Characters not caricatures

People are not simple. They are full of complexities and contradictions. As writers we must be careful to create characters that are not cardboard cut-outs or stereotypes. We must make our characters come alive and appear real. We want our readers to be engaged, to believe in them. They may not like them but they must be willing to invest time and interest in them. After all, our main aim is to keep our readers reading.

How do writers do this? How do we reveal our characters in ways which make them seem true to life? There are many techniques we can use. We can provide a physical description of the character: how do they move, look, smell, how does the way they look affect the things they do? We can write about the character’s behaviour in their world: how they interact with others; any habits they have; how they react to external forces. We can use dialogue: what the character says; any speech patterns or phrases; what the character doesn’t say. We can think about the character’s back story: how this made them into the person they are. We can reveal the character’s inner life and thought processes.

As writers, we must be observant of people in our everyday lives. We must notice the ways they behave, the things they say, how they react to each other and their environment. We must remember to use our notebooks and keep a record of what we see and hear. These life experiences will help us develop our characters.

We must be readers too. We must study the way other writers portray characters. Do we believe in the character we are reading about? What techniques is the writer using? What works well and what doesn’t? We can keep notes on character portrayals that we find useful or particularly good.

Before we begin to write a story, we can make a character profile. This can include: the character’s looks, relationships, behaviours, habits, likes, dislikes, back story and motivations. This will help us make our characters well-rounded, fully developed people. Not forgetting, of course, that sometimes people can behave ‘out of character’. We are not straightforward after all and cannot be put into neat boxes. That’s what makes being a writer so interesting.


How do you develop characters in your stories? Do you write character profiles before you begin?

12 thoughts on “Characters not caricatures

  1. I think I base them out of some real life character that I know. Once the basic structure is in place, then I add layers based on my story’s requirements. What that person does in the story plays such an important role in deciding how he/she looks, smells or moves. Interesting read!

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    1. Thank you. Getting characters right is such an important part of the story and how it develops, but you are right, sometimes the plot or environment the story takes place in shapes our characters.

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  2. My first few I based on people I know then developed them from there. I also wrote character profiles but I discovered they where very inadequate so have been adding to them as I write. There is nothing more irritating in a book than very 1 dimensional characters, I think the best writers get the mix of good and that is in all of us.

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  3. I think of the premise of the story, and if it’s going to be a novel (like the one I’m working on now), I develop a quick synopsis and write a chapter. THEN, I get to know my characters. I make up stories of their childhood, what their parents were/are like, where they grew up, what kind of teenager they were. Their favorite colors/food/season of the year. Past boyfriends/girlfriends, and on and on. Most of this never gets into the actual book, but the characters are now alive. And then like Truman Capote says, I have no control over what they say! 🙂

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  4. I am hopeless at portraying unpleasant characters. They appear out of necessity but disappear again quickly. Hopefully your protagonists will reveal and develop themselves without too much effort, as the story itself unfolds. Otherwise yes, you’re left with something a bit flat and unsatisfactory.

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    1. Yes, getting into the head of someone completely different to yourself is particularly difficult. I’ve just finished reading Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See and his character portrayals are amazing – he portrays even the worst characters with understanding and sympathy and shows the blurred lines between good and evil. He is able to show the complexity of human personality and how it is possible for ordinary people to do terrible things in certain circumstances. I wish I could write like that! 🙂

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