Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Who Is That Character?

By Dorry Catherine Pease
© 2005,
Dorry Chaterine Pease

One of the greatest challenges for any writer is to develop characters so compelling and so real that the reader has to know what is to come next for this friend, enemy or lover.  How to accomplish this becomes an over-riding desire and one of the major keys to success in writing, be it a short story, creative nonfiction or a novel.

Examine Charles Dickens' mastery at character development.  In "Great Expectations," he describes Biddy, a friend to the main character Pip.

Biddy was Mr. Wopsle's great aunt's granddaughter…She was an orphan like myself; like me, too, had been brought up by hand. She was most noticeable, I thought, in respect of her extremities; for, her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel. This description must be received with a weekday limitation. On Sundays, she went to church elaborated.

In a few short sentences, the reader sees and develops empathy for Biddy. We want to follow her, to know how she fits into this story, to see what happens to her.

With Miss Havisham, Mr. Dickens not only physically describes this rich and secluded character...

She was dressed in rich materials -- satins, and lace, and silks -- all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands... She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on -- the other was on the table near her hand -- her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

...but also takes it one-step further and brings Miss Havisham to life. 

It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things... But, I saw that everything within my view, which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone.

This is character description at its best.  What is it in these words that speaks volumes to the reader?  What is it that Dickens uses when he creates these living and breathing people?

There are six individual qualities to consider when exploring and developing novel characters.  These include inspiration, physical aspects, personality, unique quirks, universal traits and dialogue.   Without incorporating each of these, the creation of a well-rounded story person is limited, the reader becomes bored, and the 'great masterpiece' remains unread. 

1.  Most people's ideas for a character begin with an inspiration. That inspiration can come from anywhere: a voice, a look, words spoken, or the way someone walks.  The connection between the author and the individual needs expansion and exploration. Something existed that caught the writer's attention, something said, 'look at me,' 'here I am.'  Find what it was that appealed, what it was that said, 'Use me, I am your character,' and put that down in words.  Fill the page with everything that pops to mind.

2. Build a short biography, describing physical aspects, height, weight, hair, eye color, and age.  Outline your thoughts on characteristics exploring such things as:

  • personality and disposition
  • morals/ethics/beliefs
  • hobbies
  • habits
  • quirks or eccentricities
  • likes/dislikes
  • fears or phobias
  • hopes and dreams

As you build the physical parts of this person, give him strong traits, for either good or evil.  It is these underlying weaknesses that drive the person's behavior and in so doing the story.

3.  Memorable characters are more than physical.  They are personalities.  It is the small details that give the reader insights.  Develop concrete, vivid, easily identifiable traits to build well-rounded people. These characters belong intricately in the story and in the plot.  Everything about them, the way they speak, think, dress, and use body language, shows them to be who and what this story is.  Without them, there would be no story.

A technique for rounding out characters is to interview them.  Ask questions, listen to what they say and the way they say it.  You'll discover things you never expected, things that intrigue you and will engage the reader.

As an aside, I look for images of my character on the internet.  I also often sketch my characters as they take shape.

My husband worries about me at times, because I talk to characters on a regular basis, ask questions, explore ideas.

4. Unique quirks mold the unusual aspects of a character.  Deeply held convictions, morals, beliefs, and mores applicable to the society in which she lives are all traits developed by the background and experiences of a person.  These little things tell who this person is inside and give deep insight to the reader. Find the character's greatest fear, weakness, or vulnerability. Use this internal conflict to drive the plot, the external conflict, of your story.

If, for instance, in an interview with your character, you discover that in childhood a fire destroyed all of the guinea pigs your story person was raising as pets, this can be emphasized to explain the overwhelming need to be a driving force behind the goals of PETA, a strong animal protection group.

Look again at Dickens' words: "On Sundays, she went to church elaborated." 

This sentence delves into Biddy's beliefs and the goodness of her.  Suddenly, she is a personality, a well-rounded likable person.

5. Universal traits are those most of us, as human beings, identify with and feel empathy for.  We all have known love, shame, humiliation, fear, grief, guilt, and embarrassment, and so can understand the character's reactions to these emotions.  Even if we have not committed murder or lost a loved one to 9/11, we relate to the emotions as the character does.   The sentiment is understood even if the event is abstract.  These, then, are common bonds and therefore traits universal.

For example, Pip describes the scene around Miss Havisham as "... all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass." 

We have all experienced this wandering of the mind -- a universal trait.

Many authors know their characters, but often, in penning the story, they fail to take the time to write how the characters see the events revolving around them.  Consequently, the reader, in trying to plow through huge chunks of descriptive narrative, becomes bored and quits long before the 'good' part of the story.

 6. Dialogue is the answer. When characters talk to each other, they express more than words.  Dialogue can reveal not only thoughts, goals, and hidden agendas, but also can highlight conflicts, show the perspective of the characters, and advance the plotline all at once.  If an author wishes to show how fabulous a character looks and yet how shallow this person is, she should use dialogue.  Let shallowness come through in his words of perception and his beauty come through the words of others.

A wonderful example of the use of dialogue to tell the reader enormous amounts about a character comes from Anne Perry in her novel The Carter Street Hangman

Her mother came in a few moments later, so quietly Charlotte did not hear her.


It was too late to hide what she was doing. She lowered the paper and looked into her mother's brown eyes.

"Yes Mama," It was an admission.

"You know how your father feels about your looking at those things." She glanced at the folded paper in Charlotte's hand. "I can't imagine why you want to; there's very little in them that is pleasant and your father will read those things out to us.  But if you must look at it for yourself, at least do it discreetly, in Maddock's pantry, or get Dominic to tell you."

The amount of information the reader now knows about Charlotte, her relationship with her mother, her father and the way he runs the household, and something about the level of society in which this family exists is immense and it all comes from a few words of dialogue.

Dialogue also allows the story-people to view the things around them according to their own personal tastes and preconceived ideas.

For instance,

"Nancy, look at that still life hanging over there next to George Caleb Bingham's 'Boatmen on the Missouri.'  How lovely that would look on my parlor wall, don't you think?" Nancy raised her eyebrows. 

As compared to,

"Oh my, Nancy, take a gander at that horrible still life over there by the painting with the blacks rowing on the river.  I can't believe anyone would ever pay money for a ridiculous painting like that." Nancy raised her eyebrows.

Oh my, indeed.  Those small differences in the way characters view objects around them add a sense of realism and bring depth to story individuals.  Story people must emulate real people. 

Creating someone from nothing and convincing others the creation is real is creative genius.  It engages the reader to the point of an inability to put the story down, and, after all, this is for what all writers strive.


Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, London, Published 1861, Chapter 7,   

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, London, Published 1861, Chapter 8,   

The Carter Street Hangman, Anne Perry, Published, Ballantine Books, New York, Chapter 1, page 7.

George Caleb Bingham's "Boatmen on the Missouri" 1846  

Lee Masterson, "Adding Character Depth Through Perception" copyrighted 2003