Character Development and Minor Details that bring them to life

  • Okay, so I don't know about anyone else, but Character development has always been my desserts when it comes to a story. I love finding out more about a character, peeling back layer after layer of detail to find out even the simplest things about them that make up their person as a whole.

    I noticed while most people will immediately nail down things like physical appearance, first impression, and dominant personality traits, they tend to forget/ignore/spend less time on the more minor quirks, flaws, and tidbits.

    For example, let's say we have a character named....Rachel. Rachel has short wavy hair of a medium brown color, grey eyes, tan skin, and is tall and slenderly athletic. She's open minded about things most people aren't, introverted, a bit stubborn, and hates being bossed around. She's also selfless in strange ways and has more compassion for outlaws and criminals than most people do.

    That's a fairly good description to get an idea about her, correct? It gives us a starting glimpse of her character and sets us up for the future.

    But that's only the beginning! What makes Rachel happy? What makes her sad? What really gets her angry?

    How about some likes and dislikes? Does she have a favorite color, food, number? Maybe these are more "shallow" things to think about, but it helps you get to know your character.

    For me, once I've gotten to know my character like the back of my hand, that's when the switch to their mindset is easier. I have less of my own thoughts intruding and more of theirs....I let them act, instead of writing them in a scene.

    So I was curious...Would anyone else like to share some minor details about their characters? Some likes, dislikes, a flaw, a strength, how your character would respond to situations and such?

    Also, I'd really love to hear it if anyone else has any tips on how to develop characters beyond the required dominant traits and how to showcase minor details without making a whole scene about them. How does one make a character feel alive without adding scenes unnecessary to the plot? Help an amateur out. :D

  • Plotist Team: Community Storyteller

    I'm just like that. I need to know my characters really well, so that I don't exist when writing their story, they do. Hence my forum signature. In a way, each character I have, or write about, has their own full length novel just to give backstory. I may also have a character sheet or two that goes into key features, but that's probably left over from the fact that I am tabletop player, and I like to, at times, let dice influence the outcome of a particular event in a story.

    I also use a questionaire that @Occi developed to help start to flush a character out. I start out with this and then move into this section, where he offers ideas and suggestions on types of stories to let character live through.

    Then I write out the why, how, when, where, and other bits about how their world has impacted them and how they have left their mark on the world.

    I have so many characters it's almost impossible for me to just pick one or share one's quirks, unique traits. But, I am all about letting the character's tell their own story. It's why I may start out a plotter, but end up a pantser, then a ploter, then a pantser.. yeeah.

  • I'm probably the last person to come to when it comes to making characters (seeing as when I started my current novel I was 12 and a major pantser, meaning all my characters literally started off as names), but for me, it's a combination of questionnaires, Pinterest aesthetic boards, and more recently the CRAA thread.

    But the most helpful thing for me has just been writing them and letting that fill in the necessary gaps, as well as coming to logical conclusions based off of traits. I've noticed that Fallon, for example, does a lot of snorting, so that became her 'signature laugh' if you will. Jake loves music and plays the guitar, so one of his quirks is finger tapping to the tune of whatever he's listening to, and he has calluses from plucking strings. Jenna wants to be seen as a high achiever and a smart individual, so she disguises her accent in front of her social and academic peers because it doesn't fit into her view of the genius archetype. Shaan doesn't like getting too emotional or making too much physical contact for fear of hurting people with his superhuman strength.

    As for showcasing minor details without making a whole scene...I'd say let those details come up naturally, and/or maybe try to slide them in through dialogue. Using Jenna again, she's a lesbian, which is not a crucial detail to the plot, but definitely a part of her character. So instead of making her say "I'm a lesbian," I try showing it by having her talk about a girl she saw in class that day, or maybe she describes another female character's appearance with flattering language. Maybe it's even something as simple as a glance at the right moment at the right person.


    I have so many characters it's almost impossible for me to just pick one or share one's quirks, unique traits. But, I am all about letting the character's tell their own story. It's why I may start out a plotter, but end up a pantser, then a ploter, then a pantser.. yeeah.

    And while I don't have a lot of characters, I completely agree. It's a constant back and forth between pantsing and plotting to get all those pieces that make up the whole person.

    TL;DR — I just go with the flow for a bit, see what comes up and what vibes I get, and then adjust my writing accordingly. With details, I lean towards the 'show, don't tell' philosophy, making sure I'm not shoehorning the information in (I personally find that the 'downtime' between tense scenes are pretty good for the minor, mundane details like how they take their coffee), and trying not to put too much detail in so I can leave bits and pieces to the readers' imaginations.

  • @josey Oh that sounds a hell of a lot like the way I do it XD Character sheets, then pantsing, then more half-organization, then pantsing. I try to get myself better and sometimes I'm far too organized, and others not nearly enough.

    It works out sometimes, though.

    @Shy_Not_Fly17 I like that idea of "showing, not telling". I only fear I may not be clear enough sometimes with my showing.

