Writing characters is a tricky process. You don’t want characters that are flat and stiff, but you don’t want to go overboard and make them caricatures, either. So, you need to really think about who these people are and where they have been.

One simple way to do it is to develop a file all about them — a dossier, if you will. It should include information about them in the past, present, and future, and the easiest way to do that is by developing a character questionnaire.

Dante's Inferno
Image via Wikipedia

Some questions will be easy — name, age, education level, etc. But what about the inside? Who are these people? What makes them act the way they do, and how do they feel about their lives? Getting to the inner core of your character is the most important thing you can do.

The very cool thing about doing that is that your character becomes real to you and to your readers. They will have reasons behind what they do, and when you write them very well, you may be writing your conflict at the same time.

Another cool thing to do is to give characters 5 personal objects that “shows” who they are. For example:

Marty is a truck driver, around thirty years old, and he’s single. Here are his 5 personal objects:

  1. A copy of Dante’s Inferno
  2. A red rubber ducky perched on his dashboard.
  3. A picture of his mother and brother.
  4. One cigarette
  5. Six marbles

Who is he? OK…

Inferno signifies that he’s either a college graduate who couldn’t get a job in his field or that he never went to college but is interested in educating himself more thoroughly.

The red rubber ducky came from a girl he dated and fell in love with. She gave it to him as a gag gift for his birthday and told him that if he put it on his dashboard, it would protect him. The girl left and the relationship ended badly, but he was never quite able to remove the duck.

His mother and brother were killed in a car crash when he was ten. His dad left when he was nine, and he was raised by an uncle — the reason he never had the money for school.

The cigarette reminds him that he was a smoker.

And the marbles are a symbol of his sanity. He’s in a world that he’s stuck with and wants out badly. If he loses those marbles, he’s also going to lose his mind.

You see? You can make up any story you want to around five objects, and you can use them in your story to show who your character is.

I can’t take credit for that trick. It came from mystery writer John D. MacDonald, and I think it’s a great one. Use it and see if it doesn’t create characters that you can feel for and with.

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