Crafting Rich Characters (Part 1)

Greetings to all the storytellers out there. Let me start out by first wishing you a peaceful Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Then by sharing how delighted I am to be part of the Story Empire crew. I never tire of chatting about the craft of writing and hope to share some observations and insights as well as hear your thoughts and learn from you.

Though I won’t turn down a book with a riveting plot, I’m a lover of great characters. For me, characters are the glue that keeps me stuck to a story. I thought I’d start my Story Empire stint with a series of posts about Crafting Rich Characters.

As a new story takes shape in my brain, character profiles dutifully tap across my laptop. Whether you write character bios down or store them in your cranium, this pre-work may pay off with greater character depth and more complex relationships. In addition, the process of writing may flow with greater ease. My characters are immensely cooperative in telling their stories when they know who they are.

Physical Appearance

All images from Pixabay

The easiest part of building a character profile is physical appearance. Hair color, eye color, and height are worth keeping track of, but they aren’t going to grip the reader’s attention.

Readers have vivid imaginations, able to “see” the books they read without every single detail spelled out for them. Give them a few glimpses of stand-out qualities, and they’ll fill in the rest.

With that in mind, physical characteristics should be memorable, and when it comes to secondary characters and bit actors, a distinct detail can be more memorable than a name. Readers may not remember Louis from six chapters ago, but they’ll recall his twitchy eye or snaggletooth smile.

Remember, even beautiful people are imperfect. Your main characters are more interesting (and relatable) if they have flaws like the rest of us. I have main characters with frizzy hair, a bent spine, a missing eye. One has a birthmark on her face.

One caution—for main characters, I wouldn’t recommend horrible breath, a perpetually snotty upper lip, or weeping sores. Instead, pick a flaw that readers can overlook as the character’s personality grows on them. With secondary characters and bit players, go for it. Make them memorable with something unique.

Some Physical Characteristics:

Glass eye, cleft chin, crooked teeth, chewed nails, scars, moles, beady eyes, rumbling or squeaky voice, birthmark, limp, half-lidded eyes, bushy or thin eyebrows, greasy beard, unusual smell, missing an ear, jowls, a wrinkled neck, massive freckles, pointy mustache, a rash, narrow face, sweat stains, pimples, large feet, excessive hair, etc.

Gestures and Mannerisms

Gestures and Mannerisms encompass another aspect of the physical character. They’re distinguishing habits that help define characters and make them memorable. Instead of how they look, it’s what they do, often without thinking.

Some gestures and mannerisms: 

A character may scratch a rash, pick his teeth, clear his throat, snap fingers, trace an old scar, purse his lips, fidget with a button, wink, sniffle, spit, raise one eyebrow, stroke a beard, rake his hair, pick his nose, talk with his hands, avoid eye contact, massage his fingers, crack his knuckles, stretch, pick a scab, etc.

Quirks

To finish off appearance, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention quirks. These are distinctive behaviors that go beyond gestures and mannerisms. I’ve used these with both main characters and secondary characters.

Some quirks:

Won’t eat anything green, corrects improper speech, loves bad puns, doesn’t like to be touched, afraid of heights, a neat freak or complete slob, brutally honest, laughs at the wrong time, never smiles, complains constantly, takes cap naps, has no sense of direction, cries easily, always hungry, extremely polite, sings gospel in the shower, over or under-dresses, only wears red, and owns pet snakes, etc.

Some Additional Tips

  • People watching is a great way to pick up unique descriptions.
  • Some of the best physical descriptions will also tie into the plot (consider Harry Potter’s scar).
  • Have your characters’ physical qualities do double duty. What do they convey/reinforce to the reader about the person? Perhaps your character wears wrinkled shirts and mismatched socks because he’s newly divorced.
  • Use gestures, mannerisms, and quirks as action beats in lieu of dialog tags.

Jarod scratched his belly. “I’m hungry. Got any snacks?”

  • Don’t overdo it. Too much of a good thing (belly-scratching or beard-stroking) will create an echo and pop your reader out of the story.
  • Consider the power of exceptions: the character who always tells the truth, suddenly lies about something. Mismatched-sock guy enters the chapter all dressed up!
  • Choose your main characters’ qualities carefully. A main character with a limp is fine, but you’re going to have to deal with it throughout the book. With secondary characters, take some creative leaps.
  • Avoid cliches. If you’ve read it a hundred times, like “emerald eyes,” think of something else.

That concludes Part 1.

In Part 2, we’ll look at more aspects of the character that are observable: Attributes and Traits, Skills and Talents, and Occupations and Interests. And we’ll mix them up a bit.

Happy Writing!

