How to Avoid Creating Plastic Characters

When I was judging a recent contest, some entries captivated me and others didn't. One of the problems in the entries that didn't draw me in was a feeling of distance, like the characters were the plastic doll house people my daughters play with. Each figure moved around from place to place and scene to scene, but somehow lacked the breath of life that would make them real.

As I thought about the plastic-feel of the characters, I wondered what makes the difference between real, life-size characters and ones that are small and stiff. How can we move beyond doll-house characters to having ones that feel so alive we’d like to meet them?

I have to admit, I don’t write (or often read) character driven stories. The Preacher’s Bride (releasing in Oct.) is full of action and drama, and the book I’m currently writing is plot-driven as well. But, that doesn’t mean I’ve neglected my characters. In fact, I’ve worked really hard to breathe life into them before I begin the writing process. Here are just a few of the techniques I employ:

*Fill out a character worksheet. Over the years I’ve developed a worksheet that helps me figure out everything I need to know about my main characters—everything from their size underwear to the type of deodorant they use. Okay. Not really. I write historicals and they didn’t have underwear or deodorant. But you get my point! My questionnaire isn’t anything special, but if you’d like to use it as a springboard for your own, I’ve made it available at the top of my blog under the tab: Character Worksheet

*Understand their past. I may not need to know when they had their first scraped knee or lost tooth. But I do try to look for those defining incidents in their past that have shaped them into the characters they are in the present. These are usually the painful, life-shaping events (big or little) that provide the impetus behind their motivations in the story.

*Define the strengths. I try to narrow down the qualities that will help my readers care about the characters. Some refer to these as the “heroic” qualities. I brainstorm a list, then try to pull out a top strength. This is the one I show my character doing in my first chapter, to get my readers caring right away. I also pick out a few others that form the backbone of the character.

*Define the weaknesses. I carefully decide a main inner struggle or conflict that my character will need to work through. This is sometimes called the internal plot which is separate from but woven together with the external plot (and the relationship plot in a romance). The weakness needs to arise organically in the story out of those past motivations that we know but won’t divulge until later to our readers.

I’ve only shared a fraction of what I do to develop my characters. There are innumerable methods and books available on developing characters. Check the Helpful Writing Books list above for suggestions from other writers.

For me, the KEY to avoiding plastic characters is that I don’t start writing the story until my characters are already alive. I usually spend many weeks getting to know them. Finally, I reach a point when they’re living and breathing in my mind. In some ways, I’ve become that person—I’m playing his or her part with my body, heart, and soul. It’s at that point I know I’m ready to start the actual writing.

Yes, I realize I won’t know everything about my characters, that I’ll understand them even better as the story unfolds. But it’s like a marriage relationship. Before marriage we take time to get to know our partner—all their secrets, their past, their strengths and weaknesses. The growing doesn’t stop when we say “I do.” We change and always give our partners new things to discover about us. The same is true of our fiction characters and perhaps even more so.

When we take the time to stoke the passion with our characters and understand them intimately before committing them to paper, then we have a much greater chance of bringing them out of the doll house and onto the stage of life.

How do you keep your characters from being plastic? What are the techniques you employ to bring yours to life? Please share! We’d all like to learn more!


  1. I tend to favor character driven stories (Anne Tyler is a favorite of mine) Your "already alive" KEY is fantastic/sound advice. I do find that I uncover further details about my characters as I write, being a 'pantser' and all.

  2. I love your pointers and I am going to keep them in mind. Maybe my approach to 'character creating' is too simple. I don't think of them as characters. I think of them as people I am insanely interested in knowing EVERYTHING about. Then when I write I am not writing about characters, I am writing about people.

  3. Hey Jody! =)

    What a super post. This is something I have tried to do on my time off. Internal is my problem. I can do external.

    I have made my characters so real, that when I see someone in the store or wherever, I think there's Anna. Or there's Claire.

    Now, I have to remember to do that on the new one I recently started. UGH--so much to remember.

    I have missed you and your posts. I hope life is good, my friend. ^_^

  4. Awesome post! I don't know if mine are plastic or not. I don't do any preplanning (other than daydreaming) and I've tried to character sheets but I'm lazy. When it starts to make my brain feel like it's doing math, I stop.
    I guess I'll find out when I'm querying if my characters are strong or not.
    You write plot-driven, huh? I didn't know. :-)

  5. Jody, as always, an informative post! This seems to be something we all struggle with. Making characters believable and real is a complex task. We will definitely link this post on our Friday blog round-up to help others. Thanks so much!


  6. The main thing I do to give depth to my characters is to think of what has happened in their past-mistakes they've made and things that have happened to them-that shape who they are and the decisions they make going forward.

  7. The main thing I do to give depth to my characters is to think of what has happened in their past-mistakes they've made and things that have happened to them-that shape who they are and the decisions they make going forward.

