Character Building

Elaine and Francesca consider their methods for creating characters.

Elaine: I start with their age and when they were born. This gives me a star sign, which in turn gives me some character traits as a starting point. Once I’m happy with that, I do a character profile. This will involve interviewing them; it’s what I call getting to know my characters. It will involve some simple questions such as:

Forgotten Love - Main Character's Profile

Forgotten Love – Main Character’s Profile

Do you prefer to drink tea or coffee?

Do you prefer the Rolling Stones or The Beatles?

What would be your idea of a perfect day/night?

Do you believe in God?

What is your happiest memory as a child?

What is your worst memory?

And so it goes on. They are not all deep and meaningful questions but the answers will help bring out the characters back story, and that in turn will bring understanding about their actions/reactions.

I have an interview sheet that I complete, but sometimes I add extra questions, which could be relevant to the story I am writing at the time. Think of your own questions and things it might be useful to know. Type it up and you have a template for all future characters. It is also useful if you suddenly forget any detail of your character. I have been known to unwittingly change the colour of my character’s eyes before now.

Another thing I find useful is to keep a picture of someone that reminds me of my character, fictional or real. It may not be the look, but it could be a reminder of character traits. I do keep pictures of houses, streets, people and even front doors. It all helps me with my writing.


Francesca: The main characters in my novels tend to come to me reasonably well formed. I can only imagine my subconscious has been building them while I’ve been doing other things, because I usually know exactly what they look like, hair and eye colour and all. 

IMG_6562I start a new notebook for each novel, so the details of the female and male protagonists are the first two entries, taking up around twenty pages each. That notebook is my reference book throughout. I then start to flesh out their personalities, jobs, past life, education, home life, relationships, family and their secrets. Often it’s like they’re telling me their stories. Fanciful maybe, or just an over-active imagination!

Next I move onto their abodes. From time to time these also arrive fully formed, but often it’s a case of deciding roughly size and location and going onto something like Right Move to see what there is. For the current WIP, I picked a seaside village in West Wales as a template for my imaginary village, then ‘walked’ along the streets on Google Street View, until I found the perfect house for ‘Tori’.

During the course of the novel, certain problems or questions might arise that cause me to consider some aspect of the character’s life or personality. I always leave plenty of pages free in the notebook for this. Yes, it would be easier to put it on the computer, but this works for me. It also means I can take that notebook anywhere if I want to write a scene by hand, say, if I were having a coffee somewhere or on a train. Occasionally, if I’m not sure where a scene’s going, I’ll have an imaginary conversation with the characters to see what they think!

Secondary characters also get several pages in the notebook, especially if they turn out to be trouble makers as I need to work out their motivation.

IMG_6564Characters for short stories are a different matter. I tend to have an A4 sheet or two  for each story (based on a sheet from Elaine Everest’s classes) which outlines major aspects, and that will include a short paragraph about them that’s relevant to the plot.

Like Elaine, I collect pictures of people who contain some aspect of my characters. I tack them to my study door along with a plan of the main house and a map of the area. Then I’m ready to go!


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20 thoughts on “Character Building

  1. It’s quite amazing how different we all work. I do all my character traits etc on the computer and print it out so I’ve always got it handy. I’m paranoid about losing things so everything is on my computer and backed up as well. I wonder if other people do things differently. Elaine R.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this, Elaine and Francesca. I always enjoy a discussion which engages with the techniques of writing. In your different ways you both have a very systematic approach to delineation of character. I must admit that my process of character creation is far more chaotic, but I can always see them and hear them, in the same way that we see the faces of people long gone. I strongly believe that, even if we are not aware of it, there is a period of incubation, when, subliminally, character and narrative are formed.We, also, I think, store memories of people we’ve met, in life and dreams, and they’re reborn in the characters we create. When I think of Dickens and his great gallery of characters, so many must have been individuals he met on London streets.

    • I think you’re right about the incubation period, Angela. I’m sure if I analysed some of my characters there’d be bits of people I’ve known over the years. Of course, sometimes certain characteristics are added on purpose, though these are often from annoying people I’ve been acquainted with!

  3. Great to see that charts and ideas used in class are still working. Keep as much information on your characters as possible. Several years down the line, when your novel is being edited by the professionals, at least you will have the information to hand – believe me it helps the memory! Elaine E x

    • Sorry guys, I’m away in Portugal so I’m a little late to the party, so to speak. I would like to thank everyone for reblogging and sharing on Twitter etc.
      Elaine, I have files in each of my novels with all kinds of information, mainly because I can’t rely on my memory. Characters are a fascinating subject. Elaine R x

  4. They certainly are very useful charts. And you know me, Elaine, notes on novels everywhere! But yes, my files for all the other novels sit on a shelf patiently for when (or if!) it’s their turn again.

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