Creating Rich Characters – Prompts


While my days are spent grinding out my WIP, I thought I’d share an old post about writing character bios, specifically about using prompts to expedite the process.

The prompt-list below looks more complicated than it is (a result of explanations and examples). For some prompts, a word or two is sufficient, while others require some contemplation. Unsurprisingly, I force my main characters to endure the entire process; incidental players get a pass with a mere smattering of details, and everyone else falls somewhere in between.

Ultimately, I believe that this pre-work pays off, not only in rich characters. To me, the process of writing flows with greater ease. My characters are immensely cooperative in telling their own stories when they know who they are.

The External Character

woman-1801830_640Physical Description: Appearance goes without saying, but add at least one remarkable feature: glass eye, cleft chin, crooked teeth, chewed nails, scars, moles, beady eyes, or rumbling voice. Remember, even beautiful people are imperfect.

Gestures, Mannerisms:  A distinguishing physical habit not only defines a character but makes him memorable. A character may habitually pick his teeth, clear his throat, rub his jaw, trace an old scar, purse his lips, fidget with a button, wink, spit, raise one eyebrow, stroke a beard, belch…

Quirk: A distinctive behavior that goes beyond a gesture: Won’t eat anything green, corrects improper speech, loves bad puns, doesn’t like to be touched, is afraid of heights, always misses the bus. There are numerous lists of quirks on the web.

Attribute, Trait: People have a blend of traits. Pick one or two for your character that stand out. Maybe she’s stubborn, lucky, picky, impatient, naïve, or flippant. Lists of attributes are also readily available on the web.

Skills, Abilities, and Interests: No real person is great at everything, and neither is your well-rounded character. Does your character have an education or special training? In what skills does he excel? Where is he lacking? What does your character do for a living? What does he do during down time?

Mix it Up: People are multi-dimensional. Villains can have redeemable qualities. They may rescue animals, love old movies, grow roses, or play chess in the park. Likewise, heroes have their flaws. They drink too much, have hot tempers, always run late, get easily flustered, or are slobs.

Don’t Overdo It: Creating a one-eyed, belly-scratching, kind-hearted, hypochondriac swordsmen with a penchant for chocolate is fun, but most characters will require much more subtlety.

The Internal Character

woman-1596954_960_720Backstory: Each character has a formative life that shaped him. What was the character’s childhood like? How strong were/are his family ties? Where are his parents and/or siblings? What significant event of the past shaped who the character is today? What was the character doing before the first page opened?

Secrets: A secret impacts a character’s attitudes and behaviors. It adds interest to the story because it can create tension or mystery in interpersonal dynamics. What is the character’s secret that no one else knows?

Goals: What does your character desperately desire? A protagonist’s overarching goal will often drive the story, and conflicting goals between characters may be a major source of tension. Consider that the main characters will have goals related not only to the main plot but to subplots.

Obstacles: What is the main obstacle that stands in the way of the character reaching her goal. This may be a nemesis, a personal flaw, or a condition of the culture or world. Remember that villains aren’t the only ones that can stand in a character’s way. Obstacles can be large and small and there are usually lots of them in the protagonist’s path.

Active Pursuit of Goals: At some point in the story, the character moves into an active role in overcoming obstacles and achieving goals. What triggers the change for the character? How does the character take or attempt to take active control?

posing-1022162_640The Big Fear: This is the one that terrifies – betrayal, loss of control, inability to protect loved ones, failure, death, aloneness, disgrace, insignificance, poverty, aging. It may drive the character’s goal or be an obstacle he must overcome. Fears have a basis in experience – where did this fear come from?

The Mask: A character’s mask is directly related to his fear. The mask describes how a character compensates for the Big Fear, or hides it from the world. For example, a character fearful of betrayal, may act overly independent or refuse to get close to others. Often the mask comes undone during the course of a story and the character is forced to face and perhaps overcome her fear.

Cross-Character Relationships: Another way to add interest and tension is by creating similarities between conflicting characters, and differences between companionable characters. What might the protagonist and villain have in common? Perhaps they both love horses, appreciate fine wines, or fear water. Along the same lines, how might the protagonist and his cohorts clash? One curses constantly and the other finds it offensive; one might play an instrument poorly while his companions cover their ears.

There you have it – my prompts. I hope this is helpful. Let me know if there’s something I missed!


**Images from Pixabay**

105 thoughts on “Creating Rich Characters – Prompts

  1. novonay says:

    Fantastic post with useful and interesting information. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steph McCoy says:

    While I just enjoy reading fiction and don’t think I could write it, these are excellent tips Diana. I can see how following this process in the beginning would save time when developing the story.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. K'lee L. says:

    Another fantastic post, Diana. Lots of ‘food for thought’ here. I’m definitely taking notes as I look to jump back into my novel and add some needed dimensions to my characters. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. reocochran says:

    I like your bringing up flaws and secrets to develop characters. I wonder how many authors bother to imagine their character’s childhood? Not many, I hesitate to guess! You are awesome at sharing these lists, Diana. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Great tips! Thanks. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Love this! Don’t think you missed a thing. I especially like your: mix it up, secrets, and backstory.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. dgkaye says:

    Fabulous layout Diana; not complicated at all. This is a great guideline to outlining characters and their traits. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Antonia says:

    This is awesome Diana! I am always in such awe of the creative process associating with writing. I really enjoyed learning more about how characters come to be. Have a wonderful Sunday my friend!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. appreciated too as a visual story teller…and learning along the way thank you Diana ~ smiles hedy 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Khaya Ronkainen says:

    Excellent post, Diana. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Reblogged this on Riley Amos Westbook and commented:
    Great post Diane! Love it!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Aquileana says:

    Excellent post… rich characters make deep plots 😉 Thanks for sharing D… Have a great sunday ⭐️

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Reblogged this on Art by Rob Goldstein and commented:
    D. Wallace Peach offers some great prompts for creating characters.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I love this! Clear, concise and logical. Worth a zillion hours in a creative writing class.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great list of reminders. I don’t write fiction, but I spent several decades as an actor; these tips recall things to remember when playing a character, bad or good.

