The real voyage of discovery
consists not in seeking new
landscapes but in having new eyes.
All writers (and all therapists for that matter) are concerned with
character. Even if we are writing non-fiction, we tend to hang the
story on character. I have found in my own work as a writer, and
in working with my students, that it helps to have ways to explore
character. The following list comes from my own work and from
information culled from various writers, including Elizabeth George, a
first-rate writer of crime novels. Her book, Write Away is a must-read.
Here are some helpful hints when you are creating a character,
whether for a novel, or a memoir. The list is long and can be used
either to guide the creation of character or to jump-start you when you
are stuck. When writing a memoir, it is helpful to develop detachment
from characters who are based on people you may know well. This
list will help develop that detachment.
Weight and build
Color hair and eyes
Physical peculiarities – a limp, a bald head, an enormous mane of red
hair, an eye that wanders
Gestures when talking
Family (mother father siblings etc)
Core need (single need that is at the core of who we are). We
are born with them and during our lifetime, we mold most of our
behavior to meet our core needs. For example, you may talk of your
character's need for success. But if you go deeper, you may discover
that the core need is to be loved – success in this case is based on
the assumption that success will bring love. Another character might
have a core need for excitement or risk taking. This character would
be out surfing or mountain climbing. Or, a risk taker could get the
need for excitement from being an entrepreneur or circus performer.
Pathological expressions (a core need flipped over: delusions,
obsessions, compulsions, addictions, denial, hysterical ailments,
illness, self-destructive behavior, phobias, manias). This is a terrific
way to look at a character and one we writers often ignore. Always
be aware of your character’s the dark side.
Ambition in life: How is this different from core need? Often we are
not aware of our core needs, and develop ambitions based on what
others want from us. Your character’s journey may be from someone
else’s ambition to discovering his/her core needs.
Strongest character trait—Aggression, shyness, flirtation,
Weakest character trait—No direction, lack of force, inability to
focus, inability to relate
Laughs or mocks—What makes your character laugh? What does
your character laugh at or mock?
What others notice first about him or her.
What does the character do when alone?
One line character description—This is very challenging, but if
you can do it, you are on your way!
Will reader (viewer) like or dislike the character? How can you
make this character likeable even though he or she may possess lots
of negative traits?
Does he/she change in the story and how? We certainly hope so
as the arc of the character will keep the reader interested.
Significant event that molded the character.
Significant event that illustrates the character's personality.
My Suggestion: Keep this list close to your work space and
consult it from time to time and especially when stuck. Have