Slipping Beneath the Skin: Thoughts on Conjuring Characters

Every author has favorite parts of the writing process, or particular strengths or weaknesses. One of my passions in storytelling is characterization. I don’t like reading books about one-dimensional characters who act like their personalities came off of statistic sheets in a Dungeons and Dragons game, and I don’t write people like that, either.

Yes, I said ‘write people.’ That’s the key to good characterization—don’t ‘create characters.’ Characters are the marks that appear on your screen when you strike the keys on your keyboard. The men, women, or creatures in your story should be more than that—so write people.

“How do I do that?” you might be wondering. “They’re made up, right?”

The people in your stories might not be literally walking around in flesh and blood and three dimensions, but if your reader can’t believe that they could be, then your story is on the way to being dead in the water. Your characters need homes, families, memories (both good and bad), likes, dislikes, loves, hates, and fears. They need goals—things they want to achieve. A character’s goal can be the engine that drives a story, and the obstacles another character puts in the way can be the conflict without which even an exceptionally-written tale gets stale fast.

Let your characters be themselves. Don’t base your character completely on a character from a favorite book, movie or TV show, and just change the name. Give your characters their own personalities, and you won’t have to look to another source to make sure you’re portraying them the right way. That being said…

Write what you know—or who. We all have people we love, hate, or have been inspired by. Using a friend, an enemy, or even a loved one as the partial basis for a character can be a meaningful way of beginning to write people, not just characters. I’ve certainly done this myself. But if it’s done right, you’ll find that the person in your story grows into themselves and becomes someone in his or her own right, apart from the real-world individual in whom you originally saw a spark of inspiration. In the end, that’s better, anyway. It’s a better tribute to someone you love that the character you thought was based on them grew into her own person on the page, and lives a life all her own, than to sketch some still-life of someone you know, complete with the same name.

Use your imagination. Just because you’ve never flown a starship, or killed someone, or been arrested, or had a baby doesn’t mean the people in your stories can’t do these things. The imagination is a powerful thing. Trust it—and use similar experiences that are within the scope of your own knowledge to help you fill in the gaps.


Hopefully, these tips will help you perform the author’s ever-needed magic trick of conjuring characters from the mind onto the page. Because you can have the best story ideas, and the most well-planned and well-built fictional world imaginable, but if you don’t have people to live those stories; to make those worlds into homes—then you don’t have anything. So write, people—and write people.



3 thoughts on “Slipping Beneath the Skin: Thoughts on Conjuring Characters

  1. Reblogged this on Daven Anderson's Blog and commented:
    Great advice from my friend Clay Gilbert, who is about to edit my second novel!

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