Developing Character for your Story

The Crafty Writer has been taking a bit of a back seat lately due to the launch of my new books (which I’ll be telling you about in future posts). But as so many of you enjoy all of the advice you receive from The Crafty Writer I thought it was time to get back in the saddle (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor). I have asked Sunday Times best-selling author Mel Menzies, who has just brought out a new psychological mystery, Time to Shine, to give us a masterclass on developing character. 

Thank you, Fiona, for inviting me to write a guest blog on how to develop fictional characters for your book.  Actually, as the author of a number of biographies, I’d say that the same tips might be applied to real persons. Let me explain.

Inner Depth

My first tip would be to look beyond the obvious, the outer image portrayed by your character, to the personality that lies within.  When you’ve ascertained these inner characteristics, they may then be used either to the advantage or disadvantage of your character.

For instance, the first time I met Susan, when writing her biography, Healed Within, for Hodder & Stoughton, she came across as a very gentle, softly spoken person.  However, it soon became clear that although she never once raised her voice, she was a very determined and feisty lady and was good at getting others to do her bidding.  That was just as well, perhaps, because due to a brain tumour diagnosed when she was living in Ecuador, she ultimately became disabled.  The grit and determination of her inner self, although potentially a flaw, became her saving grace.

Gestures and Dialogue

Your reader doesn’t want you to tell them what sort of person your character is, but to show their strengths and weaknesses in action and speech.  Use patterns of speech, gestures, habits, mannerisms, likes and dislikes to show your reader how your character thinks and feels.

In my novel, A Painful Post Mortem, one of the characters habitually wipes his hand on his trousers.  Despite coming across as a successful businessman, inwardly he is lacking in confidence.  Overstepping the mark – when involved in a close call due to driving too fast, for instance – he wipes the sweat from his palms.  His speech impediment, too, is more obvious when he’s nervous, as is his swearing and drinking.

Career

Use your characters’ employment, or choice of education or lifestyle, to portray personality.  Think of the stereotype, then bend it a little.  Or a lot!

An example of this can be found in my latest book, Time to Shine, a novel where the protagonist, Evie Adams, is a counsellor.  She is not, however, a toe-the-line character.  Despite the ethical framework laid down by her mentors and governing body, she’s quite prepared to break the rules if it’s in her clients’ interests to do so.  What’s more, although she persistently declares herself to be an anti-snob, an advocate of make-do-and-mend, her inner counsellor chastises her for being judgemental of others.  As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that her attitude is a cover-up – a coping mechanism – to conceal the true state of affairs in her life: the hurts and the losses.

Effects of Childhood

I blog on my website and on Ezine Articles, and my top post of all time is a piece titled Eldest Child Syndrome: Are you What Your Parents Have Made You?. With visitors from every part of the globe, some of them countries I’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce, it seems that this is the topic that’s paramount in people’s thinking.

Parental expectation, sibling rivalry, low self-esteem, a strong sense of responsibility and perfectionism can all create a people pleaser personality.  And, of course different attributes are true of middle children – Birth Order – Middle Child, and the Youngest Child In The Family – Paragon or Pain?

These, however, are not the only influences of childhood.  A violent and abusive relationship between mother and father will, inevitably, have a long term effect on a child’s character, as will divorce, a parent’s criminal record or depression.  Add to that poverty, adoption, poor education – all these factors are instrumental in developing the characters of your book.  Again, I must stress: don’t tell; show the upshot in your character’s behaviour and thought processes.

Personality Traits

Also on my website, I have a personality test.  Similar in style to the Myers’ Briggs’ Type Indicator (MBTI) it shows what makes for the characteristics of an extrovert or introvert personality; a structured or spontaneous outlook and so on.  These, of course, are preferences rather than nurture or nature.  Use these, too, to develop your characters so that they become well-rounded personalities with a depth of feeling that your readers will find inspiring.


Merrilyn Williams, is the author of a number of traditionally published biographies, one of which was a bestseller, and she writes fiction under her maiden name, Mel Menzies.  Her latest novel, Time to Shine, a psychological mystery, published by Malcolm Down Publishing, is set in Exeter and substitutes counselling practices for police procedures.

Merrilyn is an inspirational speaker, has led writers’ workshops and is often asked to take part on BBC broadcasts on a wide range of topics, such as step-families; drugs; godparents; and bereavement.  She blogs regularly on creative writing, speaking and relationships.  Her website, An Author’s Look at Life, provides Resources to Inform, Inspire & Encourage.

Chat with her on:
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MelMenzies
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MelMenzies
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/melmenzies

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