230 thoughts on “Crafting Rich Characters (Part 1)

    • Ha ha. That’s a great one. And how memorable in a story. They really aren’t that hard to come up with, I think, and they really do add color (pun intended) to the story. Thanks for dropping by, Michele and Happy Writing!

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  1. Pingback: Crafting Rich Characters (Part 5) | Story Empire

  2. This is a great read. Particularly because I find I’m not that into physical descriptions of characters as a reader. So many unnecessarily gorgeous characters for no good reason, you know? When I finally started writing my novel, I wasn’t thinking much about physical characteristics at all because like I said, I’m not so into it as a reader. But I received feedback that I needed more physical description so I need to go back and revise. This post offers some great advice.

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    • There’s a whole range of acceptibility in terms of how much physical description you add. Though if readers are wanting more, that’s a very good hint to add more. Lol. I enjoy glimpses as a reader, especially when a book is starting out. A picture forms in my head, making the descriptions unimportant later in the read. And it’s more about quality than quantitiy. All you need is a few orginal details to make a character’s description pop. Have fun with it!

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  3. Pingback: Crafting Rich Characters (Part 4) | Story Empire

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  5. I just saw (part three) today and looked back to see if I had read the previous two segments. Unless you reblogged this on your page, I don’t think I saw this. (Nothing like showing up for a party two months late.🤣) First, I agree entirely with giving characters memorable qualities. When organizing them in our minds as readers, we are more likely to remember each because of their unique physical characteristics. Next, you make an excellent point about choosing those characteristics cautiously. We can’t give a character hard of hearing unless we’re prepared to deal with that characteristic throughout. Finally, I loved your suggestions for quirks. I laughed aloud about singing gospel in the shower.😁

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    • I’m glad you caught up with this one, Pete. No problem about missing it. Goodness, I miss posts constantly! And I’m glad you enjoyed the ideas. These are all kind of a starting place, and as the series moves forward, I move more into the character’s personality and psyche. And I’m glad you got a laugh from “singing gospel in the shower.” It’s really fun to add quirks. Happy Writing, my friend. 😀

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  6. Pingback: Crafting Rich Characters (Part 3) | Story Empire

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  8. I somehow missed this one, Diana. And boy, do I agree with you on the quirks being overdone. It becomes distracting when repeated excessively. I remember reading a book thinking, if she licks her lips one more time…

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  9. Pingback: Crafting Rich Characters (Part 2) | Story Empire

  10. Great post! I was just thinking today how easy it can be when I am writing to forget my character’s characteristics. I think when I get to the editing phase I should have a character journal as I go through my book! Thanks for the great ideas!!

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    • I’m glad this was helpful, Melissa. I actually keep a spreadsheet and it does come in handy! A journal is a great idea too, just to jot notes. The series is going to be 5 parts, each getting a little deeper in character building. I hope you’ll find some new ideas and inspiration. 🙂

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    • My pleasure, Carol. I enjoy “designing” characters, though I always allow them to be themselves and change as necessary. It’s fun to make the distinct and memorable and it doesn’t take much. Thanks so much for stopping by and for the comment. Happy Writing!

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  12. Wow! With writing you really have to change into another world, to see the characters directly as real living persons.Than the description of every single one. Horrible. Lol I think my place is on the readers site, and i enjoy this very much. Thank you very much, Diana! Enjoy a nice rest of the weekend! xx Michael

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    • Yes, exactly, Michael. I think the more we make our characters “real,” the better our readers will identify with them. And it isn’t that hard, just a few details here and there. Thanks so much for the visit and for sharing! Have a wonderful day, my friend. 🙂

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  15. I just love this post, Diana. There are so many ways to make a character come to life, and you gave several. And I agree about people watching – I’ve picked up traits I’ve observed in airports (excellent people watching), grocery stores, soccer games, etc.

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  16. lmao – so much fun! And I’m totally in agreement re a quirky description being more memorable than a name. I love big, complex stories with a cast of thousands, but I do have to confess that I’m not that good with names so a memorable description smooths over my lapses of memory and allows me to stay firmly entranced by the story.
    You really are a master Storyteller, Diana. 🙂

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    • Thanks so much, Andrea. I’m exactly the same way as far as name recall goes. I can’t even remember the names of some of my own characters!!! But I remember how they “felt” and part of that, I think, is a result of making them complete people. In Vohkah, you have no names, so making your characters distinct is doubly important! Thanks for the visit and I hope you enjoy the rest of the series. 🙂 How’s the writing going, btw?

