Fattening up your Characters

I don’t mean literally – no need to go putting your characters on a high carb diet – but a lovely blog reader recently asked how I develop my protagonists, and I find the process is a lot like fattening them up. When starting out you begin with just bones – the bare outline of your main character. Through time, research and writing you start to build up their flesh, and in the final stages you add quirks and traits that lay their skin down over top, leaving you with a 3D living breathing character. But how do I get there?

Bones:

  • I often begin with a small kernel of knowledge about my main character. Something that’s important to them. The hint of their voice or personality. A snippet of conversation. A glimpse of how they look or how others see them. Like any story, it starts small, but you have to begin somewhere
  • Help the bones to grow: I use my natural writer’s curiosity to ask question after question. Who is this person? Why are they important to this story? What about them and their needs could drive a whole novel towards its end? Where do they come from and where will they go? The questions start out big, but become more specific as the story narrows down
  • First draft: once I know enough about my character and their story, I begin the first draft. That’s when I figure out how little I really knew…

Flesh:

  • I only truly begin to understand my main character once I have sat with them through an entire draft, watching the way they speak and move and react to the world. By the end of it I have a more through understanding of them, and need to go back in draft two to make sure they’re acting consistently
  • At this point I also make sure that the person I want my character to be isn’t inhibiting who they actually are. As writers we need to let them be their own person, even if they do things we would never do
  • Character profiles: before draft two I use a detailed set of questions to plumb the depths of my character’s personality, from their childhood through to their desires, strengths and weaknesses
  • Character sketches: as an illustrator I draw these myself, but others I know find magazine images of people who perfectly capture the look they’re after. This is important not only to make sure you describe your character consistently, but to ensure you’re conveying their personality through their physical appearance – how they stand, hold themselves, dress etc.

Skin:

  • The skin: the nitty gritty details that make us all individual. For me these traits develop over time, after being with my character for several drafts
  • Encourage the details: I do this by imagining my character – watching them move around, putting them in various situations, wondering how they would react to something joyous or uncomfortable or during a confrontation. As I walk around day to day, I wonder how my character would react to the situations I face, or what they would do in place of characters on TV
  • Collect foibles: writers are great people watchers. I’ve always been fascinated by the quirks people around me have – the words they use, the way they speak, the ticks and mannerisms that make them unique, the walk that means you recognise them from behind. If you can give your character unique mannerisms, they’ll suddenly become very real

It’s easy to get intimidated after reading a brilliant book with characters so real you wish you knew them. But don’t feel you have to know everything about your main character before you start writing. It’s all about layering. All writers layer, adding more character details with each draft. Characters will always begin as bones, mere shadows of who they will become. I’m currently at the ‘skin’ stage of a middle-grade adventure novel, and certain minor characters are only just starting to feel real rather than stereotyped. In a few more layers it will be ready.

What techniques do others use to develop character?

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9 Responses to “Fattening up your Characters”


  1. 1 Karen Tyrrell November 20, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Hi Katherine,
    Another great Blog about another facet of writing … Character Development. Love your checklists … cheers, Karen :))

  2. 2 Cassandra Jade November 20, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    I tend to have a lot of characters running around my head at any one moment and whichever one seems closer to developed is the one I will work with next. These characters are generally my protagonists and they are relatively easy because by the time I’m writing a story with them they are already more or less fully formed (though they sometimes get a quick beating into shape if the story demands a few tweaks and changes). The supporting characters take more work.
    I tend to start with my protagonist in the centre and draw a character web around them and then write in the relationship links between them and the other characters. Then I look at each of the other characters in turn and start to build a background. If I’ve decided one of them is the best friend of my protagonist I have to then think what kind of person would my protag be friends with. If someone is their rival I have to figure out why and what sparked it off. Eventually I have a cast and a full list of natural conflicts just waiting to unravel and that usually gives me the basic outline of a plot. Of course I then need to keep going back and tweaking things but several drafts later I usually have it worked out.
    I like your suggestions on how to fatten our characters. Particularly when it comes to their skin. I’m definitely a people watcher and am always on the look out for something new and interesting.

  3. 3 Sheryl Gwyther November 20, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    This is a great way to describe the gestation of a character, Kath – you’ve nailed it.
    My favourite part is adding those little quirky details, but have to confess I find it much easier to write about my antagonists rather than my protagonist. Strange? Maybe it’s more common than one thinks??
    Sheryl :)

  4. 4 Katherine Battersby November 21, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks Karen!

    Cassandra – that sounds like a fascinating process. I bet I’ll find a project one day where that method works perfectly for me – thanks!

    Sheryl, that’s really interesting. And having just read the first chapter of M&M I can see just how much you love to create juicy antagonists…

  5. 5 Lynn Priestley November 22, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Great post, Kath,

    This reminded me how similar writing is to illustration when you start with the bones of your drawing, flesh out the body and then add the intricate detail at the end to complete the full picture. I have to agree with Sheryl. I love the antagonist better and always have much more fun building my bullies and baddies. Picking up snippets from everyday life is always fun, too and then adding those characteristics into the mix. It always amazes me how a character takes on a life of its own and often behaves in ways I never intended. Certainly keeps it interesting.

  6. 6 Debbie Johansson November 23, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Once again Katherine another good post and good timing. I’ve just gone over the drafts of a couple of my own novels and I’m up to the ‘fleshing out’ stage. Thanks for another helpful checklist.

  7. 7 LypeCreerry November 27, 2009 at 2:43 am

    Nice blogpost, amazing looking blog, added it to my favorites!

  8. 8 Karen Tyrrell November 28, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Hi Katherine, Just checked out your other website http://www.katherinebattersby.com… Fantastic … very Professional. Congrats to you … Karen:))

  9. 9 Katherine Battersby November 29, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Lynn, it is quite similar in illustration, but to be honest I hadn’t thought about it until you said so. Thanks for making the link for me!

    Debbie, the fleshing out stage is wonderful. Glad to be of help.

    Karen, thanks for the lovely feedback on my website. I had a lot of fun putting it together.


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About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:

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