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How to Write a Character

Updated on March 23, 2019
Disastrous Grape profile image

Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

Yesterday, I was working on a vampire story (yes, so trite, I know), and I decided to write it from first person perspective. Doing so was difficult for me because I normally write in second person. But I wanted to follow the tradition of most vampire novels and write from the direct perspective of the characters.

While I found the story engaging enough to write (which means someone might find it engaging enough to read) the main character herself was a problem. She didn't have much of a personality yet, and I was having a hard time trying to figure out what her "voice" should sound like when she's narrating.

An easy way to figure this out is to use a method I learned from my evil Creative Writing teacher, Mrs. Berkle, who I mentioned in another article.

Actually, I learned this writing exercise from Janet Burroway and her book Imaginative Writing, but we'll give Mrs. Berkle a small amount of credit for throwing the book at my head a few times. It's more credit than she ever gave me.

Step One: Fill in the Blanks

We are going to do this thing called a Character Sheet. If the name doesn't make it obvious, a Character Sheet is a sort of outline that helps you get a basic grasp of who your character is and what you're trying to say with them.

The first thing we're going to do is finish a sentence about our character.

Here is the sentence you'll be finishing:

____ is a__ ___ ___-year-old ___ who wants ____.

That's basically it. What you're doing is figuring out the desire of your character, because that's what a character is: desire. A character has to want something, because content people make for lousy stories.

In fact, a character who wants nothing isn't a story at all. Unless you're writing an Everyman Character like Bilbo Baggins or Arthur Dent (perfectly average and content characters who are propelled into wild adventures by their weird and whacky friends), your character needs to want something.

So let's figure out what your character wants. Here is my filled out sentence:

Alex Evans is a shy twenty-six-year-old librarian who wants to save her sick twin sister.

This is how I would fill out the sentence.

Look how easy that was. With one simple sentence, I put my character and perhaps her entire story into focus. I know what she wants, and based on the adjective before her age, I know how she's likely going to go about getting it. She is shy, so it will be a struggle for her, and that will be a part of her character arc.

There really should have been two adjectives, actually. But if you're feeling up to it, why not insert three?! (Say that last sentence out loud. Like, really loud. Double dare ya.)

Step Two: Expand

In step two, we will make a list and fill it out with things our character would most definitely do.

We will ask the question

What makes ___ ___?

Then we will fill in the blank with things we imagine our character doing. Like so:

What makes Alex Evans ___?

Laugh . . . People who try to best her at chess.

Cry . . . Her own helplessness. She needs to be in control.

Smile . . . Children enjoying a book.

Angry . . . People who make assumptions about her.

Tired . . . Working late hours without coffee.

Frightened . . . Her own helplessness.

Desperate . . . The helplessness of others.

Stressed . . . Trying to please others.

And just like that, I expanded my character and got a better idea of who she is in my mind.

Keep in mind that you can use any words you like to supplement the ones I used here. You can ask yourself what makes a character trust, hate, pity, show compassion. You can make this list as long as you please, as long as you need.

Go wild!

© 2018 Ash

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