Skip to main content

Characters: A Brief Introduction

OWL logo

Welcome to the Purdue OWL

This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue University. When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice.

Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.

A Brief Introduction to Writing Characters in Fiction

As you begin writing a work of fiction—whether it be a short story or a novel, though you may not know yet what shape your piece will take—you might think of yourself as a director of a play. You will cast characters, dress them up, set them down somewhere, and push them into motion. They might collide with each other, or they might avoid each other—it’s up to you. They will each have their own unique appearance. Barring, of course, writing about identical twins, and even then, there will likely be distinctions. Your characters will each have their own set of values and beliefs. On top of that, they will have wants and needs. You’ll have to sort all this out, help some of them gain their wants while thwarting others, until you reach some form of resolution. But before you can do all this, you’ll need to create characters.

A Heuristic for Building Strong Characters

Imagine you sit down to interview your character. You know nothing about them going into the interview, or maybe you can picture them, but you’re not sure what they’re like. You’ll want to ask your character a long list of questions to get started. Some questions to ask may include:

  • How does the character feel about their parents?
  • Does the character have any siblings?
  • How does the character feel about their siblings?
  • How does the character feel about their job?
  • Does the character have good posture?
  • Does the character make direct eye contact?
  • Does the character have any nervous tics?
  • Does the character have a significant other?
  • What sort of person is the character attracted to?
  • Does the character appear confident?
  • Is the character physically healthy?
  • Does the character have any medical conditions?
  • Has the character suffered any trauma in their past?
  • Has the character ever broken any laws?

Additional questions can be found on the Invention for Secondary School Students: Creative Writing page.

If you can answer all these questions about your character, you’ll have a great deal of material. You may find that you can use a lot of it, which is great. However, not everything you determine about a character will go into your story. “Obviously, you would never include the pages of information you have recorded about a character in this way, but your knowing the information…will make the character more developed in the story simply because you, the creator, know the character so well” (Knorr and Schell 166). In other words, you don’t have to include every single detail about your character’s history in the story. The best stories often allude to the past without being explicit about past events.