5 Point Checklist To Help Writers Get to Know Their Characters Thoroughly

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Reviews are starting to roll in for my new YA novella, THE VOW, published by Harper Collins.

Considering the length constraints of a novella, developing real, likeable, and deep characters can be a challenge. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that the characters have resonated with readers so far:

"I loved how Jody Hedlund developed her characters so quickly." (Velva B.)

"The characters are real and fresh." (Emilee D)

"The Vow's crisp prose and pitch-perfect characterization quickly immersed me in the romance, pageantry, and courtliness of Hedlund's medieval world." (Ruth)

"The characters are fleshed out with their own unique personalities." (Caitlin)

Let's face it making our characters REAL is difficult in a full length novel much less one a quarter of the size (as is the case of a novella). So how can we accomplish such a feat?

As I analyzed how I was able to bring the characters in my novella to life so quickly and realistically, I realized one very important thing: I wrote the full length novel (which is the heroine's main story) BEFORE I penned the novella. 

No, I'm not proposing that all novellas be written after the tie-in novel. Rather, my point is that as I sat down to write the novella, I ALREADY thoroughly knew my heroine inside and out. She was alive and fresh and vibrant in my mind because I'd spent weeks developing her character during my pre-writing plotting phase, and then I also got to know her even better while I wrote the full length novel.

The whole experience reminded me of just how imperative it is for writers to know their characters. In fact, if we want to have characters that come alive in our readers' minds, the characters must intimately come alive in our minds first. 

Whether we're a plotter or pantser (seat-of-the-pants writer), all of us can benefit from fleshing out our characters BEFORE we start writing our first drafts.

Here are some areas I explore with my main characters:

1. Appearance: 

(I describe exactly how they look; I even go as far as finding a picture of them online from among actors and actresses, models, or famous people.)

• Body type (including weight and height)
• Their unique scent
• Texture of hands, skin
• Eye color (along with synonyms and metaphors)
• Hair color and style (along with synonyms and metaphors)
• Unique physical traits/tags specific to only that characters
• Clothing (style, frequently worn clothes, etc.)
• Race/ethnicity
• Physical imperfections or something they would most like to change

2. Personality: 

• Admirable personality traits
• Negative personality traits
• Quirks or eccentricities
• Off-beat manners of behavior, dress, or speech that distinguishes them from others
• Things that make them angry (along with method of handling anger)
• Things that embarrass them (along with method of handling embarrassment)
• Things that make them afraid (along with method handling fear)
• Prejudices
• Pet peeves or gripes
• Sense of humor
• Philosophy of life

3. Interests:

• Favorites (foods, books, colors, places, etc.)
• Hobbies
• Item(s) special to them
• Person/friend close to them
• Years of schooling
• Occupations (past and present)
• Skills, abilities, talents

4. Backstory:

• Brief family history
• Description of home, home life, economic status
• Most painful experiences in their past
• Happiest memories from their past
• Relationships with father or mother (or another family member)
• Other important relationships that affected them
• Any other significant events from the past

5. Goals:

• What is their biggest dream or main goal in life?
• Why do they have that dream/goal (what happened in their past to give them that dream)?
• What is keeping them from reaching their dream/goal?

Yes, I know the above lists can look a little overwhelming! But I don't tackle the list all at once. In
fact, some of it I don't even fill in until I start writing the story. I usually get to know my characters on a much deeper level AS the story unfolds.

Even so, I always start with a basic framework. I bring my characters to life BEFORE I start writing. It's because the characters are ALREADY alive and fleshed out that I'm THEN able to go much deeper as I write the story.

Writers, if we want to develop deep, realistic characters that readers will love and care about, then follow this writerly commandment: "Know Thy Characters."

What about YOU? What are some other areas you explore with your characters to bring them to life?


  1. A great list which I will save and refer to. I do find though that my characters develop as I write as well. Sometimes they surprise me.

    1. I love it when my characters surprise me with something new! It's one of the real joys of writing! :-)

  2. You really do a wonderful job of bringing characters to life on the page. Thanks for the tips!

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