Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Creating Life-like Characters

by Kathy Neely 

If you’re a writer, you are familiar with the story elements that keep readers turning the pages. 

Characters, plot, setting, conflict, resolution. You can simplify or expand the list, but the building blocks are basically the same. 

While none can survive exclusive of the others, there’s something crucial about creating life-like characters. Your readers need to love them, hate them, and think about them when they close the book. No matte` how gripping the plot, it’s nothing if readers don’t relate to your characters.
Writers can find a plethora of character questionnaires to use before striking the first key for their new novel. I applaud those who created these visual maps, and I’ve tried them. They just don’t work for me. Instead, I develop characters much the same way as casting directors choose who will portray them in a movie. I find a real life person. 

Is the character girly and feminine? I know her. Is he a bully, always manipulating others to get his way? Unfortunately, I know him, too. One of my critique partners pointed out to me that the body language of a minor female character was more typical of a male. My response—yes, but I know her. That’s what she does. 

Writers can pattern characters after people they know well, and from people they observe. Take some time to sit in a public place and watch people. I know time’s a precious commodity, but justify that luxury by calling it ‘work.’ Find your visual, watch the mannerisms. If you can, listen to the speech patterns. Maybe that’s cheating, using less imagination and creativity. But it works for me. 

I love going to plays and musicals, but never had aspirations to be on stage. Yet, I find that I playact every day.  I’m an actress taking a role, becoming that person. Only my job is more challenging because I have to play every role. 

I live through their scenarios, feeling their emotions, and have even shed a real tear. Sometimes, just like real life, my characters surprise me. When I’m living through a scene, often in the middle of the night, they’ll do something that I hadn’t anticipated. Like any good actress, I play the scene a few different ways, step back and watch it, then decide if I’ll use it or throw it out.

We all have different methods and must find what works best. Regardless of how you create life-like characters, via a flow chart, questionnaire, or finding them in neighborhoods and workplaces, here are a few non-negotiables. 

  • Values – This is central to who we are. Know what your character believes.
  • Actions and attributes – There are no shortage of personality styles. We need look no further than our own families to understand this. 
  • Physical description – Let your readers see them, but don’t mistake this for who they are. 
  • Motivation –What makes them do what they do? 
  • Habits – These may be quirky, but they factor into understanding your character, and help to reinforce values, actions, and motivations. 
  • Dialogue / speech – Writers know the importance of sensory details. Let them hear your characters. 

One of the highest compliments I received from a Beta Reader is this. “When I finished reading, I couldn’t stop thinking about them.” 

As iron sharpens iron, I’d love to hear what works for you in creating life-like characters.  

Creating Life-like Characters - Kathy Neely on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Kathleen Neely lives in Greenville, SC with her husband, Vaughn, and enjoys time with family, reading, writing, and traveling. Her first novel, The Least of These, won first place in the Fresh Voices contest through AlmostAnAuthor.com. She was a second place winner in the ACFW-VA short story contest, and had two stories published in A Bit of Christmas – 6 Short Stories Celebrating the Season. Kathleen is a member of Cross N Pens, ACFW, and is a regular contributor to www.christiandevotions.us. 


  1. Great post! Creating characters can be frustrating and this post really helps with it's helpful hints. Thanks! @v@

    1. Thank you. They can be frustrating but can also be fun.

  2. All of my characters are "quirky." Makes it challenging to deal with them! Thanks for the great post. Pinned & shared. :)

    1. Some of the best books have quirky characters. Thanks for sharing.

  3. A Beta reader told me my main character (a detective) was "too nice." So, I gave him a more edgy personality, a hair trigger, a chip on his shoulder, and even a drinking problem (he was a tee-totaler before I changed him.) Got to admit, he is more vivid, memorable, complex, - and I like him better this way. I'm sure the readers will too. I had to pair one person I knew and a tv character to get mine, but I have a real "fix" on him now and it actually makes the story unfold a bit faster now. Good post.

    1. Some advice I once got - never make a character too good or too bad. Glad that worked for your detective.

  4. A very helpful post. Time to stop plotting and start people watching for a bit.

    1. Thank you. Enjoy your people-watching time.