Writing Advice: Fleshing Out Characters

Inevitably, there will come a point where you have a draft of something great on the page. You’ve got your plot points figured out, you know where your characters are going, and you have an ending ready to implement.

Seems like it should be enough, right?

Remember, though, that some of the best literature out there isn’t about a really great story; it’s about really great characters. You could have the coolest, neatest, or most clever story and structure, but if your characters fall flat on the page (the cigar-smoking drill sergeant, the alcoholic private detective, the over-thinking author), the story has a very good chance of falling flat, too.

Don’t worry, though; there are some pretty good techniques for making them seem like real, breathing people:

  1. Way too much information. When writing characters, you should know more about them (their past, their desires, etc.) than the reader. For every paragraph that you write about them, realistically, you should have at least two or three paragraphs of extra content in a folder somewhere (virtual or real). What kind of school did he go to? How many brothers and sisters? What was his relationship like with his parents? Specifics are important here. If you say that his parental relationship was bad, what makes you say that? How was it when he moved out? What was that day like? Did it rain? Did anyone cry?
  2. Specifics, specifics, specifics. I harp on this all the time in my classes. When you are talking about something that a character is doing, you should use sensory descriptions (concrete nouns: nouns that are observable by the five senses). What does it sound like? Don’t say that it was loud. Describe the sounds. This falls into the whole “show, don’t tell” kind of advice. If you were to accurately describe the smell of your character’s apartment with specifics, not only will the reader experience the apartment, but the reader will have a better feeling for that character.
  3. List out fears, wishes, desires. If he hates macadamia nuts, what are his thoughts on pecans? Did he ever feel bad for not eating his aunt’s famous pecan pie? Or did he hate his aunt? If he won the lottery, what would he do? Describe a bad dream. Was he falling? Losing teeth? Or was he being chased by a giant Land Octopus?
  4. Put your character into your shoes. Would she like your car? Your job? What kinds of radio stations would she listen to? If she found herself on your couch every night, what shows would she want to watch? If she were to have to go to the mall and spend money, what store would probably get the bulk of her cash?

All of these are great to do in down time before you start a large project, as well as something that you can do at any point in the process. If you find yourself having been written into a corner, using some of these techniques can help you figure out a tad more about the character, giving you that little nudge he or she might need to push the story along.

What about you? What kinds of techniques do you use to fill out your characters?

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2 thoughts on “Writing Advice: Fleshing Out Characters

  1. Great advice. I’ve often heard it’s important to understand a character’s relationship to the other characters around him / her, so that the full dynamic and power struggle of their position can be fully understood. Great post.

  2. I totally agree; understanding relationships with other characters is extremely important. I wonder how many writers forget that, using over-used relationship stereotypes to forge their conversations. Truly understanding those links (why character A is jealous of character B; what happened back in college when character A got a date with the girl character B liked) would definitely help.
    Thanks for stopping by!

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