The ABCs of Crafting Flesh-and-Blood Characters

It’s said that readers can love stories — but only fall in love with characters.

Many first-time authors only know their novel’s characters as well as they would know an acquaintance at a cocktail party. The characters’ traits seem more like ticks the author thought would be interesting, rather than ones that arise out of a deeply embedded worldview. These authors have not done the nuts-and-bolts work necessary to create flesh-and-blood characters.

Follow these nuts-and-bolts ABCs to create characters:

 

Appearance

When I say “appearance,” the last thing I mean is for authors to chart a dossier of what their characters look like. I mean something much deeper.

Too often, writers come up with character descriptions that – while incredibly detailed – actually tell us nothing about the character. Instead, what we have is a “mug shot” of sorts that tells us a character’s height, age, weight, hair and eye color, etc. But we don’t get a picture of that character; we’re not shown the character in a way that the reader can truly envision.

For a wonderful example of how even a minor character can be rendered vividly, see how Rachel Joyce depicts Rex:

Rex was a short man with tidy feet at the bottom, a small head at the top, and a very round body in the middle, causing Harold to fear sometimes that if he fell there would be no stopping him. He would roll down the hill like a barrel.

Here, we picture Rex before us, and even get a strong sense of his demeanor.

Backstory

While you may have an idea for a colorful character, you need to go back way before your story ever starts to discover your character’s history, or backstory. A character’s past colors everything about how he sees his present. This is the thinking behind crafting complex characters.

Where we are from and raised is probably the most important contributor to a character’s point of view. Imagine your character grew up in a home where her father was an abusive alcoholic. This history is going to color her relationships with men and especially how she will react to a man who is a heavy drinker.

You must understand where your character “is coming from.” When you do this, you will end up with a character that’s more flesh-and-blood — and interesting to your readers!

Cross-Examination

So, now you understand what goes into crafting a flesh-and-blood character. Here’s how to start creating: If you want to go even deeper with your characters — and why wouldn’t you? — it helps to ask a few questions. Imagine you were a reporter. What would you ask your character to try to get to know him better?

  • Who is he?
  • What is his worldview?
  • How did he get to this place in your novel?
  • What is his biggest dream, or goal? How does this contrast with his reality?
  • What is his biggest fear?
  • What are his quirks?
  • What personality trait gets him into trouble?
  • What is he better at than no one else?
  • What past mistake does he regret?

This may all sound like tedious legwork, but mastering the ABCs of flesh-and-blood characters is a powerful way to ensure your characters Develop their journeys, Evolve internally, and Find a solution to both of their internal and external problems.

 

16 comments on “The ABCs of Crafting Flesh-and-Blood Characters

  • What a cool post!!! Love the theme of “nuts and bolts” here. So often, writers regard their colorful characters as icing on the cake, instead of part of the book’s skeletal framework. This reinforces an excellent point that a strong character journey is HUGELY pivotal to a book’s success.

    Also, I’m a huge fan of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Great quote. Many thanks to you Diane!

    • Hi Stephanie,

      So happy to see you’ve joined the conversation. Always thrilled to see more readers and writers interacting here.

      I was so excited to find these fun “nuts and bolts” letter stock photos. They really hit on the theme of this post. It’s all about laying the groundwork and really thinking of building strong and realistic characters as the keystone to a great story. You hit the nail right on the head there.

      Are you writing a novel yourself? The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is truly fantastic.

      Warmly,
      Diane

      • Lol I’m relieved that you pursued the “nuts and bolts” theme of this post, and not the “flesh-and-blood”!!!!!!

        In all seriousnss ~ Loving this. Great pointers.

  • Fantastic points. I would, however, add a few deeper questions to your “Cross-Examination” section, such as: What’s a memory your character has that showcases how a particular quirk either caused or solved a problem? If his biggest dream contrasts with his reality, how does he react to this situation — does he ignore it, or is he constantly striving to change?

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for adding your perspective. You bring up some great points. It’s all about digging deep and knowing how your character will realistically react to any conflict or budge in any tough spot. Your questions get at this perfectly.

      To add to your questions:
      – Does your character fight, or flee? Does he react angrily? Is he unable to find the right words in the heat of the moment, only becoming disappointed in himself later?
      – What kind of situation brings out your character’s best qualities?
      – What caused your character’s past failures? A person? Or a situation?

      Thanks again!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  • Awesome! This is cool and exactly what I needed. I am working on a YA fantasy novel. Even YA novels need this deep kind of character work, I’m told. It can also make the process way more fun as you’re forced to get to know your character in very interesting and new ways.

    • Hi Soraya,

      Thanks so much for chiming in. YA novels especially need deep characters to tell a truly successful story. You bring up a good point — it can be fun to “meet” your characters!

      Happy writing,
      Diane

  • Diane I have a question for you!

    Do you have to do this deep work for each and every character in a book, or only for your protagonist? Even side, small characters? Help!!!!!!!!!!

    Thx, Lynnette

    • Wonderful question, Lynnette.

      I strongly recommend taking the time and doing this deep character work for all of your dynamic characters — your protagonist, your antagonist, and any other POV characters. While you don’t have to play 20 questions with a character who appears in one scene, it is important to conjure a sense of who he is and what he means / what impression he gives to your protagonist / POV character.

      Does that answer your question?

      Happy writing,
      Diane

  • Dear Diane,

    Bravo Bravo! What a fresh way to break this down. I myself feel that the keystones to a phenomenal plot are deep characters and constant tension. In that way, we are more free to move emotionally with the character as he grows. It can be profound.

    I have also downloaded your Special Report — what wonderful tips. I do, however, wish to hear more of your thoughts on crafting fiction in greater depth. Creating a storyworld, as we now know from the post above, takes time and supreme effort.

    Many thanks. Looking forward to continuing this blog relationship,
    Maribel

    • Hi Maribel,

      I’m so happy to see that you’ve enjoyed the post. Your point about tension is spot-on — we were just discussing the importance of having some sort of underlying tension in every scene of a novel here at the WTSYB office.

      Thank you for downloading the report. I’m thrilled that you’re enjoying it.

      As luck would have it, I am preparing a series of video tips on Fiction and NonFiction. I am also gearing up for a course at the 51st Annual Cape Cod Writer’s Conference: http://capecodwriterscenter.org/conference/

      Please feel free to reach out to me with any other questions that I may help you with.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  • Loving your quote from Harold Frye too! Its very helpful in actually seeing the difference between simply listing articles of clothing, height, etc. but coloring the description with the feeling that an actual person is sizing up this real like person before him. Phrases like “as if he were…” etc. take it a step above and beyond and make the description something that sings. Very cool! Do you recommend any other books with well rendered character descriptions???

    • Hi Heather,

      Thanks for chiming in! We are actually planning to publish a blog post with a list of specific recommended books that prove the power of illustrative description. Stay tuned!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  • Saw your share today on the Opinionator piece on rich characters. Syncs with this wonderfully. As Silas House said in this inspiring essay, “Show us how a character pines, reveal how he ticks.” You offer comprehensive ways to do so. Makes a great deal of sense.

  • Diane,
    I really love your website. I’m hooked. There is so much great advice here that will help me with my struggle. I feel I’ve hit a motherlode of gold nuggets. Thank you so, so very much for sharing your years of experience with us.

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