Columns > Published on March 6th, 2013

8 Ways to Flesh Out a Character

A great character can propel a story into the minds, emotions, and memories of your readers; a lackluster character can make your prose read like the average Nic Cage film. To avoid that disastrous fate, it's important to develop a strong concept of who your character is.

Many authors want to, but don't know how to, flesh out characters in this way. Luckily, between my experience as a creative writer/educator and the years I served as the best Dungeon Master in the known universe, I've developed a few strategies that can help. Here are eight of my favorites:

1. Fill out an online dating profile.

Whether you're writing literary fiction or a speculative piece, the "formal constraints" of a dating profile can help you figure out who your character is. After all, the profile questions are designed to probe for the essence of a person in a way that will be evaluated by an excessively picky audience with a short attention span and unrealistic expectations—just like your readers!

A great character can propel a story into the minds, emotions, and memories of your readers; a lackluster character can make your prose read like the average Nic Cage film.

By default, I go to the OKCupid profile, but any dating site would do. Want to have some extra fun? Attach a picture and see what sort of messages you get. (Warning: Female profiles, statistically, get seventeen million times as many messages as male profiles.)

2. Take a Jung / Myers-Briggs type indicator test.

If you're struggling to see how your character relates to the world around them, try classifying their Jung or Myers-Briggs personality type. Since this form of "typing" looks at a person's mode of socializing, thinking, feeling, and discerning, looking at your character from this perspective builds a strong foundational sense of who they are. The character also gets a neat two-word title, like "The Inventor" or "The Champion."

I recommend getting into the mindset of your character and then answering the questions of an online MBTI (Myers-Briggs type indicator). You can find hundreds of these tests online, but here's the free MBTI I have bookmarked.

3. Not just any body.

Take yourself on a detailed tour of your character's body. The highly visual and tactile among you may benefit from using your own body as a starting point, contrasting how your appearance differs from that of the character's. Describe each part of the character's body in detail. Know what your character would look like naked. Know what makes them beautiful and what parts they want to hide from the world. Don't approach the ugly parts with shame; savor the raw, human, flaw-riddled cadaver your character lives in.

4. Fill out a character questionnaire.

You can find questionnaires all over the web, including the excessively detailed character questionnaire I put together in December. (Warning: It has 50 highly specific questions, not including the dozen or so "bonus" questions.) If you can't find questionnaires targeted at fiction, look to the realm of tabletop RPGs. You may have to ignore some of the questions, but that nerdtastic niche culture has put together countless questionnaires over the years—and they've gotten pretty good at it.

5. No characters but in things.

Rather than focusing on your character directly, focus on what your character owns. What are the possessions that hold the greatest sentimental value for your character? What material objects play a central role in the character's living space? What sort of clothing do they prefer to wear? Describe these material objects in full detail and, if you're looking for an additional creative spark, write a scene that integrates one or more of these items.

6. Monologue.

If you're looking to establish a strong sense of the character's voice, write a monologue for them. While this can be a story-integrated piece of writing, the main point is to dive into your character's head and see what they think about and how they express it. Start out by free-writing from the perspective of your character, following whatever train of thought—irrelevant or mundane though it may be—that crosses their imaginary mind. By separating your character from the story and scene in this way, you can get a feel for the character's values, mode of information processing, and various linguistic quirks.

7. Build the scrapbook.

If you don't know where to start, follow the advice of Merry Poppins or Mother Theresa or whoever it was who told us to start at the very beginning. Approach the character as if you were building their scrapbook. What life landmarks are worth "remembering"? What were the character's "firsts" like—first steps, first words, first kisses, and first honka-honka-wubba-wubbas included? What "Kodak moments" can be found in your character's life?

8. Find the theme song.

Find a song that is "your character's song." In the same way that so many of us use music to express—and find solidarity for—our experiences, you can understand more about your character's perception of themselves and their world by looking to song. This exercise can take hours and hours, so approach with care; rather than hunting through your music library, I recommend keeping this exercise in mind as you listen to music for the next few days. If your character's taste is substantially different from your own in this arena, consider loading up a new Pandora station that suits your character's preferences.


Several of the items mentioned above will be expanded on in a collection of exercises I'm putting together in the coming weeks. You can find more information on that here. There are also some strong character-building exercises in the book 3 A.M. Epiphany, one of my favorite collections of writing exercises. But what about you? What ideas or exercises have you run across? Share your thoughts in the comments, below.

Write on,

Rob

About the author

Rob is a writer and educator. He is intensely ADD, obsessive about his passions, and enjoys a good gin and tonic. Check out his website for multiple web fiction projects, author interviews, and various resources for writers.

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