8 tips you can use today to breathe life into your characters

Being a writer who defines her work as character driven, I always find it interesting to discuss how other writers develop the invisible people that populate their pages. Some day I’ll write a post about what I do to help me find a character’s breath (for me, it’s that spark that makes a character authentic) but for now, I’d rather let other writers speak about what character is for them, and since it’s Writer Wednesday, I thought I’d ask Victoria Watson how she develops the characters for her work.

I do hope you’ll find the discussion as interesting as I do, and please do feel free to offer your own insights in the comments section.



How do I develop depth in a character?

By Victoria Watson


Listen and observe.

In order to create a believable character, you need to consider what people sound like in real life. People can remind you how multi-faceted your character should be. It’s easy to forget, when you’re in the writing zone, and portray the character too simply.


Back Story.

My main way of developing a character is by getting to know them – and their back story – inside out. You may not need to include all of this information in your story but you need to know it. If you only concentrate on the things you want your character to say and do in your story, the character doesn’t come alive. What makes your character tick? What’s important to them? What has influenced your character? Think about your own life – how do you describe yourself when introducing yourself to people? You might mention your job or your education, what you might not mention (but know yourself is about the social class you grew up in and your family background). You may tell someone about your political inclination, but you wouldn’t necessarily say why you supported a certain party. You might have been the victim of a crime and you support a certain political party because of their criminal justice policy but it’s not inevitable that you’d tell someone that.


When I’m writing, I sometimes think about forms I have to fill in. I fill in forms for insurance, medical purposes, questionnaires, job applications and so on. This reminds me of the information I know about myself but don’t necessarily give out on a frequent basis. You should know your character as well as you know yourself. That will show in your writing.


Appearance and outfits.

The way someone looks can hint towards their character or some part of their story but looks can be deceptive. For example, if one person’s hair is messy, it might mean that they left the house in a rush or that they’ve been caught in a storm. Likewise, they could be a frazzled mother or they could just not care about their appearance. A man – or woman – in a white coat could be a doctor but they could also be a dentist or on their way to a fancy dress party. Appearance can help but requires more detail in order to tell a story.



Think about how people in real life talk. Spend some time listening to people talk. There are fillers – “er” and “um” – as well as pauses. People lose their train of thought sometimes too. Is it realistic to have your character in Queen’s English? Would they say would not or wouldn’t? Do they use slang?



Does your character have any traits or habits that stand out? For example, does the character talk with their hands? Do they blink a lot? Do they have any twitches or speech impediments? Think about how your character walks – some people drag their legs, other people speed walk everywhere, and others have big strides.



Put yourself in your character’s position. How would you react when placed in a similar situation? If you encountered a comparable challenge, how would you deal with it? How does the experiences your character has previously had influence how they feel about something? This is why you need to know their back story.


Remember the grey.

Remember the ‘grey’ aspects of life. It’s rare that life is ever clear cut. Most people have conflicting opinions on certain matters and can often contradict themselves. I’m not saying you should constantly use this tool – the more sparing the better, in fact – as using it too much can make your writing (and your character) seem confused. It is tempting to avoid confusion but remember, sometimes real life is confusing.



The devil, as they say, is in the detail. Someone’s hair is rarely “brown” for example.


Victoria Watson


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Thea Atkinson is a writer of character driven fiction.

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Posted in guest blogging, writerwednesday exercises
5 comments on “8 tips you can use today to breathe life into your characters
  1. […] one day, I was reading Thea Atkinson’s blog with a guest post from Victoria Watson. She said something about the backstory of a character in […]

  2. […] Where you can find me this week. Posted on January 13, 2012 | Leave a comment My article on how to create depth in characters is available at Thea Atkinson’s blog: https://theaatkinson.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/8-tips-you-can-use-today-to-breathe-life-into-your-char… […]

  3. Diane Tibert says:

    I use backstory a lot and find it valuable. I have a short story for each of my main characters telling the worst moment in their life (before they appeared in my novel). It’s as long as it needs to be; one is about 10,000 words. I find writing them in the novel is a breeze after meeting them in the short story, and because I tie the short story in with the novel, there’s a ton of information I can draw on. I jokingly say you must spend the night with your character before you really know them. That night may be spent hanging from a cliff or a dinner at a fancy restaurant, but either way, something big must happen to reveal the character’s raw emotions.

    Great post. I’ll go check out Victoria’s page.

  4. Good points. As far as I’m concerned, there are only a dozen or so stories in the world, and what readers remember are the characters acting out those stories.

    Larry Brooks (storyfix.com) does a great job talking about the three dimensions of character.

    The first dimension is the mannerism and characteristics and ‘things’ the character may have. (The protagonist rides a vintage Harley, wears an old bomber jacket and wears his hair in a ponytail)

    The second dimension is the back story about those mannerisms, characteristics and things. (The vintage Harley and jacket used to be his father’s, a former marine who hates long hair).

    The third dimension is what that actually MEANS to the protagonist (his father died in combat and the bike and jacket are all he has to remember him by).

    As for back story, my third book, “G’Day LA”, starts a year after the protagonist, a young Australian actress, moves to Hollywood. Because I wanted alternate chapters to be in her POV (1st person) and I hadn’t written as a woman before, I wrote probably 20k words of her back story, what she did before she moved to LA, the main defining moments of her life, before I even started writing the main book. Amazed at how easy it made the rest of the story flow.

    • All great info, Tony! Makes perfect sense, actually and good stuff for folks to remember especially in the editing stage where you can actually build it in after the fever of writing has passed.

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