  8. I love that you said, 'understand their past.' This is so overlooked sometimes. This is a fantastic tip for me even though I write mainly non-fiction stuff. Thanks

  9. Characters are probably my weakness so thanks for the post. I usually fill out character sketches of them and then I (please don't judge me) talk to them - in the car as I drive here and there, to see what they are really like. I am hoping that the other drivers just think I'm talking hands free on my cell phone. :)


  10. I do a little bit of both - prewriting and getting to know the character, but the bulk of it comes from the actual writing.

  11. I love my characters. ;) I was thoroughly excited to read that my judges found my characters to be compelling and wanted to read more about them. That was huge for me.

    Sometimes I think the whole reason I write is to bring my characters to life on the page.
    ~ Wendy

  12. Great worksheet. Thanks for sharing it with us. :O)

  13. Thanks for the worksheet and insight! I usually take pieces of personality traits from people I know and then expand on them. I often take notes of interesting people I meet so I can use them as a leapboard for future characters:)

  14. I have some writer friends who, although they don't tabletop role play (or have played just once or twice), they fill out AD&D type character sheets when they write.

    I haven't looked at your worksheet, but I reckon the approach is similar.

    I suppose when you have complicated stories with tons of characters this lets you keep a handle on them...

  15. I'm with you. I start writing once my characters are already alive for me. It's those dratted minor ones that get me. Great suggestions!

  16. I am currently in the process of allowing a character to grow inside me, beginning to take her first breaths, literally coming alive. It is a profoundly moving experience. Thank you for your guidance, Jody. It is so so helpful.

  17. I try to get to know my characters before I start writing too. I think about them a lot. I decide how they'll talk, how they'll react to difficult situations, whether they'll be funny or shy. But I don't know everything until the book is written. The characters tend to change from beginning to end and then I have to go back and fix the beginning.

  18. This is a fantastic post! I'm pretty sure my characters are fact I've been chastising myself about taking time to get to know them more. Your worksheet is going to be a huge help to me. I actually have On Writing by Stephen King on hold in the library if it ever comes back, but your book list includes a wealth of titles I haven't read yet. You have delivered so much excitment and motivation to me today Jody! I can't thank you enough.

  19. Great minds think alike ;). I posted on the exact same thing. My point being, when you write you really must come from a place of knowing. You practically have to BE them in order to get this "write". BTW, no underwear back then? *sigh* I was so born at the right time.

  20. My story ideas usually begin with a visual image of someone doing something, so I have to satisfy my own curiosity about the character before I begin writing. I create a collage, starting with a picture that resembles the person I visualized and then I add a progression of details. It's kind of a pictorial worksheet but it doesn't tell me everything I eventually need to know. Other worksheets I tried focused on details that I didn't find helpful but I really like yours. Your site offers so much, Jody! Thank you!

  21. I love this post! Thanks for sharing your worksheet & helpful writing books list! :)

    I personally consider what the character has been through and try to understand where they come from. I want to get into the character's heart, not just into the head.

  22. Thanks for sharing your Character Worksheet, Jody. Looking it over makes me realize how well I know my characters before I begin writing, because I could easily answer those questions for each of the major players in my stories.

    Since I'm a character-driven writer who writes romance, it's essential that I know my hero and heroine before I begin telling their story. Like you, I spend weeks getting to know them.

    Recently, I had to make significant changes to my h/h as part of a major rewrite. Talk about tough. I had to get to know them all over again before I could proceed. Even though I knew my plot, I had to know how my characters would react to each event or experience, which meant getting to know them at a deep level. I like them better now and think readers will, too, but the process of changing them was challenging.

  23. First off, thank you for the character worksheet! It's marvelous and I may have to print it out to use for my new WIP. Thank you for sharing!

    The best way I've found to develop my characters is to speak their dialogue out loud and act out scenes. I know, it sounds (and looks) crazy, but if I can act it out, sound it out, and it's believable, I can really feel that character saying and doing those things, then I know they're real enough to continue.

    Happy Monday,

  24. Thank you for this post, Jody!

    I have read so much about character development and things, but this is a good reminder. I'm working on a short story for a national competition and I've been having a hard time with it. I realize now it's because I just haven't spent enough time with my main character.

  25. Everyone has an agenda.

    Remember that, and your characters will come alive.

    They cardboard up on you when their only agenda is to move the plot forward.

    Not all of your characters care about your MC or his/her conflicts.

    Not all of them care about your plot, or where your story is going, or what your opinion is about certain topics (e.g. politics or race relations or cats v. dogs).


    Give them all an agenda and they'll surge to life.

    Trust me.

    - Eric

  26. Love this post!!! Great advice and I'm taking it to heart. Don't need no Fisher Price toys in my book!! :)

  27. what a phenomenal post. thanks for taking the time to put this together -- so helpful!!

  28. Good post! I love writing relatable characters and find that I look for that in novels I read as well.

    I don't fill out a character worksheet but I can't begin writing my story until I know some about the character's past, what contributed to the kind of person they are now, and how those events and thoughts motivate their actions now. I also have to know what it's going to take to motivate them to change.

