Shelley Widhalm

Grounding Character Identity

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on April 1, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Like sugar to cookies, characters have essential qualities that turn them from a mass of words into living beings, at least in our minds.

To give readers those essential qualities involves telling the story and identifying the features and traits of the characters as individuals and in how they relate to one another.

The protagonist, or the main character of the story, is more fully developed than the antagonist and other minor characters. The antagonist can be a character, group of characters or an institution that serves as the principal opponent or foil of the protagonist. The protagonist has to contend or deal with this opposition to achieve his or her goal.

Before writing, I ask a few questions about my protagonist, which is Kate Letts in the novel I’m currently writing. I’m exploring how Kate deals with the after-effects of losing her home and belongings to a fire. I need to know why Kate is telling her story, what she wants and what she will learn.

I ask general questions, such as:

  • What does she want above all else, or what is her major goal?
  • What is she afraid of?
  • What doesn’t like about her situation?
  • What are her secrets?
  • Does she have a lovable quirk or a nervous gesture?
  • What is her main unlikable quality?
  • What is likable about her?

More specifically, what does this character look like and act like and how does she behave around others:

  • What is her hairstyle? What are her facial features? How tall is she? How does she dress? What kind of jewelry does she wear?
  • What are her speech patterns? What is her cultural and religious (if any) background?
  • What are her mannerisms? Her gestures? Her tastes? Her hobbies?
  • What is her job? What is her education? What does she drive? Does she bike or walk to get around? Where does she get her groceries and clothes?  

Another trick I learned is to envision a character and then try to find him or her in a magazine photo, store ad or online and cut out the image. I found magazine ads for Kate, as well as two of my minor characters, Samantha and Emma.

It’s a thrill to have turned imagination into a real image that I can refer to for inspiration as I continue on my path in the telling of Kate’s story.

  1. ‘like sugar to cookies’ is a great image and this post is, as usual, fun and informative. keep it up, kid 🙂

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