Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How's Your Character Measure Up to Life?

© Marta Stephens 2011 all rights reserved

Has anyone ever told you that your characters are not well developed? If so, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, that statement alone isn’t the magic wand that will help solve the problem. Often what your critique partner, your editor or agent mean to say is that the characters lack the substance that makes them come alive.

Still not sure what that means? Pretend you are the protagonist in your book. Take out a piece of paper and pen and write down your demographics; sex, race, age, date and place of birth, religion, address, profession, family history (parents’ names, siblings, etc.). Once you’ve identified yourself, write down the answers to the following traits that best fit you personally.

1. General traits are those we inherit or are things we are exposed to through our environment.

2. Physical Traits are a person’s physical make up (height, weight, color of hair/eyes, etc.).

3. Personal Traits are those things that stem from a person’s social and ethical aspects.

4. Emotional Traits refers to the mental or psychological state of the character.

Take time to get to know your protagonist intimately. Aside from the demographics and the items listed in 1-3, what makes a character sing with life and are possibly the hardest to show in one’s writing are the deep wounds the character carries inside. It’s the life altering experiences your character brings into the story that lead him or her past the hurdles and help shape the plot.

Let’s say for example that fear is an obstacle in your character’s path and you’re not sure how to handle the scene. Dig deep inside into that dark corner of your heart or mind for buried emotions. What are your greatest fears? Describe them. What is the depth of those feelings. Where do they stem from? Think back to every similar emotion you felt and look to the source of that fear. Analyze it. What can it be compared to? Once we can identify and put words to those feelings, the character will come to life. Unfortunately, it could take time to fully develop your character so be prepared to write several drafts. In the meantime, keep prodding and don’t be afraid to show both the positive traits as well as the character’s dark side. We all have one, shouldn’t he/she?

About the author:
Marta Stephens writes mystery/suspense.

THE DEVIL CAN WAIT (2008), Bronze Medal Finalist, 2009 IPPY Awards, Top Ten, 2008 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).

SILENCED CRY (2007) Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival, Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).

Her books are available in paperback and most electronic format. Find them online at , Amazons, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million. For more information about Stephens and her writing, visit


Ron Adams said...

One of the things I do is to create index card s for my character(s), and use the information on them as a way to remind me of what may be going on in their heads. It also helps keep track of how the characters are related in each story. Great post, Marta, excellent advice.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

I love this post, Marta. Very well said. And so true! If your characters don't live, breathe, and feel fear or joy in your head, how can they in your readers'? Thanks!

Kim Smith said...

Exceptional post dear M. I have a lot of trouble making characters behave. Either they are way over the top or way under the radar. At least they are not boring!

Marta Stephens said...

Thanks all. I find I do some of my best characterization and darkest writing when I'm angry. Hmmmm. ;)