  29. I fill out character sheets too. I also try to determine the top five words to describe them.

    I love, love, love figuring out my characters!

  30. I live with my characters in my head for awhile before I start writing anything down. I figure if I can think about my characters for a certain amount of time and continue to discover things about them, they'll be interesting and dynamic throughout the novel or story I'm writing. Then I fill out character sheets and answer tons of questions about them. Doing this is one of my favorite parts! The characters provide some of the best things in novels, and I strive to write compelling characters just like my favorite novels.

  31. Currently, I don't write character sketches. Honestly, I have a fear I will bury my character under structure because I am extemely analytical. I hope to find a balance where I can write fiction with characters pre-planned as you describe and not analyse to the point of paralysis. Great information Jody. It's printed and tacked up on my writing board for further processing!

  32. Great post, Jody! I have experimented with different ways of getting to know my characters. What I have found most helpful for me is writing their backstory. Sometimes it's just a couple of pages written in their voice telling the main things that have happened in their lives up to the point where the story starts. Depending on the book I might do that for several characters or just one or two.

    I really like your idea of defining strengths and weaknesses. I might try that!

  33. This is so timely for me, Jody! Thank you! And thanks for posting your worksheet... I will definitely check that out!

  34. Hey Jody...great post. I try to make my characters real by giving them problems, desires and flaws that people can identify with. My characters are never perfect or larger than life, so hopefully readers can connect with them.
    But its still a struggle at times to create very real characters.

  35. I find that working out my characters actually help me with the story. "What kind of person do I want to write about?" I ask myself. From there, the plot develops.

    And yes I write up a list of distinct charcter traits, history and appearance so that it remains consistent throughout the story. There is nothing worse than reading a book where the character's eyes are blue and then later in the story they are green for no apparent reason. Very distracting for the reader.

  36. I'm still learning how to do this correctly. The more I write, the more I realize how much has to go into every detail. Especially about my characters--

  37. I love how organized and thorough you are, Jody. I cannot wait to read The Preacher's Bride!!!

    My characters are already real. But it never hurts to embellish a look or a tone of voice to add a dash of flavor to a personality.

    The real characters in my stories are sometimes zanier and more horrible than fictional characters!

  38. Great post!! That Character Worksheet rocks. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

    To breathe life into my characters, I actually find actor head shots for each of them, and then watch them in movies and youtube clips to see them in action. Casting my book is one of my favorite parts of the pre-writing process.

  39. Hi Jody -

    I'll have to check out your character sheet.

    I usually have a general idea of who my characters are and what makes them tick before I start writing. On my latest WIP, I used information about their occupation and characteristics of the Type A personality.

    Thanks for the helpful tips.

    Susan :)

  40. I like what Tab said about writing about people. Whether it's fiction or non, I think the better we allow ourselves as writers to know who we're writing about, the more we can open our hearts to allow them full voice, the richer the story will be.

  41. Thanks for the link to the character worksheet, Jody! Great blog!

    One of my favorite books on the subject is Debra Dixon's "Goal Motivation & Conflict." I attended a GMC workshop years ago and it was SO fantastic.

    I'm most definitely a seat-of-my-pants writer, so one key way to develop my characters is just staying open to what they're going to say. I love when they do or say something and I go "I did not know that. But yeah, it totally fits!" Happened today as a matter of fact. :)

  42. Great post. The crime writer Michael Rowbotham, who was previously a ghostwriter of autobiographies of 'celebrities', said he believed his fictional characters as much alive as his biographical subjects. I have a pilot in my novel & every time I glance up at aircraft flying overhead (which happens frequently where I live) I imagine him up there.

  43. Plastic characters - this is an interesting way to think about it. The picture it generates for me will help me develop genuine characters. Thanks:)

  44. I am totally a plot driven girl too!! I think that's why I like romance so well, rarely do you see a romance that doesn't have a well defined plot vs. Women's fiction, which is usually more character and journey driven. I think this is very much preference, but you're right. A plot driven book can't neglect characters, and a character driven book can't neglect plot either.

    How do I keep them from being plastic? I think some of the same things you mentioned. A past is huge, give them motivations, quirks, and, for me, a personality. The books I like the least have main characters with dull personalities.

  45. I love your point that you should know the characters before you start writing! Aside from what you mentioned, I just spend a lot of time daydreaming about my characters. I let them live inside my imagination for months (or longer!) before I start writing. By the time I do, I know what I need to know to make them real to readers. :)

  46. Do you know, I have failed to get to know my characters properly. I know who they are, but not what they are made of. How do I know this? Because of your fantastic worksheet.

    Yes I have Ywriter to lay out my characters, but it is the little things you have outlined. The nail biting, head scratching stuff.
    I will spend time on this as my next edit session.

    Thank you for sharing.


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