    Like, for example, if "Rachel" from above was used again, let's say she's afraid of....hmm, afraid of butterflies and flying insects. However, she thinks its a silly fear and tries to hide it since she can't get over it. So let's say rachel isn't the POV, I'd write something like,

    "-a butterfly fluttered past the young teen's face. Shane watched as his younger sister flinched and then went stiff. A second later, Rachel moved to the left, away from the insect, and headed for the door to their home."

    I suppose some would get it, but I've had test-readers misinterpret things like that as a mere dislike or such due to the more complicated nature of her relationship with flying insects. She's terrified of them-that's not a joke-but her pride and disdain for her fear is strong enough she generally hides all but the most instinctual symptoms of her fear from others.

    This is just an example, perhaps not my best, but I suppose I'm asking for tips on showing more plainly.

  • I apologize in advance because I feel an oncoming ramble. o.O

    The only way I really know how to develop characters is by straight up writing them. Probably because I got into writing through RP and I still do this the same way I did back then. I start with a character sheet (I created my own template a while back), I fill it out, then I write the characters for a while, and then I go back and edit the sheet according to how their personality developed in writing, what quirks they developed along the way, how they feel about the world, themselves and other people... songs that work well for writing them... I try to be as thorough as possible with it.

    And granted, the Character RAA here has made that a lot easier because I can have that same experience of developing my characters without writing full scenes of filler. I actually didn't need to do that at all with these characters unless for the few things I wanted to write with them for fun. :)

    Same principle though. ^^'

    Also, let me show you what I used to create the Wolf Hunters. It's a journal entry I wrote for the main story (from Sebastian's journal):

    Gabrielle is a little bit of a dysfunctional mother figure (hopefully she will never read this), she's usually kind and patient with the both of us but even in those moments, she is somewhat intimidating, to me at least. She talks very little of herself and it seems like the only thing she lives for is killing assassins. Nothing else matters as much. I mean, I can tell she cares for us all, but I think that if she has to choose between letting a Pack member live or dying in the process of taking him down... She won't hesitate to die.

    Johanna is a little bit less impressive of a figure than Gabrielle, and I am yet to figure her out. She is a little bit quiet, not shy… Just not much of a talker. She smiles a lot though and acts kind towards everyone (a little more towards Gerald, I’ve noticed). Even though it doesn’t look like it, she’s the stealthiest person I’ve ever seen. Sometimes it seems like she literally appears out of nowhere.

    Gerald… He frowns a lot and calls me and Kyle “boy” instead of using our names. He insults us and puts us down every time we make a mistake; he’s actually good at doing that. Still, I know he acts a lot meaner than he really is. He puts up a very good front, but his eyes deceive him. He is also a very smart guy, taught us that we should always be one step ahead and that we should know our enemies before we can successfully defeat them. He taught us a lot about the Wolfpack, how they function, how they think… He seems to always be willing to teach us something, whether we are willing to listen to him or not.

    These are things I literally pulled out of my ass back in 2012; four years before Shadows Rise was even a thought in my mind. And these were all based on traits that I feel Sebastian displayed as a grown man that he would have picked up from the people who basically raised him. And then, in turn, I went over these traits and backtracked some more to figure out how these people became this way themselves in order to create their individual backgrounds. If that makes sense? This isn't an easy thing for me to explain in any way. lol


    I suppose some would get it, but I've had test-readers misinterpret things like that as a mere dislike or such due to the more complicated nature of her relationship with flying insects. She's terrified of them-that's not a joke-but her pride and disdain for her fear is strong enough she generally hides all but the most instinctual symptoms of her fear from others.

    I personally think it's okay that some people interpret something like this one way and some people would interpret it differently. Think of it this way; if you're standing in front of a person having that reaction in real life, you're not going to know 100% for sure what is going through their mind, body language and minor facial expressions are very subjective and they can be very fleeting. They're open to an observer's interpretation.

    If you want to make clear she's trying to hide her fear due to pride, you can be more straightforward by, maybe, have someone question whether she's scared of something and have her deny it. Like very forcefully deny it, like she's angry (possibly at herself) that the other person was able to notice.

    I don't know if that helps, but... Hopefully? :)

  • Oh no, that's very helpful! Thanks!

    I suppose a lot of it makes sense...I might start writing little scenes and excerpts off of random prompts that have nothing to do with the story, if only to develop them more.

    I RPd a lot in the past, too XD Still do sometimes, although I have had people be like, "are you writing a reply or a book?" XD bad habit of rambing on.

    That sounds like a very intersting story so far. I love supernatural stuff so that gets me going and gives me life <3

  • I have to agree with all of the above - actually writing the character is the best way for me to figure out more about them. Typically when I start writing, I have a vague idea of their background and personality, and it comes to fruition once I've gotten going.

    Showing rather than telling also is usually better. Mostly because if you say, "Jackson is a calm person", but then you show them being super hyper and noisy all the time, you're going to either be confusing or need a reason. (Unreliable narrator, maybe? I've actually done this with one.)

    I think an important way to help bring out minor details is to put them with people with varying levels of familiarity and closeness. See:


    None of my characters would act the same with one person as they do another. Rus is very close with Nik and Michael, but what he feels comfortable talking with between the two is different. In the same vein, he would consider Dylan a friend, but he's very reserved and would probably be more accurately called an acquaintance.

