Character reference

What’s their favourite pizza?

If you want to hook your readers, you’ll need a character that leaps off the page. A good character is believable and interesting. Firstly, be careful your character is not of music-hall-cliche stock (dumb blonde, greedy banker, uber-organized German, upper class twit etc…) – the problem here is that the reader will have met your character far too many times before to find them interesting now. As usual, turning the cliche on its head can be a good place to start getting ideas (chess-master page three girl, a banker who secretly gives away money etc…)

Also, don’t focus on describing what they look like from head to toe. In fact, their general physical appearance is not so revealing – the key is often in the interesting quirks and blemishes. Moreover, you ought to climb inside your character’s skin, get to know them intimately and let the reader see how they tick. It  is  good if there is something unusual about them. Here’s a sample list of questions you could mull in order to give your character depth:

Rather than describe the colour of their hair and eyes, write instead about their height, posture and walk.

If you first met this character, what would strike you most?

What is their natural scent or preferred perfume or aftershave.

What sort of diet do they have and what has been the physical impact of this regime?

What does their best friend think of them?

What happens when your character gets drunk?

What does your character have in his/her pockets/handbag?

What is your character’s favourite joke?

Also, to make your character particularly memorable, give him/her/it a singular physical attribute your reader will long associate with them. Think of it this way, if you were going to a costume party dressed as Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Havisham or Liesbeth Salander – what would you need? My guesses are, respectively: a lightening bolt scar, a deerhunter hat and pipe, an old wedding dress, and a dragon tattoo. Try to imagine what you’d need to be recognizable as your character.


About suehealy

From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022. Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer. TV Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series. Stage Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts). Radio Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. Prose Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy. An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus. View all posts by suehealy

10 responses to “Character reference

  • SusanWritesPrecise

    Thanks you for the excellent advise. I have trouble creating interesting and memorable characters.

    So nice of you to share!

  • amyleebell

    Love this! Almost like a questionaire of sorts for your characters.

  • Chris Kouju

    Lovely advice, thank you! 🙂

    Also, judging by the picture, the answer is Cucumber and Banana.

  • kymlucas

    Love the questions. They’re good ones to ask ourselves when we write about our characters. Thanks for a good post.

  • JSD

    This is great! Now I will think of characters in a totally different way. Thanks.

  • Kourtney Heintz

    Great advice. The picture immediately grabbed my attention too. 🙂

  • ehows and links « Fraser Sherman's Blog

    […] author responds, and the comments include a counter response. •And for writers, some thoughts on defining and describing characters. There are lots of fleshing-out lists for characters […]

  • Stephanie

    Loved reading this post. I think the hardest thing about character development is not writing what they say or do, but rather describing them for readers. I want them to “see” my characters and how they look, but I don’t want to describe too much. Part of the fun of reading the works of others is letting our imagination “create” that visual of the character, so for me, it’s one of the most challenging aspects of character development. Here’s another idea: Ask yourself which actors would “play” your characters in your book’s movie. If you have an idea in your head, that can help sometimes. Thanks for the post.

  • Desmond S. Peeples

    These are some excellent starting points for character development, generally more creative than most I’ve heard. I particularly like the drinking question, probably because I’ve just started writing a short story that starts with some description of a character’s behavioral changes through a bottle of brandy. I myself rarely go about planning a character with a template or any similar thing, rather I tend to start with an idea of the character’s general role within the story and an action for them to be taking, and from these details I let the rest of their characteristics roll out and reveal themselves organically. This, of course, depends on the perspective from which I’m writing, but I tend to do third-person and wriggle my omniscient narrator into the characters’ minds.

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