Toolbox 11: 5 Things to Include When Building Characters

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.


Someone made a comment about my method of description. It got me thinking about what I do and why I do it.

It starts with tagging

Many of you know I outline and when I’m getting the ideas down, none of my characters have names. Just as in a logline, my characters are: 16 yo misfit, honest cop, alien cop, vic, ex-girlfriend, obvious enemy, best friend. I use place holders for each character I need.

I outline the now and the history, giving most characters a common background. I’ve discussed before how a shared history can bump up the drama and motivations between all the characters. It may seem like work but once the history is in place, the rest takes care of itself.

appearance is about climate, lifestyle and how they thrive

A character’s appearance can be chosen by weather, time for hygiene, what they eat/drink. I have a cop in my latest WIP and he works hard—sometimes too hard—so he’s not clean shaven, his shirt has stains of sweat, fast food and coffee. It doesn’t bother him because he’s too focused on what he needs to do next. He lives in the Pacific Northwest and because it rains a lot, he wears a fedora and a trench coat. For the record, he’d never make it as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.

Tags must be unique to each character

The trick is give each character individual traits. All of them can have brown eyes but one. All of them can be dark haired but one. All medium build but one.

For example, my cop is the only character with thinning mousy hair, blue eyes, trench coat, and fedora. He may share other features with the rest but I don’t focus on them.

How they say it

My cop uses a brutally honest manner without an internal editor. He thinks he’s a people person as he storms around invading pretty much everyone’s personal space.

Early in the story he’s given a secret that he has some major trouble keeping. If it wasn’t for his partner, he’d have blabbed right away.

not actions but reactions

I tag his emotions (reactions) with specific actions. He pokes a finger in faces when he’s angry, expels breath like steam when he’s trying to maintain control and blinks surprise when others don’t see him as the person he thinks he is.

Who wouldn’t love a forthright, honest man, who would do anything to protect the innocent.

When he puts it that way he sounds great… but is he? Most see a loud mouth cop, who thrives on conflict.

(freebie) Characters bloom a little more with each revision

Every time I go through my WIP everyone becomes more unique and assertive. Feedback–thanks everyone–has helped make each character their own person.

What about you? Any tricks to characterization you’d like to share?

Update: still nothing from Nelson PD. I plan to phone and see what I can glean from the assistant that passed on my request. Feeling all shy again. *sigh*


54 responses to “Toolbox 11: 5 Things to Include When Building Characters

  1. Really good tips, Anna. So important to give characters individual traits. Something I’m trying to do a better job of this time around.

  2. Good post! I like to make character sketches to help me flesh out my characters. Thanks for sharing!

  3. spunkonastick

    That does give each character a lot of distinct traits.

    The one in the Pacific NW might also be a little mossy.

  4. Enjoyed the post. Great tips.

  5. Great System! I like visual cues, so I use photos for my main characters that I’ve collected from the internet or magazines and newspapers. I also collect interesting obits and use them to give characters a fuller background. Morbid, I know. But I write murder mysteries. 🙂

  6. Great tips for making your characters unique. I struggle with this. Thanks for the suggestions.

  7. I really like how you use a character’s lifestyle to inform their appearance.
    I certainly have given thought to whether a character cares about their appearance, and how they “want” to look, but whether they have the time, and what they have the time for is a very strong component too.
    The emotional “tells” are a nice touch as well.

    I can’t say I’ve given very much thought to my characters’ appearance, other than having some characters dress in a modest, casual/comfortable, formal, or flashy manner based on their personality and intentions, but that’s more of a direct statement.
    Very thought provoking. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Great tips. I write in first person, so have a tendency for all my characters to sound the same. I can see a tool like this will help me differentiate them. Thanks!

  9. I totally do that placeholder thing for my characters too, and then they get names, and then I’m confused, because I can’t remember who’s who, and then it all starts to make sense after a while. So true that the characters gain definition with each pass through the MS Great post, Anna!

  10. Your cop character sounds awesome, and the traits you’ve given him really bring him to life 🙂
    The best trick I have for characters is try to visualise them, which I do by finding images that represent them on Pinterest. I find it easier to write them when I have an image of them in my head.

  11. I love the idea that our characters see themselves one way while everyone else sees them so differently. And it’s so great how feedback can make not only the story better but also the characters.

  12. Great tips. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of describing characters – especially when reacting to an event – so this is good reminder to make each character different in all the ways you mentioned about. thanks.

  13. Loni Townsend

    Great tips here! It definitely helps to build up the tags to make characters more memorable.

  14. This is great advice, especially the shared history part, I’ll definitely put more thought into that in future! I think making each character really distinct is one of my struggles, so thank you for the great tips!

  15. This is a great technique. It will really help your readers keep your characters straight. Thanks for sharing

  16. I try to make all of my characters different. Different hair colors, eye colors, and definitely personalities. 🙂

  17. Ha! I like how we wrote about pretty much the same thing this month. Great minds think alike! 😉

  18. I tend to use placeholders until I come up with names as well. I really, really like your use of Reactions, instead of actions. I hadn’t thought to write out how my character reacts to the emotions she is feeling. Thank you for sharing!

  19. Good advice, Anna. I’ve just joined this blog hop so I’ll see you around once a month at least!

  20. Every so often, at least for physical characteristics, I sometimes imagine an actor/actress playing the role and use one or two of their attributes; height, hair colour etc. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    • It might get better with time, or maybe you’re not wired for describing physical appearance. You might have to force it by going through your work and adding them (as ugly as that sounds).

  21. I love this post! I try to make my characters stand out as individuals, so focusing on what makes them unique is excellent advice.

  22. Great ideas here for giving tags. I like that you’re connecting tags to character backgrounds (and thus their motivations) and to character actions/reactions (and thus tags affect the plot).

  23. Tag lines for characters… what a great way to start thinking of their unique aspects. I’m totally going to try this.

  24. I can read through your blog how your characters come to life. It sure looks like an art to me, to be this creative and engaging. Part of me thinks “such hard work” to do these characterizations and then, I think “This sounds like fun!” I do believe you have to have a fantastic imagination,and keep good track of all your different characters.

    I think I’ll stick to non-fiction for now. 🙂

  25. Victoria Marie Lees

    This is great, Anna! I love your cop. Many times, every character thinks they are perfect. It’s great when the reader knows otherwise. Be brave, my dear, and contact Nelson. All best to you.

  26. Im saving this post to read later but i’ve found that my greatest challenge is building my characters up to have an emotional attachment to them. I need to work on character development.

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