Category Archives: Characterization

Find exciting characters in mundane places

by Marion J. Smith

I’m sure most writers have a little notebook and pen handy in a pocket or purse. I’m sure most also find time to kill while dinning solo in a coffee house or waiting an hour at the doctor’s office. Do not kill that precious time. Make it work for you.

Image: Jeroen van Oostrom /

First you will need to become a sly spy, a peek-sneak, and an eavesdropper. All useful sins. You will also need to practice hiding, from the person at the next table or seat, what you have written. And learn the art of gazing nonchalantly, vacantly around the room occasionally. No one must suspect you could be watching him/her.

Now you have learnt the basics for character studying you can hone your pen, un-lock your note-pad and set out to find characters for your next project.

Start with a person you think may be around for the next ten minutes or so.
Note the obvious: his approximate generation, her obvious nationality. Maybe you have a pair or a couple. Workmates, senior lovers, mother and child, a pair of teens.

Next note is he obese, she reedy, he an Adonis? So far so easy.

Now is the time to bring your sneak-a-peek training into play. See her hands: How does she hold her coffee cup? Are the fingernails clean, scarlet, dirty, split, bitten? Are the knuckles red raw, arthritically twisted? Is the hair windblown, dirty, or newly coiffed? Describe the appearance. His dirty fingers. Is it fresh motor oil? He must be a mechanic. Or weeks old ground in dirt: a hobo or a slob? Her red rough hands. From a lifetime of manual employment, a possible skin disease, smoker’s nicotine, or time out in a bitter wind.

Now sneak-a-peek at the face. Ruddy or pale. Made up or neglected. Is that is a secret smile, an ugly sneer, or hidden tears. Study the body language; slouched, stiff, upright, bowed.

Ask yourself why. Now is the time when everything you have sneeked-a-peek at you can assume reasons for. What is that smile about? Why is he so gaunt and gray? Why has she had her hair done? Try to get involved in a casual conversation. Maybe something useful will come of it.

Next we will try using our eavesdropping skills. She chats to everyone who passes by. What does she find to say and why. He’s bitching to his buddy about someone else or even to an invisible partner. The couple across the way, are they looking at each other when they speak or avoiding eye contact? Gather clues from these conversations.

Having observed and made notes of the obvious elements you can then begin to assume. Ask yourself “Why”. The kids in the waiting room are driving everyone crazy why does the mum, or mummy, or mother, not do something about them? A drunk is arguing with the server. Something unusual has happened in the car park. The staff clearing tables is doing a lousy job.

Now your jottings can really start to work for you. Maybe your story has already been born of it’s own free will. If not then save your characters for a rainy day writer’s block. Next year you may need a well-dressed, obese man in a doctor’s waiting room along with the sexy Mom of three brats.

You take it from here. I wish you many hours of happy character building. Just don’t end up in the doctor’s waiting room because you have consumed too many coffees.

Marion has been a member of the Cambridge Writers Collective for almost 18 years. She enjoys writing short stories and poetry. Marion has published “After Sunset” a selection of her poetry. Other work has been published in various anthologies. Marion is also a lifelong thespian and watercolour artist.

Character Fairy Dust

by Marcie Schwindt

Image: Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot /

What makes a character unforgettable? You know the ones I mean—the hero who makes you want to be a better, smarter, cooler person; the villain that keeps you awake at night; the side-kick who captured your imagination.
I’ve received tons of advice on how to make a character likeable. I’ve followed all of it, but have never quite been satisfied with the results. And so began my quest for Character Fairy Dust—that magical ingredient to elevate my characters from predictable to iconic. While I’ve yet to find one all-encompassing formula, I have discovered a few truths that work for me.

  • All characters, regardless of hat colour, benefit from being written in “shades of grey”. No one is perfectly good or perfectly evil, or even perfectly stereotypical, so characters shouldn’t be either. Sometimes good people make bad choices. A villain can still antagonize your main character while otherwise seeming an upstanding citizen. Who’s scarier—your kid’s favourite babysitter who is secretly a serial killer, or a known ‘mad-scientist’ who keeps himself locked in his isolated castle in the forest?
  • Contradictions and obsessions create conflict and make characters interesting. For example, my playboy character “kisses like a fish”. Confusion over how that’s even possible makes the reader question their assumptions and guess at what else about him they may be surprised by. What does your ‘neat-freak’ have hidden in his/her junk drawer?
  • I rely heavily on dialogue to move my story along. If each of my characters didn’t have a distinct voice or viewpoint, the text would be littered with he saids and she saids. Some of my characters are witty, some direct, some shy, heavily accented, or speak in clichés or catch phrases. Some are even silent.
  • At least once in my text a main character will solve a problem in an unexpected way—oh the things MacGyver could do with a paperclip and chewed gum…

How do you make your characters live on in your reader’s mind?

