? Is she tall, short? What is a distinguishing characteristic? A nose? Teeth? The result often resembles a police or personal ad description—and that’s fine. It’s a place to begin. But as a writer’s craft grows, so does the ability to do more with character descriptions.

How to Create “People Like You”

Novel: Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

In real life, we often fall into an “us and them” mentality and then struggle to break free from the restrictive stereotypes that inevitably result. Some of these “us and them” traps are so clear that we have names for them: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia. But just because we avoid these (or try to) doesn’t mean that we don’t succumb to others, even in small ways. As the great writer Barry Hannah once told a class of students, “There are two types of people in the world: Those who like the movie Rocky and those who do not.” While this is, on its surface, a far less serious “us and them” binary than, say, racism, anyone who’s gotten involved in a heated argument about aesthetics knows that they can quickly escalate. In life, that’s bad. In fiction, though, it’s good.

How to Not Over-Explain a Character’s Behavior

Story: “Stockholm Syndrome” by Sam Allingham

When you sit through enough writing workshops, you begin to recognize certain patterns to how students respond to stories. For example, in almost every workshop, someone will say about a story, “I want more.” A good instructor will push back: “More what?” And that’s usually where the critique begins to break down. “I don’t know, just more,” the student might say. For the person whose story it is, this can be incredibly frustrating. But it’s also a necessary part of learning to diagnose what isn’t working in a piece of fiction. The person saying, “I want more,” senses that there’s a problem but doesn’t know what it is. The problem could be almost anything, but the solution is almost never simply writing more. In fact, more can often ruin whatever is most compelling about the story.

How to Figure Out What Really Drives a Character to Act

Story: “Ismail” by Hasanthika Sirisena

When you begin a novel, it’s easy to find a detail that pulls you into a character or plot line, and then another detail, and then another, and then one day you look at the accumulated pages and think, “What isthis?” One response to this question is to create an outline, a big-picture snapshot of what’s in a novel and where it’s going. The problem, of course, is that outlines don’t create order; they only reveal what’s already there. Figuring out plot and character and what happens next is still the writer’s job. There are no shortcuts, except for maybe this one. If you can identify a single, driving impulse in a character—a fundamental need that colors every aspect of his or her behavior—then sometimes a story will snap into focus.

How to Make a Character Represent a Place or Group

Story: “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” by Leona Theis

Stories, novels, and even essays feature two types of characters (broadly speaking): major, complex characters and minor, flat ones.  The terms are basically shorthand for this: some characters get a lot of time on the page while others might show up for only a sentence, the literary equivalent of a nameless movie henchman or Star Trek crew member. In action scenes, the minor character exists as a plot device, to get chopped down so that the major characters will act. But what about in stories where action isn’t the primary draw?

How to Develop Characters Using Degrees of Intensity

Story: “Lily and Annabelle” by John Jodzio

Most of us have had the experience of liking something (ice cream, for instance) and then experiencing something new (say, gelato) and thinking, “Whoa! I like this so much more.” The opposite can also happen: you hate something and then discover something that you detest even more. These degrees of liking or disliking reveal a lot about our tastes and personalities, and they’re a great way to develop characters.

How to Avoid the Mirror in Character Descriptions

Story: “You Will Miss Me When I Burn” by Kelli Jo Ford

We’ve all written this type of character description: the character walks past a mirror, stops, and examines the face and person it reveals. It’s a simple strategy that allows the story to tell the reader, “Here is what this person looks like.” The problem is that it’s overused. People really do look in mirrors, of course, and sometimes it’s necessary in fiction. I’m not suggesting that mirrors should never appear in our writing. But they shouldn’t be used as a crutch. There are other ways to describe characters, and some of them can feel so active that we don’t even realize a description has occurred.

How to Build Character Within Action Scenes

Novel: The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

The most boring prose is often supposed to be the most exciting: action scenes. No matter how exquisitely detailed and choreographed a scene’s punches, kicks, shouts, commands, charges, and retreats, the reader can bear only so much. After more than a few sentences—or perhaps a paragraph or two at most—it simply washes over us, unseen. Our eyes glaze over. So, good writers will mix something into their action sequences, and usually that something builds character.

How to Introduce a Character with Misdirection

Novel: We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

The introduction of one of the most famous characters in literature happens without the reader’s knowledge. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway attends a party at Gatsby’s house but nobody’s seen Gatsby. People are trading rumors (“I’ll bet he killed a man”), and so Nick goes searching—into Gatsby’s mansion, into his library—before finding himself outside again, talking to a guy about the army. Someone asks if he’s having a good time, and Nick says, “I haven’t even seen the host.” That’s when the introduction happens: “I’m Gatsby,” the other man says. This is an important piece of strategy on Fitzgerald’s part because the reader badly wants to see Gatsby. In a way, he’s the entire point of the novel, as the title indicates. But if Fitzgerald had introduced this great character directly, the reader might have been disappointed. No description would have matched the hype. So Fitzgerald snuck him onto the page.


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