    I can’t tell you how many times good actors must flesh out a character, both mentally & physically, to be able to play a human being and not a cardboard mock-up. In a novel, the writer has to do that work with words.

    The thing I see most often – in many forms of fiction – are one-dimensional villains. Nobody is all bad either, and nobody is a villain to him or herself.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Steven Baird says:

    Terrific post, Diana. That extra something that gives breadth and dimension to characters is so important.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. Brilliant post, Diana. Would love to borrow this for my students? It always helps to get a different angle on these things.Jx

    Liked by 2 people

  18. What a great list! Thanks for sharing your tips.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. ellenbest24 says:

    A superb list worth keeping to refer back to often. Thank you 😇 i feel a gift is mine for the opening of. *skips away*

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Diana, even though I’m not writing a book or anything (for now, lol, I’ve started one several times only to give it up) I think this is a priceless prompt list! Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

  21. I got completely distracted by the robotic implants of the hunk in the picture. I read that sort of story so often, I no longer feel sorry for (and I’m so glad that emotion is disappearing for a wide variety of reasons) say veterans who lose a leg or arm in America’s battles. I feel like they have an opportunity to receive an amazing robotic piece that is better than human, once they’re used to it. I suppose your character profile would address that: Does s/he see themself as a victim or the result of the Universe’s plan.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I thought the hunk was a cyborg, Jacqui. I went straight to scifi! Regardless, yes, a character profile could go anywhere with this physical situation – pride, compassion, anger, determination, vindictiveness. Add that to all the other variations and there’s a story waiting to be told! It’s exciting.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. inesephoto says:

    Your writing tips are always so fun but to the point, Diana. Thank you for the information and entertaining 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  23. You are so kind to share these amazing tips! Something I will save! Thanks xx

    Liked by 3 people

  24. Purpleanais says:

    As I prepare to move into the “Fiction”part of my Creative Writing Master’s (eeeek!) this might just come in very useful. A writer I may be, but Fiction is not my forte. Thank you for this 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  25. These are superb reminders, Diana. I agree completely. …Except that a “one-eyed, belly-scratching, kind-hearted, hypochondriac swordsmen with a penchant for chocolate” would doubtlessly be fantastic in your hands. 😀 Mega hugs.

    Liked by 3 people

  26. An excellent post, Diana. Thanks so much for sharing it again. I’m sharing it too and adding it to my own list of posts to revisit. Great prompts! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  27. I love your list and will include it with the one I use. Like you, for each of my major characters in my books, I write pages about them that will never be seen in the actual book: siblings, worst thing that happened to them in high school, their relationship with a parent, their favorite teacher, their least favorite subject in school, their first boss – yes, I get into internal detail like that, as well sthe physical. NO character should be flawless, even if he/she is a hero, and I love figuring out what my main character’s flaw is (or flaws are). 🙂 And I always make sure that my ‘mean, bad’ character has at least one redeeming characteristic – I like yours of rescues animals’ or ‘grows roses.’ This is such a fun aspect of writing a book. Many times, I feel as if the character tells ME all about herself, which is quite fascinating to just sit and listen (and write) what is told.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I find it a fun part of writing too, Pam, and yes, the characters will often tell us about themselves. We can kick it off with one detail and they’re on a roll. And you’re right that so much of it never gets into the actual book (though it does, right, just not in the words). Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  28. Morgan says:

    A wonderfully helpful analysis of how to create compelling characters 🙂 Though I don’t go through this process intentionally, I was intrigued to discover that I do, still, keep all these components in mind as I create, asking the all-important WHY question over and over as I considered scenes and dialog. I guess it pays off…least, I hope! 😮 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  29. kyrobooks says:

    This list is VERY helpful. Thank you so much for posting.

    Liked by 2 people

  30. Frank says:

    A few years ago, while I was still very focused on vampires and often frustrated by how shallow vampires often are, I got people to suggest questions they could use in interviews with vampires. On the one hand, it’s fun and an excuse for a blog post; on the other, it really provokes thought about the background and nature of the vampire being interviewed. I hoped it would be a useful tool for authors creating vampires, but it never really took off…

    Liked by 2 people

  31. Annika Perry says:

    Diana, this is a great list and it’s amazing how many books fail to address the internal aspect of the characters in real detail. I’ve just finished a lovely book but it’s only flaw was everyone was so ‘nice’ – a few flaws but no real conflict. I kept waiting for that ‘oomph’ moment…You only need to include a couple from your internal list to add substance to any book or story!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Annika. Yeah, no need to go overboard. You’re right that it doesn’t take much and some of character nuance can be quite subtle. Even plot driven books benefit from well-developed characters. Happy Writing, my friend ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  32. janmalique says:

    Fantastic list, thank you. This will prove indispensable

    Liked by 2 people

  33. confabler says:

    Very helpful. Thank you for sharing☺

    Liked by 2 people

  34. Irena S. says:

    I love this list! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  35. Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    Very helpful, useful piece.

    Liked by 2 people

  36. Great piece, Diana. I’m reblogging it on Musings On Life & Experience. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  37. Ooh, have bookmarked this too for much future referencing… thank you! Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. tric says:

    A really interesting list which I have bookmarked forever! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  39. This is a great list; many thanks for sharing!

    To me, the most important one is the redeeming qualities of the antagonist and the off-putting ones of the hero. This makes for more three-dimensional, interesting characters.

    Liked by 3 people

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