Creating Characters in Layers: Get to Know Them Deep Down for Stronger Stories

Photo by Camila Quintero Franco on Unsplash

When you first begin to create a character for your story, the “heart” of who they are might come from one of several different places, depending on how you write. Some writers start with the character’s voice, some with their story goal, some with a mental picture, some with the plot and the kind of character who would best take the starring role. After some thinking, a bit more daydreaming, notes on paper, and so on, their character will start to take shape.

And the first questions tend to be what will the character look like? A lot of writing guides will tell you to avoid long physical descriptions, and within the story, this is good advice. But knowing what they look like can help you to then delve deeper into who they are inside. Why? Because outward appearances often do point to inner depths.

For example, a teen who dresses outrageously or a man who looks like a slob in dirty clothes and unshaven face — there are reasons for that. Outrageousness can signal rebellion, a desire to stand out, a need to annoy everyone. Slobbish appearance can signal depression, poverty, or a genuine don’t-care slob! What the outside is saying is up to you. But it will very often be saying something useful.

So when we create that physical description, we can use all of these basics and expand them:

  • Hair — color, length, tidiness, how they normally wear it
  • Eyes — color, health, eyebrows, things they do e.g. squint, tics
  • Complexion — dark, fair, cultural heritage, pimples, etc
  • Height and Build — skinny, fat, average, shape, weight, bulges, muscles, abnormalities or out of the ordinary aspects
  • Scars and imperfections — you might come back to this as it’s significant to how they feel about themselves and that’s a deeper layer
  • Looks — how do others see them? Handsome, pretty, plain, etc.
  • Gestures — is there anything they do that is a trait? e.g flicking hair back, licking lips, tapping foot, etc.
  • Right or left handed — this might or might not be significant
  • Other physical details that add to their individuality
Sherryl Clark - writer, editor, poet.

Writer, editor, book lover — I've published many children's books and three crime novels for adults so far. I edit other people's fiction and poetry.