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There are many ways to show character: exposition; description; action; gestures and mannerisms; setting, tastes, interests; dialogue; thoughts; and narrative voice.

You reveal your character by what he sees, not by what you see.

Example: A young boy would not notice his mother has on a shell-pink dress by Halston, he would see she has on her rich-lady clothes, and within two hours she would be “griping at him” for every little thing because she was grumpy “from wearing high heels.”

Inner thoughts set the scene, advance the plot and show characterization.

Example: Betsy stuck to the edges of the huge ballroom, away from the glowing candles and glittery chandeliers. Mama had outdone herself on this dress, and sure enough the stitches were so tiny a gnat wouldn’t be able to crawl between them. But still, Betsy was sure these beautiful people with their dazzling smiles and twinkling jewelry would be able to spot homemade at fifty paces.

When she was sure no one was looking, she ran a cautious finger up along her ribcage, making sure the safety pin that held the seam there didn’t show. She felt as out of place a mustard stain on a white tuxedo shirt.

Physical characteristics are another way to show characterization. Pick one or two major mannerisms (cracking knuckles or flipping hair out of eyes when nervous) that allow the reader’s imagination to view your characters. Props such as tattoos or body piercing are visual characteristics for a character.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips, best-selling author of Glitter Baby, Fancy Pants, HotShot, and Honey Moon has developed a very good hand-out entitled “Creating Memorable Characters.” The following Character Interview sheet will help you know your character better and allow you to portray their strengths and weaknesses to make them real and believable. You may not know the answers to all these questions when you first start writing, but make a form for each character (in pencil or on the computer) so that you can change it as you learn new things about them.

  1. Physical appearance as it affects personality.
  2. Educational background as it affects personality.
  3. Family background as it affects personality.
  4. What drives him/her? What does he/she want from life?
  5. What are his/her strengths and how are they shown?
  6. Why does he/she have these particular strengths?
  7. What are his/her flaws and how are they manifested?
  8. Why does he/she have these particular flaws?
  9. What aspects of your own personality (strengths/weaknesses/likes/dislikes) can you bring to this character?
  10. What is he/she going to learn throughout the course of the book? How is he/she going to grow? (i.e. What is he/she capable of doing at the end of the book that he/she couldn’t have done at the beginning?)
  11. What external force puts him/her in conflict with the heroine/hero?
  12. What internal force puts him/her in conflict with the hero/heroine?
  13. What will make him/her beloved by the reader?
  14. Describe your character’s “spine” (central elements of personality) in three or four words.

After answering all these questions, write or rewrite the scene that introduces your hero/heroine to the reader. Make it active and not passive. Show don’t tell. Include vivid details that make your character come alive. Try to include some element that gains reader sympathy for your character. Do not tell the reader everything you know about the character in one scene.

Kim gave an example from Ray Midge’s, The Dog of the South.

“I ordered a glass of beer and arranged my coins before me on the bar in columns according to value. When the beer came, I dipped a finger in it and wet down each corner of the paper napkin to anchor it, so it would not come up with the mug each time and make me appear ridiculous. I drank from the side of the mug that a left-handed person would use, in the belief that fewer mouths had been on that side.”

That was a truly great characterization paragraph. You can see immediately that he is a meticulous, cautious person who doesn’t want to appear foolish.


This article appeared in Passion on the Plains, the Romance Writers of the Texas Panhandle’s newsletter. The author is unknown at this time, however if anyone knows who wrote this article, please email the information to so we can give credit.

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