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      • -mumble- Me too -mumble- I swear I look up the Vokhtan dictionary more than anyone else on the planet! And yes, not being able to rely on names did force me to work harder on the characters. I have capitulated just a little in the second book – the Apprentice now has a name, but it’s a secret name so never gets mentioned in public. lol
        I wish I could say the writing is going well, but my brain has flipped almost completely into graphics mode. I’ve been having a lot of fun, and some of it will be useful but… 😉
        I hope you’re being more productive. -hint hint-

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      • I’ll definitely be including the map I made in the future books, not sure about the concept graphics though. But…guess what!?! Today I wrote my first short story in literally 10 years. 😀 😀 1500+ words that came gushing out. Maybe my graphical sabbatical has been good for me in other ways as well.

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      • lol – I’m still a little stunned. Apart from a few useful book covers, I’ve generally seen my graphics as a form of procrastination rather than real creativity. Maybe I’ll give myself a break on the procrastination thing. 🙂

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  17. My characters tend to pop into my head fully formed and want to jump into the action of their lives to show themselves to me, so I find it hard to sit and formulate them before the story-writing begins. Instead, I work to stay conscious of their mannerisms, quirks etc. as they act them out near the beginning, and I fill in detailed character description files as I go. I refer back to those descriptions often to stay consistent and build upon what I – and the reader – know about the character. It might be ‘the hard way,’ but it assures that the characters fit the environment and tasks at hand in the plot and each is developed by changes in the other. Thanks for your insight and for sharing your process, Diana. It helps to review my process and to consider the strategies and thoroughness suggested in these great points.

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    • What a great comment, Sheri. I was chatting with Yvette about the need to be flexible and let the characters be who they are, even if that means they aren’t exactly who we planned. I often will go back and change my original profile or add detail. Good for you for keeping track! It shows in your writing and delightful characters. Thanks for stopping by and Happy Writing. 🙂

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      • That comment means a lot, thank you! Your care is also very apparent in your rich characters who completely live in and drive your stories. The worlds you build are remarkably vivid, and your plots are tight and intriguingly complex, but it’s your characters that make me LOVE your stories, Diana. I suppose our two character building methods are like slurping from opposite ends of a strand of spaghetti and meeting in the middle. LOL 🙂 Again, thanks for sharing your experience, and thanks for all the wonderful stories. I can’t wait to read more!

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      • “…like slurping from opposite ends of a strand of spaghetti and meeting in the middle.” LOL. What a hoot. Yes, that’s it exactly! However we get there is good. And thanks for the kind comment about my characters, Sheri. You warmed my heart. 🙂

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    • I think so, though we want to excel in both. For me, strong characters can support a weak plot, but weak characters will drag down even a great plot. But that’s just me. There are so many different readers out there with different tastes. That’s part of the fun. Thanks for dropping by and have a lovely week. 🙂

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  18. Great post, Diana! I’m a huge fan of character write-ups. I create a page or two for each of my characters to fully grasp who they are before I start writing. The pages change as the story unfolds, but it gives me a great starting point. They are also very useful when writing a series to make sure the characters stay true to who they are throughout the books. With your examples, you’ve given me some ideas for my next story, so thank you. I look forward to your next post. 🙂

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    • Great comment, Yvette. What you describe is exactly my process. I love your mention that the character profiles might change as the story unfolds. None of this is cast in stone and adjustments are natural. Some characters we know right off the bat, but others reveal themselves slowly. Thanks so much for stopping by and adding to the conversation. Happy Writing!

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  19. I so loved this descriptive narrative of crafting and creating memories for readers so that characters grow on them.
    This made me laugh and also I so had to agree:
    ” I wouldn’t recommend horrible breath, a perpetually snotty upper lip, or weeping sores”🤣🥺
    Harry Potter’s scar was so popular and endearing when we got our King Charles Cavalier, he had what appeared to be a lightning bolt of such and we called him Harry and that to me was the worst name… except there was Harry Potter who we loved. 💖

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  20. Great to see you here, Diana! I love this post. When I start writing a book, I have a plot in my head and some sketchy characters. I keep the basic physical descriptions to a bare minimum but quite quickly the characters develop personalities of their own and from that point the writing flows as I go along with them. When I’ve finished the first draft, it’s the opening chapters that need the most work as I try to breathe life into them. I’m looking forward to starting The Sorcerer’s Garden very soon!

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    • Thanks for swinging by, Trish. One of the commenters and I talked about how the heaviest of character descriptions need to happen early on, because later in a book, the reader already has a picture in their heads that we don’t want to mess with. In that regard, your process sounds just right. And thanks for the kind comment regarding The Sorcerer’s Garden. Yay! I hope you enjoy it, my friend. And I hope your writing is going well too!

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    • Hi Vashti. It’s so great to see you here. I hope you’re well. Thanks for stopping by to join in the fun of crafting characters. I’d echo that your books have some characters with unusual physical features! 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the post. More to come. Happy Writing!

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