    To go with Rachel's fear of flying insects - around people she doesn't know very well, she might hide it to the best of her ability, but maybe if she's around people she knows well and trusts, and who may or may not already know about her fear, her fearful reaction is more clear. Or, maybe they react to her differently. Someone who doesn't know her well might not think anything of it, but someone who knows her well and knows about her fear might say something off hand to reassure her.

  • Goodness knows, you guys are awesome. Thanks for all the helpful tips!

    Also I love that quote. Very true. Every human being has some level of deception in them.

  • @Josey mentioned some of the tools I've worked with in character and story development over time, but as time goes on new techniques pop up. I do have eighty or ninety pages of notes for one of my book's characters, and yet another book has no character notes. The main difference being ensemble cast vs first person protagonist. In the group each personality and character needs enough touchstones for me to reference to slip back into their mind when it comes time for them to take center stage. My first person protagonist, however, dominated my head-space while I was working on the project.

    The 'how do I get there' road map to character creation can be different with every character, but often there are some similarities. I ask the character their defining traits and any extremities that really break them from society's mold, but as I get closer and more nuanced, I look at the history of the character and the motivations of why the character now is the way they are. Lots of soul searching and empathy later, I hope to have a sense of their priorities and interests as a natural extension of their personality.

    An example of two very different characters. Ozzy's history was hard and isolated him, cut off his support from the world, and forced him to hide much of himself without really knowing that was what he was doing. He wants to live a normal life and be able to enjoy the simple things without having to work so hard, so he makes time to stop and smell the proverbial roses. He also accepts the world as he encounters it, but is always looking at the angles. He's a fighter, his guard is up most of the time, but he isn't so jaded and paranoid as to give up on the world just yet.

    Egon's history had moments of love and joy, however, a tragedy redefined his life and altered the path of his future. He became obsessed with vengeance and obligation, and as he stopped living for himself and devoted his every effort for those that remained after he lost the loves of his life, he became harder for me to connect with as an author. He didn't want to let me in or tell me his story. I've had to work hard to crack him open and slip into his skin, but he's a somber sage with too much damage in his past to see the world the way Ozzy can.

    Where one has faltered and recovered, the other doesn't even see that he's still falling. So there's another point, pretty much any character I write has a story to tell, and they haven't had a pristine past. There are people who live life without much conflict or drama, but those wouldn't be the focus of my story.

    Regarding the little details, some emerge in backstory creation, others worm their way to the surface in the writing/brainstorming phase. I advise asking and then listening to your characters whenever you're at an impasse. Works for me, but then again I may be insane.

  • Plotist Team: Community Storyteller

    I will add to what everyone here has said as well. One of the key things I do during character development is really two different sheets. They both have the same question, but one asks for what the character believes and sees. The other asks for the reality of the situation. For example, I have a character who will bold face lie to you about how she has suffered, survived, and has found direction and purpose. The reality? She doesn't deal with the pain of her past. She carries it like a scar she picks out, and when the emotion and pressure get too much, her friends have to step in and let her go through the motions. So by having these two different sheets with two different points of view, I can keep track of what is real, and what is ... her illusion.

  • @josey That's a good point, there can be a lot of difference between perception and reality. Which makes me wonder if writing about a character from another character's perspective might help, too? I mean, in a way, not only are you showing Character A from a new angle, you're also presenting Character B's traits somewhat, right?

  • Plotist Team: Community Storyteller

    @shy_not_fly17 Yeah. I can totally see that. Usually when I read a 1st person story, the character's "faults" are totally in the face of the reader. Good example is a character named Marnie. Her stories are first person, and my goodness you know darn well just how obtuse, blind, and horribly skewed her perception is. You realise this as you think she's on the ball, and then she forgets something, or someone talking to her points out just how silly she is being, or how much she is missing the plot. But yeah... having people she different truths is important.

    It's been said, and @typical_demigod's post really shows this. For one set of actions where 2 people are present, there are 3 perspectives. One for each person present, and the truth.

  • I'd wager there are quite a few characters that don't really know themselves yet. They haven't taken the time and introspection or encountered the life experiences that make them scrutinize who they really are, so they're still an amalgamation of expectations (others and their own), opinions, and emotions (as well as quite a few other core pillars of personality development). They're busy living life and haven't felt the need to dig into the truth of self. If the individual can be that lost in regards to self, most others may see parts of that character's personality, but those too can and probably will be skewed.

    Protagonist's disease vs Sonder comes to mind.

    So at times I do oversimplify characters, for everyone's benefit. They're all too complicated if I went into all the minutia of self for every individual, or even for a single person that is telling the story. Some parts of their life aren't relevant for this segment of their life/story and the crucial points need clarity for audience attention. I'm glad when the characters come easily, but I'm willing to reach shoulder-deep in their guts and tickle their spine until they learn who their overlord is. . . I mean --- no characters were ever harmed in the making of my prose >.>

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