Sunday, May 29, 2011

Decisions, Decisions

Does he have white-blonde hair or dirty-blonde hair? Does she keep her fingernails pristine and perfect, or does she chew on them? Is he hot-tempered, or merely brooding and misunderstood? Is she a confident Christian or does she struggle daily with the concept of God?

These are a few of the thousand questions I ask myself at this point in the brainstorming process (getting to know my characters, building them, fleshing them out). I both loathe and adore this vital part of the process. I loathe it because there are so many questions to ask and answer. Potentially thousands. It feels so limitless (and sometimes overwhelming!). I could spend years answering all the possible questions. But I don't have that kind of time, so I must pick and choose carefully. But I also adore this part of the process because there's so much freedom, so much potential. I can create any character I want, give them any personality, any quirk, any shady past. It's all in my hands.

Characterization is both a blessing and burden, but no matter what, it's absolutely necessary. We're essentially creating human beings that will tell our story for us. So, we must know them inside and out. And, much better than our readers. When students ask me how to create a character, I always tell them, "Ask questions." Ask yourself what color hair, eyes they have - what shade of white their teeth might be. Do they have tattoos? What's their romantic/dating history? On and on and on. I give them a character sketch to fill out - link here - and they add in more questions as part of the assignment. It's always fun, hearing their questions. They usually get very creative!

I've grappled with this characterization process more than once, as I look back over this blog and find a few entries that deal with it: Character Stew; What's in a Name?; Good Guys/Bad Guys; Casting Your Characters.

What are your tricks/suggestions/routines for fleshing out characters? I'd love to hear them!


  1. Great topic. I like to do a lot of people watching. I keep notes of people that I observe. Hospitals and airports are great for this, as are coffee shops and malls. At school (I teach elementary) I am constantly writing things down.
    I also interview people about their likes, their dislikes, and I do surveys with kids about how they feel about different things. Right now I am working on a book where the main character is a hyperactive girl of about 10-11 years of age. I will use a lot of my observations to flesh out her character.

  2. Wonderful suggestions, Jeanne! I, too, love people-watching. I assign "observation papers" in my Creative Writing classes, where students choose a location (anywhere - park, restaurant, coffee shop, airport) and write down all their observations. Those are fun papers to "grade"!

    Good luck with your latest book - sounds interesting!