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Fleshing out a Fictional Character

Updated on February 20, 2012
Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway

Fleshing out a Fictional Character

By Tony DeLorger © 2011

Being a fiction writer is in one sense like being a method actor. Both have to immerse themselves in their character or characters, living beneath their skin and viewing life through their eyes. It is this process that fleshes out the character to a believable and individual extent, giving the reader or viewer reason to care about the character. Without that empathy and caring why would we continue to follow?

No matter how clever or intricate a plot, without believable characters no reader will sacrifice their time and effort. So it is important that before writing your fictional story or novel, you should take the time to plan your characterisations. Each one of us has a life experience that differenciates us from everyone else. This limitation for developing various characters of different backgrounds and beliefs can only be overcome by planning and detail.

This is how to start. Write up a characterisation sheet for each character. This sheet should contain every piece of information you need to know to make that person live in the reader’s minds. Start with: full name, date of birth, star sign, mother and father’s names and occupations, childhood details, houses and places lived in, traumas, accidents, illnesses, education, past loves, jobs, relationships and marriages, children, presentation and clothing etc.

Obviously minor characters need less information and depth, but for leading roles the more information about how that character has come to be, allows you the writer to live and act as that person. In doing so, when you write dialogue, it will be true to character, having come from a solid, knowable past. The ‘Characterisation Sheets’ should be at least 1-2 pages long; the more detail the better.

This process has you the writer, mentally prepared for every situation in the plot. As an extreme example, imagine having a character that is a psychopath and eats babies. One could not begin to mentally place yourself into a character such as this, but surprisingly you can. In writing up your characterisation sheet you can construct a bizarre childhood of abuse and sadistic treatment including sensory deprivation, living and eating in filth. Having done this you could look on this psychopathic behaviour as almost expected; the flesh of a young pristine life represented as purity to this disturbed mind. The reality is you can, as a writer, find a justification for the character and therefore act and respond as that character on paper. The psychopath, as horrendous as he or she is, then becomes believable and whether hated or loved lives in the readers mind.

We are all capable of a limitless imagination and in designing characters in our fictional plots we must try not to stick to stereotypes. Instead develop sound characters by a driven plot that pushes them to reveal their true selves, who they are. Some character information can be told by narrative, but characters reveal themselves most from dialogue, their beliefs and responses.

Remember also the senses are a good starting point when relaying personal experience from a character, their memories and connections through all the senses. If you can successfully live beneath the skin of your characters, the reader will follow the character anywhere, relating to real humanity, not just a make believe name in a book.


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    • Tony DeLorger profile image

      Tony DeLorger 4 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

      Glad it was helpful Bill, and good luck with your writing project. I've written one book of historically based fiction and research is definitely key. best wishes.

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 4 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Arrived here as I research for writing my historical fiction... especially family sagas. Thanks for your insights of fleshing out fictional characters. ;-)

    • Tony DeLorger profile image

      Tony DeLorger 7 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

      Thanks for the comment Merlin. Yes, using known people is a good one, and a great way to start as it's easier to know the character. Cheers.

    • Merlin Fraser profile image

      Merlin Fraser 7 years ago from Cotswold Hills

      Nice Hub and I agree with you, this is one of those areas where wannabe authors don't spend enough time.

      Characters must have depth,they cannot simply burst onto the world at the whim of a writer and of course when the story situation changes the characters must react.... Well .... Within character !

      Many stories I have reviewed to help new authors fall apart when they rush to create a scene important to their plot but the actions and reactions of the characters is all wrong and unbelievable.

      One trick I have used in my stories is to loosely base the characters on real people I know well. So when something happens in the story I ask myself how would so and so react in this situation.