Characters Are The Lifeblood of a Story by David A. Cleinman

Author David A. Cleinman
Author David A. Cleinman

A character is more important than plot, locale, conflict, or any other part of a story. This is because a character is the only thing that a reader can truly relate to in a strong and meaningful way. We may have visited a location where a story takes place and even love the region. If a character visiting that area is not strong and real to us, however, the location will have less meaning. The deeds of a character might be amazing. But if the character is not well rounded and strong, their deeds are fairly insignificant. The best way to describe that is to say this: Characters need to be individuals we can relate to, or individuals that we recognize. The strength of a character is in their consistency. Their words match their actions and their actions match their personal traits. Emotionally connecting with a character requires that a character possess consistency of presence.

Developing a character may be a bit of a misnomer. A character is not so much created as they are experienced. One of the reasons many novice writers produce flat or “cardboard” characters is because they believe they have to create a character from scratch. Without knowledge on how to do this, however, the end result is often a character who acts, rather than one who IS. Their personality doesn’t really show at all. The story is told, the characters perform their parts, but they are not alive in our minds. They have little substance and no real depth. To avoid this problem a savvy author relies on the simple but powerful method of observation.

When building a character ask some questions:

  1. What are they seeking?
  2. How will they get it?
  3. What traits make it feasible for them to attain their goal.
  4. What traits will work against them?
  5. What do they love?
  6. What do they dislike?
  7. Who is in their circle of influence?
  8. Where do they spend their free time?
  9. What do they do?
  10. Why do they do it?

Once you have these, observe individuals who are in similar circumstances. They are everywhere. Characters with powerful personality traits can be based on the leaders you know personally. Weak-willed or indecisive characters can be found in much the same way. Ethically or morally challenged people can be found in prisons, or politics for that matter. Well-balanced and ethically upstanding individuals are often found in positions of social responsibility. Angry or socially challenged characters can be based on bullies. The main thrust here is that we build characters based on observation of the people around us. These are real characters in real situations. By doing this we avoid the necessity of inventing a character (an almost impossible task for all but a psychologist or psychiatrist) and speed up the process significantly.

A character needs five basic aspects:

  1. Emotions, both held and expressed.
  2. Actions that are consistent with who they are.
  3. People around them who either support them, suffer by them, or interact with them.
  4. Personal preferences and likes and dislikes, and
  5. Physical surroundings that are also consistent with who they are, and also belong to the story.

Any character can be anywhere, doing anything, as along as it is feasible, is likely to be what they would actually be doing were they real, and is true to form.

Observing the people around us and in the news will give us all of the characters we need. We simply need to observe, take notes, be consistent, and avoid clichés and stereotypes. Don’t invent characters. Observe them into existence. It is the easiest and best way to begin.

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David Cleinman is an Indie writer and book reviewer. He has two published novels, Toys In The Attic and Principle Destiny, and has also produced The Article Marketer’s Guide. For more information about David, please visit his blog.  You can also find David on Facebook and[subscribe2]

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12 thoughts on “Characters Are The Lifeblood of a Story by David A. Cleinman”

  1. David, this was excellent, and as Yvonne said, you're singing my tune. I love character development and use people from the "real world" as armatures.

  2. Thanks everyone!

    My study of personality psychology just led to this becoming second nature.

    I do have an author page on Amazon… perhaps an Author Central Page is also needed?

  3. Great article, Dave. I have always been a people watcher, though I have not studied any branch of psychology. I also use traits in my own life to develop my characters. It's a fun process. Thank you for all your tips.

    1. Sorry for not responding sooner Diane… Thank you for your kind words. I take advantage of my psychology background, in reality, though my observation of people started long before college. It just comes naturally to some of us. It is definitely a fun process to observe and bring life to characters by using traits in our lives. It's my favorite part of writing!

      My pleasure!

  4. Hey KS,

    The issue is the drop-down menu only works with print books, not Kindles. The menu under Kindles just goes to the book listing. Hence, my out of print book is the main focus of my own author page, and my recent books are not. When I contacted Amazon they basically told me too bad. So that ends that mystery.

    Thanks for the Tut.


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