What’s In Character?

08 Feb

Every story has at least one character. The character can be almost anything. It could be a person, a spider, a tree, a rock, a dragon, a storm, etc. What ever the character is, it has physical and emotional features. It has a point of view, perhaps a history, some kind of future. Most likely, it has a personality, a temperament  even feelings. A story without a character is not a story.

Characters are depicted in different ways by various writers. Some go into lavish detail about how characters look physically while others use virtually no physical description at all. These latter writers rely on the reader to create a mental image of their own based on the character’s actions and dialogue. Even though the physical description never makes it onto the page, I would bet that the writer knows what the character looks like and how they dress. Interesting characters have detailed backgrounds. It’s the character background that I am interested in exploring.

Most of my stories start with a character. My first writings were, in fact, character sketches for role-playing game participants. I enjoy character creation and have approached it from many different angles. Sometimes I start with a physical description, sometimes a profession, sometimes a core personality profile, and sometimes a history. Each one works and very well-rounded layered characters can be created, regardless of where you start. The key thing is, always build more into the character than you will actually use in the story. Sometimes, your characters will go someplace or have to deal with an issue that you may not have thought about when you started writing. If you have a detailed character background, you can easily determine how your character should respond.

Recently, have I tried to write without having a fully fleshed out character to start with. I am finding myself having to re-read previous sections to remind myself what the character said or did. This is time-consuming, so I have started taking notes as I write. I hope the characters turn out okay. we shall see.

My intention is to offer a series of posts devoted to character creation. During the series, I will tear apart the main character from several flash fiction pieces and my short story, “Good Night’s Sleep”.  I will show you how Yursi was developed. I actually created her twice, using two different methods. Each gave slightly different results, as it should be.

I look at character creation like creating a painting. The artist starts with a blank canvas and begins by drawing a pencil sketch, the a base layer of paint is applied. Then, the picture begins to take shape as the artist adds layer upon layer of paint to the canvas. Each layer uses the layer beneath and adds detail to painting until together, all of the layers make up the final image.

I have seen characterization addressed many times in blog format. Usually, it is a brief discussion talking about character tags and traits we use to describe characters within the story. I have posts covering those areas as well. I hope this series will be a deeper dive into the background material where those tags and traits originate.

If you are in the initial stages of a story or have a story with a character that seems flat, I will give you suggestions that may help you bring your characters to life. Along the way, if your character has a major problem area that you would like to discuss, I would be happy to do so. :-).


Posted by on February 8, 2013 in What's in Character


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9 responses to “What’s In Character?

  1. char

    February 8, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    This series sounds great. Looking forward to reading more about creating characters.

    • Dennis Langley

      February 8, 2013 at 3:50 pm

      It’s big topic that I love to talk about. I kinda feel sorry for my character, Yursi. Her soul and everything else about her, will be laid bare. I hope she forgives me. I have some big plans for her this year.

      • char

        February 8, 2013 at 5:35 pm

        That’s what characters sign up for when they link up to authors–hardships and misery.

  2. 4amWriter

    February 9, 2013 at 7:37 am

    One of my favorite parts of writing a story is creating the characters. I don’t know that I have any one method, they kind of unfold before me as I write them through the events. I’ll look forward to your series. I bet I can learn something helpful!

    • Dennis Langley

      February 10, 2013 at 12:37 pm

      I agree that there is more than one way and to be sure, I use what ever I need at the time. As you will see in the series. Yursi was created one way, then for fun I tried her another way. After that I made some changes based on what She did to me during the plot. 😉

  3. scottweberwriter

    February 9, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    I find that I keep a few files open at once – the current story, a file full of the character descritpion and background, and the master document for the world. Then, as I write, I adjust or add to the background/character documents as I go. if I am doing a one off story, I usually write the character background/description at the beginning of the document, and refer to it all the time.

    • Dennis Langley

      February 10, 2013 at 12:56 pm

      My wife says my desk looks like Houston control. I have a couple laptops and dual screens going at the same time so I don’t have to click back and forth between files.

  4. Matthew Wright

    February 9, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    I’m intrigued that some of your characters started from RPG’s. Uh…mine too. What was it I said in my comment to you on my blog about great minds thinking alike? (My mother always said ‘Fools never differ’, but hey…)

    Back when I played RPG’s (as in, wa-a-a-a-a-y back when they were dice-and–hardback games) it was intriguing to see how the characteristics of the people involved in playing it came out in their characters. Made a lot of the characters very ‘real’. There is a novel I’m working on at the moment – and have been for a while (keep getting interrupted with non-fiction deadlines!) – in which the chief character is fundamentally the one I created for RPG. The story, setting and everything else is nothing whatsoever to do with that RPG, but what I find fascinating is the transferability of the character I’d created originally for that. Possibly an indication of the way that human truths are universal, I don’t know. I guess by the time I’ve finished, the characteristics will also be very different from that original RPG character – but, as an imaginary creation of mine, that was the start point.

    The game, incidentally, wasn’t Gygax’s AD&D – we started off playing that. However, nobody liked the rules much, too derivative and serious for our liking, so I sat down with a friend of mine (another Tolkien fan) and wrote our own RPG rules to suit what we were doing. I recall very little about it now except that the main influences were the Harvard Lampoon ‘Bored of the Rings’, Brit 80’s synth-pop bands, and motorcycle parts manufacturers (don’t ask!). The primary driver for the games, in the end, was humour – and the interplay between the characters. Looking back, this was proxying the actual people playing the game.

    • Dennis Langley

      February 10, 2013 at 1:01 pm

      The tools I have for RPG character generation are a huge help when I need to create a character in a hurry. It doesn’t give me a lot of background, but it gives me enough to keep moving forward. i can usually crank out a fairly detailed character in about thirty minutes. You spoke about your game setting once before. It sounds like a fun system. We used the AD&D rules and ignored what we didn’t like.


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