Twenty Ways to Build Character

Do your homework.

Writing is a hell of a tough racket, and if you’re lazy about it, it will defeat you so fast it’ll make your head spin.

So before you type Chapter One into that virginal word processor page—and then sit for weeks wondering what to do next—do your homework for each one of your characters. Write a character outline.

Nota bene: I didn’t say, “write a description.” Color of eyes and hair, height, weight, and so on, are not important. What matters is the inner character, the mind, the soul, and the handful of values she holds dear.

When you outline a personal history, none of those notes goes into the manuscript. If, as you do it, dialogue comes to you, write it down. Let it flow. The notes exist for your use only. Don’t be afraid to write the forbidden.

Then, when you begin Chapter One, you can start with your keyboard going at full clack.


Because you know your gal. You hear her speak, feel her pain, and love her enough to reach out to touch the stubble on her legs and say, “It’s ok, I’m right here with you.” You’ll begin to care, even to weep for this pathetic woman who’s gotten herself into this plight.

Outline blueprints of people, all kinds of people, until you create one individual who is so shiny, so sad, so irresistible and fascinating that you fall in love. Someone you want the whole world to love.

“But Mike, who’ll be pleased by all the sweat and blood I put into this homework if no one is going to read it?”

You will.

It Takes More Than Clothes to Make a Character

I could have as easily titled this post, “How to Avoid Writer’s Block.” If you find yourself staring at the blank page, my guess is that you don’t yet know your hero’s character.

Character building is outlining.

So start with that blank sheet of paper and, instead of heading it Chapter One, title it Character A and then start outlining.

Lady Eithne of DolgalluHere are twenty questions to get you started.

  1. What’s her name?
  2. Where was she born and raised?
  3. What’s her religion and ethnicity?
  4. Briefly (in order not to bog yourself down with cosmetics), what does she look like? Fat, thin, tall, short, muscular, flabby, gray, bald?
  5. What does she believe in?
  6. Where has she failed or triumphed?
  7. Is she married, single, LGBT, or shy?
  8. Most important of all, what kind of work does she do? And then, is she happy or discontented with it?
  9. What are her hobbies? Sports? TV?
  10. Is she neat or is she a slob? To establish this, describe her dress, her closet, a drawer of her desk and the trunk of her car.
  11. Can your mind picture her making something? Using a simple tool, maybe, to shape the hull of a model clipper ship, or glue to hold together the miniature scene of an ancient battle.
  12. How do her hands behave? Surround your character with tangibles, real things—a gray sweater, a photo of a long-ago sister with a pony—and relate her hands to them.
  13. Is she musical? Is there one special instrument that she plays well or badly? Does she play it along, for herself, or can she jam for an audience of friends or strangers?
  14. What was her education like? Who was the teacher she respected and why?
  15. What are the events, items, pets, pals, etc. that she has remembered for years?
  16. Other than memories, what are the tangible trinkets she saves and treasures from her past?
  17. Is she witty? If so, you can’t tell the reader that she is. Instead, you have to show the reader this wit through the clever banter and remarks that she makes.
  18. How does she drive her car, tie her shoelaces, gargle? Does she pick her nose, cough often, snore?
  19. Read the editorial page of your newspaper and choose which opinions she agrees with or disputes. Does she argue bitterly, silently, or to anyone who has to listen?
  20. What is her goal? About whom does she dream, yearn for, hate?

Writing is work. It’s preparation. But if you take the time to study and outline a character thoroughly, your writing will suddenly become far easier and much more fun. Your well-defined hero will act, talk, and think so rapidly that your typing fingers won’t be able to keep pace.

And remember, when the question is, “What am I going to write about?” the answer is, “Who?”

So do your homework. Build your character.

For an ongoing example of my own character-building exercises, check out the Facebook page of the main character of my current work-in-progress: The Lady Eithne of Dolgallu.

The Romance of Eowain by Michael E. Dellert


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Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in Character, Writing craft

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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