Tuesday, July 5, 2022

How Well Do You Know the Characters You Write?

by PeggySue Wells @PeggySueWells

Do you know your character well enough to discern when they are lying?

The definition of character is the organization and structure of a person’s character or personality. As the author—creator—of your story, the better you know your character the more three-dimensional the personality will be to your reader. 

For instance, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment, Porfiry Petrovich is the head of the investigation department in charge of solving two murders. The Saint Petersburg detective encounters an innocent man who claims he committed the crime and a guilty man who denies he did the crime. The detective solves the mystery by knowing the deep aspects of the characters—what each is capable of and what each cannot do. Who is capable of lying and who is not. Who is capable of murder and who is not.

As an author, it is important to know your characters that well. Each character has their own backstory, settings and events that mold the interior and exterior of a person to be who they are. As Captain Jack Sparrow said in Pirates of the Caribbean, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” 

The more a writer knows the personality, background, and motivations about the character, the more compelling the story.
  • Why is Indiana Jones afraid of snakes? 
  • Why is the Idumaean Herod so jealous for his throne as ruler of the Jews that he will kill babies?
  • What happened in Jai Yao’s childhood that makes him capable of kidnapping Marc Wayne in The Patent?
Make certain that actions and dialog align with each character’s personality by doing an intake sheet for each character in the same fashion a counselor would do. This background information will prove valuable, providing insight into events that shaped what your character can do and what they cannot do.

Begin With the Basics 
What are the first influences that shaped your character?

Outward Appearance 
Hair and eye color 
Way of moving 
How does your character speak? 

About the character’s beginning, was the birth planned, the child wanted, named for someone? Where did the character fall in the family birth order? 

How old were the parents when the child was born? Did the mother experience good health? Was the birth easy or complicated? Did the child have good nutrition? Childhood diseases? What expectations did the parents have for their child? How prepared were the parents to be parents?

What socioeconomical status did the child grow up in? Were finances adequate, abundant, withheld, or lacking? Where and when did your character grow up? Culturally, what was happening in the child’s circle, neighborhood, country, and world?

Early Life
While young, did the child experience the loss of significant people? Bond well or not with important people such as mother, father, siblings, extended family, neighbors, teachers, coaches? Did the family have pets? What scenarios impacted the child’s ability to trust?

How well did the child learn? What education was available? Who were significant peers? Best friends? Mentors? What was the child’s temperament toward others and self? What early life experiences made a lasting impact on the character?

For some, what the character can do and can’t do will remain steady. For others, the story arc will provide the reader with believable reasons for your character to change what they can do and can’t do. 

Fill in the questions above to know what influences in your character’s formative years made your character who they are when your reader first meets them.


Tropical island votary and history buff, PeggySue Wells parasails, skydives, snorkels, scuba dives, and has taken (but not passed) pilot training. Writing from the 100-Acre Wood in Indiana, Wells is the bestselling author of thirty books including The Slave Across the Street, Slavery in the Land of the Free, Bonding With Your Child Through Boundaries, Homeless for the Holidays, Chasing Sunrise, and The Ten Best Decisions A Single Mom Can Make. Founder of SingleMomCircle.com, PeggySue is named for the Buddy Holly song with the great drumbeat. At school author visits, she teaches students the secrets to writing and speaks at events and conferences. Connect with her at www.PeggySueWells.com, on Facebook at PeggySue Wells, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/peggysuewells

Featured Image: Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash


  1. Next month, we'll talk about the intake questions that help you know the later years of your character's background.

  2. Thank you, PeggySue, for your excellent list of questions. This one is a keeper.