Marcie Schwindt loves to read and write fast-paced, character and travel driven stories. She writes under the names Marcie Schwindt, Marcie Walker, and Amber Willow and can be found on Twitter @marcie8

Bringing Characters to Life

by Michelle Mills

Image: digitalart /

When I first started writing prose it was like experiencing first-love all over again—the epic kind.  This was not just another creative hobby—one in a long line in which I’d dabbled—I’d found my soul mate in a journal.  I’m going to write a book, I decided after composing my first short story.  My imagination was in over-drive and my determination was fierce, but I’d yet to master some of the critical techniques. I was heavy on the narrative [yawn], and I wasn’t overly skilled at distinguishing my characters through dialogue [dangerous]. I didn’t want to bore and sedate my readers—after all, I quite likemy book club and writing critique group friends!  But I wouldn’t be offended if they ordered take-out instead of cooking dinner, and then stayed up all night because they couldn’t put my book down …  I might not be there yet, but I’ve made some inroads with my dialogue.  Recently, the most positive feedback I’ve been granted relates to my dialogue and character development:  “You have a gift for bringing your characters to life.”  “Your characters are 3D.” These were tremendous compliments, as somehow I’d managed to turn my weakness into what I hope is an entertaining and believable rhythm of dialogue.

How did I transition my writing?  I paid careful attention to the feedback I was getting from my critique group; I read numerous books and articles about my craft, and I continued to write, and write, and rewrite. I am still learning, but I’ve discovered a few things along the way that work well for me:

Get intimate with your characters
In order to express your characters effectively, you need to know them intimately first.  Pretend you are their shrink—go beyond the questions you might ask an interesting new acquaintance, as well as the questions that would get you punched in real life.  The latter is crucial; you need to know what makes them tick, and understand what their motives are.  It is also important to understand the reasoning behind their actions, however delusional it might be.  It could be psychological or circumstantial, or a combination of both.   We all know we should do this, but not everyone does, or we mistakenly focus on character sketches for the protagonist, hero, and villain, and then neglect our supporting characters.

Um, uh …you know what I mean…
Cut this stuff out!  People say these things in real life, but they serve no purpose and will do nothing other than stifle your conversations and bore your reader.  Be realistic, but concise—employ your dialogue to propel your story forward or develop your characters.  Watch out for those “couch potato” words that merely expand the waistline of your novel’s word count, but do little else—they need to go!

Make your reader laugh!
Jeannette Walls, author of the Glass Castle has it right.  Regardless of how serious your topic is, timely injections of humour keep the reader engaged and wanting more.  I like to accomplish this through dialogue.

“For crying out loud—don’t you two have anything better to do than argue over what kind of tea you’re drinking?  It’s EARL GREY for heaven’s sake,” Alice yanked up the label with an arthritic hand—“says so on the tag!”

I envy the writers in my group who put pen to paper and the words flow as delicious and smooth as melted chocolate.  I can only do that if I have solitude, and I’ve played the scene in my mind like a movie first.  I watch the characters, their facial expressions and their movements, and listen to what they are saying—then I write it down.

Strick a balance – Narrative vs. Dialogue
It is important to appeal to the five-senses of the reader, and this is where the narrative plays an important role; dialogue alone cannot accomplish this.  It would be odd—disturbing even—if a character was to say this:

“Claudia, it’s so nice to see you on this exquisite May morning of 2011.  The scent of spring flowers is in the air, tiny birds are chirping a cheerful song and the sky is as lavender as Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes.  Your gold sandals, breezy white sundress and spiraling, raven hair are reminiscent of a Greek goddess—you are beautiful.  I’m guessing you are in your mid-thirties?”

If someone ever said that to me, I would respond like this:

“I have to go …please don’t follow me.”

Having said that, it isn’t a good idea to rely too heavily on the narrative—your prose should not resemble a speech.  There should be a harmonious and effective mixture of dialogue and narrative:

“Hurry, Matt.  My mother’s gonna kill me—I was supposed to be home by nine.”

“I’m coming.”  Matthew assured, springing to her side.  “But no one’s going to kill you,” he chuckled, “at least not today.  These are for you.  Happy Birthday.”  Matthew pressed the flowers into her hand with a shy grin before turning away.

“They’re beautiful, thanks.”  Emily’s cheeks grew warm.

Matthew shrugged his shoulders, “You’re welcome.”

Emily narrowed her eyes mischievously when he wouldn’t meet her gaze.  “Do you always blush this much when you give flowers to a girl?” She smiled at him when he dared to face her once again, her silver braces reflective in the sunlight.

Sources of Inspiration
Dialogue should be interesting and dramatic.  As a writer, I feel as though I’m always collecting tidbits and storing them in my mind or inside a journal.

  • Reminisce:  Dig deep into the attic of your mind.  You’ll find all kinds of characters, anecdotes, sights, sounds and smells.  Why not build that weird uncle or neurotic cousin into your story?
  • Eavesdrop:  I was at Starbucks once and a lady described a baby as “a cottage-cheese factory.”  I thought it was a gem, and her comment made its way into the dialogue of a short story I was writing
  • Dreams:  I feel especially creative in the morning when my mind is fresh from dreams.  A journal and pen are always beside my bed
  • The News:  They say that truth is often stranger than fiction—so true.  The news is also an excellent source of determining how the law deals with crimes in specific regions.
  • Media:  Our world is saturated with media—it’s everywhere.  Take advantage of the inspiration that is available at your fingertips, whether it’s in the form of Google, or a glossy magazine.
  • Pay close attention to your surroundings: I once saw an older man who walking through the streets alone, wearing a gaping hospital gown that revealed his underwear. From this I formed the character of a man with Alzheimer’s and a big secret.
  • Read often:  You will be influenced by what you read, so read books from authors that inspire you in the genre of which you are writing.  Take note of what bores you and what captures your interest.

Michelle Mills resides in South Western Ontario with her family and is a member of the Cambridge Writers Collective.  She is excited to be working on her first romantic suspense novel.