Writing Full-Bodied Characters

My apologies to the psychologist I’m quoting without attribution. “You insert something of yourself in every character you invent.” The key word here is something. The speaker did not infer that a suspense novelist hid a killer’s temperament. She pointed out that the better you know yourself, the more you can use that knowledge to create believable characters.

In writing workshops we’ve made “people identification” lists: achievements, assets, disappointments, dislikes, dreams, likes, motivators, and so forth. But listing nouns is only a start in your creation of full-bodied characters. Lists, even when expanded to include a person’s pocket contents or household furnishings, are apt to trap an inexperienced writer into telling instead of showing.

Ask questions: Why? What does that mean? How do the items listed under your characters’ names affect the entanglements in their lives?


For practice, examine yourself:

  •  Is it true we use their past performance as a benchmark for judging people? Discuss how your past performance has influenced others’ opinions of you. Be specific. What have you done to cause certain individuals to like or admire you? What have you done to turn people off? How have people reacted? How have you felt about the reaction of others and their treatment of you?
  • What are your dreams—both practical and those that are pie in the sky? Consider how each, if/when actualized, would change your life.
  • List opportunities you’ve missed. Do you plan to make up for them? How? Will the actions you take effect anyone else? How? Do you regret missing certain opportunities? Do you blame anyone for your loss? Describe your feelings.
  • What are those innermost thoughts you’d never express out loud? Can you, using a pseudonym if concerned about exposing secrets, rise to the challenge and let them out on paper? Why are they private?
  • What are your turn-ons? What excites you, elicits laughter, or at least a smile from you, or motivates you to action?


In an effort to understand a particular trait, you can interview friends, but will they be truthful? Talking or writing honestly about yourself, awakens you to emotions and situations you may have forgotten, or perhaps were not consciously aware of. You can trace your personal conversion from who you were in the past to the present.

What happens when novelists probe into their own minds, relive particular emotions, and see how the cause-and-effect relationships affected their lives? They automatically use bits and pieces to enliven their novels’ characters. Try it.

© 2013, Bernice W. Simpson


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