Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Characters Beneath the Skin

By Lazette Gifford
Lazette Gifford

A character is more than a series of brush strokes that paint in the color of his hair and eyes, the tilt of his head when he's glaring, and the meticulous way he dresses. Those are all the outer signs of his personality.  A person is more than how he looks, and if you want your characters to be more than painted pictures, then you need to delve more deeply into their being and look at not only their personalities, but what created those personalities.  Some people do this automatically, but others may need a few pointers to create a character with more dimensions than just his painted exterior.

Below are twelve points to consider when creating your characters.  These are motivation and background areas that you may have considered subconsciously, but you can still benefit from looking more closely at the different aspects and see if there's something more you can do -- some quirk that will make your character stand out.  

1. Personality (Extrovert, Introvert, etc.)

Is your character outgoing, ready to take on any challenge?  Or is he quiet, thoughtful, and helping in ways that may not put him in the limelight?  There are a number of websites where you can study the various types of personality characteristics associated with these two extremes.  Fine-tuning this aspect  can add subtlety to your characterization, but take care that you don't overdo it.

2. Profession/Training

Even in fantasy it's rare for the hero to have been born to the role he takes in the story -- or if he was, he usually lost for a few years working as something else.  People are trained to do certain jobs in life, whether that's(in the case of fantasy) to follow in a parent's footsteps or apprentice to a guild.  Science fiction may have a slightly wider range of possibilities, but a person still needs to learn some craft in order to survive. If you are working in a science fiction world, what different work would you expect?  What work would you expect to stay the same? 

In real world stories the work a person does is even more important, of course, because we look for flaws in the logic of her job.  A kid stocking shelves at WalMart is not going to have a three-day weekend over a holiday.  A woman working as an assistant to a lawyer might well have come across some important information about the firm she works for.

Think about how your character lives from day to day and what help that job might be in other areas.

3. Status (Current Position in Society)

The present position in society not only affects how and when the character might deal with others, but often also brings with it a certain relationship with authority.  Someone high up in society is expected to have a better relationship with police (though this may not always be the case) than someone born in a slum.

How your character is treated by others because of his status can have an important impact on the story.

4. Family

If your character came from a large family, chances are she'll be fairly good at handling larger groups, both in personal relationships and in feeding and caring for them.

If she comes from a large family she might even have a number of relatives scattered around to whom she can turn.  On the other hand, the orphaned character may create a family out of strangers more readily and not bring the baggage of expectations.

At any rate, how a person grew up is another key to his personality.

5. Family Wealth

Born to the purple?  Born in a shack?  Has your character fallen from former glory, or worked her way up from squalor 

People who came of age during, say, an economic depression will sometimes swing to extremes with their possessions. Some will shed everything they can to stay forever unencumbered -- but in truth, quite often that is a fear that if they get possessions, they will lose them.  Having nothing means they have nothing to lose. 

Others in the same situation might have trouble parting with anything they own, not out of a fear they will need it, but out of a fear of diminishing their holdings in some way, and having less than they will need if another depression hits.

The economic conditions under which the character grew up will often affect his expectations of even minor things, like clothing, food, places to stay, etc.

6. Major Changes

Did your character never have a care in the world until the world suddenly crumbled around her for this story?  That can make an interesting enough tale... or you may want a character who has survived some hardships and heart-wrenching loses already.

Or was your character someone in a lot of trouble -- who created the trouble for himself and didn't really give a damn until something unfortunate happened?  Trouble is a part of everyone's life to one degree or another.  Examine the kinds of trouble that changed your character's life, and how those changes now affect the new trouble.

7. Fears and Phobias

Quite often phobias are confined to the villain of the story, who has a fear of contamination, or cats, or any other dozen things.  Why does the hero rarely have a fear he can't control?  Or the sidekick?

Phobias are the far end of the fear spectrum, but there are levels before that line from distaste to dislike and to fear.  A person need not become manic at the sight of a thundercloud to fear storms, but might have a slightly irrational reaction to them.   We generally dislike what we fear and fear what we dislike.  That can be played on many different levels in a story.

Here are two links to lists of several phobias.  You might want to do an in-depth study of any you choose, especially if you want a full-blown phobia and not just something that creates an occasional moment of distress.

8. Traits

For anyone who has read the fifth Harry Potter novel (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), a certain 'phrase' immediately indicates trouble.  'Hem hem' is a sound made by one of the more annoying and troublesome characters in the book.  The use of this little tag -- indicative of clearing one's throat -- was a perfect way to alert the reader to upcoming trouble.

C.J. Cherryh used a similar method in her two book set, Heavy Time and Hellburner.  In these books a character had gone through a traumatic accident, and when he's found a question he continually asks is "What time is it?"  That line plays an important role in the first book, and when he utters it again in the second, it is a sure sign that something is wrong.

Traits can also be physical -- running fingers through the hair when upset, tapping the foot when anxious, or any other little quirk.  Like other things, though, don't overdo it. 

9. Weaknesses

Everyone has a weakness. Weaknesses are sometimes not flaws, but rather something you like too well.  In real life some of us might say that chocolate or kittens are our weaknesses.  In a novel, except for a little comic relief, you might want to look for something a little more serious.

Is a mother's weakness her wayward son, for whom she will do just about anything?  Is a coworker's weakness his pride, which he lets get in the way of his better judgment?

10. Relationships (Friends, Lovers, Coworkers, Neighbors)

How well does your character get along with others?  Does she have natural charisma, so that everyone follows her lead?  Does she have lots of friends, and is she a shining light to her family?

Is he the type of neighbor that the others in the apartment building don't even notice?  The 'He seemed like such a nice, normal guy' sort of neighbor who turns up on the news when you least expect it?

Does he have sworn enemies?  Friends who will stand with him when everyone else in the world has turned against him?  If so... why? Why does he have sworn enemies and steadfast friends? What is it in his personality that inspires that sort of fanaticism?

11. Goals

This is the character's bottom line motivation within the novel.  What does this character want by the end of the story? What keeps the main character, and the main character's companions, moving forward against the odds when it might be easer to run in the opposite direction and never have to deal with this trouble again?

Sometimes there is no logic in doing the 'right' thing.  It becomes altruistic.  It will help if the character, at least on some previous occasion, works in some selfless way to help others even when it does nothing for him.

12. The Hard Question

What could the villain of your story offer the hero that might actually tempt him to give up the good fight?  Is it the lives of his friends, whom he fears he might lose?  In a romance it might be the offer of a better life for the heroine and her family.  Would your fantasy heroine be tempted by her village left unharmed?  The return of a loved one?


There are other questions you might come up with as you look these over.  Make a list and keep it some place so that you can go over it with your next novel.  Just be careful of 'laundry list' characters who have all the 'fill in the blanks' characteristics, but none of the depth to go with them.