The Surprising Secret of Developing Characters

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group

 The question this month is:  Has your writing ever taken you by surprise? For example, a positive and belated response to a submission you’d forgotten about or an ending you never saw coming?

 The Surprising Secret of Developing Characters

I’m such a plotter one would think that I’m never surprised. The truth is that with every story I’m always surprised. The words that come out of my characters’ mouths are smart, engaging, and laugh out loud funny. So much so, I’m usually laughing aloud while writing, with my laughter surprising those around me whether other writers at a write-in or strangers in a coffee shop.

Often, I find my characters’ banter doesn’t require tags because the characters each have a distinctive voice, so it’s easy to know who is talking. The advantage is because we know who is speaking tags aren’t required. Thus, the writing becomes action and dialogue, with some narrative now and then rather than all the time. Even then, I try to keep the narrative down to a minimum.

Once I know the bare-bones outline of a story—how it begins and how it ends—I spend a lot of time finding out who my characters are. Many writers will interview their characters wanting to know about their background: where they went to school, what’s their favorite color, favorite music, favorite TV program, and so forth.

To me, while I want to know my character’s physicalities—such as hair and eye color, height, their job, their tangible goal—it’s more important for me to know their pain, their wound(s), the deep dark secret they don’t want anyone knowing.

To discover this information, I become the character. I do so by writing character journals. I start out saying my (their) name, where they’re from, and so forth. These various details will take up half a page and then, suddenly, I (the character) will say something that begs a question of what do you mean by that, or what happened, or how did that make you feel? That’s when the character goes deep. By now, I’m talking (writing) in that character’s voice. My voice and my thoughts are no longer my own, but theirs. I’m seeing through their eyes, feeling their pain. And, the writing becomes a stream of consciousness in their desire to reveal everything that hurts. Everything that up until this moment, has remained a secret that they can’t live with anymore.

By the time they’ve run out words, I’m holding three-to-five single-spaced typed pages. I have their goals, their essence, their true character—not the one that others in the book get to see and have seen forever, but the one they struggle to overcome.

It’s that pain that drives the character, which in turn drives their response in word and deed, which then drives the plot forward. It’s these elements that then help me plot out the middle, the important emotional points that spin the story into different directions.

It’s that pain that becomes the character arc, the thing that the character must overcome in order to win the girl, get the job, get the prize, and to finally obtain self-respect. It’s the thing the character will no longer have to face in their future.

It’s character pain that attracts readers. They want to see how a character will resolve their wound because that wound could be their own.

It’s character pain that engages readers, that makes them turn the pages. The suffering, the action, the pain.

It’s the pain overcome that provides a satisfying end to any story regardless of how the story ends: happily ever after or bittersweet.

The secret of developing characters is much like an iceberg. It’s not about the ice we see above the surface, the ice a character has shown us up until now; it’s about the ice we don’t see, the ice below the surface, the ice we get to learn about. How deep that ice goes, how big of a problem the ice really is.

So, when it comes to developing characters, the secret I share with you is this: Go Deep.


Insecure Writers Support Group BadgePurpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer – aim for a dozen new people each time – and return comments. This group is all about connecting!


About Diana Stout

Screenwriter, author, former English professor
This entry was posted in Characters, Motivation, Plotting, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Surprising Secret of Developing Characters

  1. jyvurentropy says:

    I love the idea of writing journal entries as the character and character interviews. Such a neat idea and I’ll definitely be trying it out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Do you ever find yourself needing to do research in order to flesh out your characters? In the instance that your character is completely different from you, are those some of the more difficult characters to write? If you have villians in your books, do they share similar characteristics with you? … I think character development is really cool, and I love that you write character journals for your characters! I think going deep is the only way to really find out who your character is and helpful in getting to the bottom of what your book is about. <3.


    • Diana Stout says:

      Thanks for your great question! I don’t ever research a character while doing the original journal because I don’t want to lose that stream of consciousness. However, when finished, I will go research certain things like a job, an illness, locations, characteristics or anything else mentioned in that journal and which I want to explore more deeply. Sometimes that research has me asking the character more questions that then lengthens the journal, providing breadth to that depth.


  3. dianarubino says:

    Great article, Diana! It sure is their pain (‘inner wound’, one editor I worked with called it) that drives the characters.


  4. lgkeltner says:

    The pain a character feels definitely drives them and says more about who they are than superficial details. Writing dialogue always leaves me feeling surprised too. Sometimes it shocks me when a character says something I hadn’t anticipated before writing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Patricia Kiyono says:

    Great post. I agree with the importance of knowing your characters wounds in order to understand their goals, motivations, and conflicts. And I also agree that they can surprise and entertain you with what they say and do. Sometimes I wish I could be as witty as my characters are!


  6. This is so true, especially with tough-guy heroes. The more pain they carry secretly, the better the hero!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Diane Burton says:

    I’ve done interviews but never written a character journal. I’m going to try that with an uncooperative main character in my WIP. Great advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post!!
    Good luck & God’s blessings

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Nancy Gideon says:

    Great post, Diana! I need to spend more time with my characters on the couch . . . in a therapeutic capacity. Wounded characters are the best!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Kara O'Neal says:

    I really love the characters in a story. I don’t need descriptions of scenes or clothing, etc., as much as I need the interactions between the character. It’s hard for me to write the external pieces to a book, because all I want to do is get the people talking! I loved your post. Very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Don’t think I’ll start talking like my characters, but we do need to know their pain. And what drives them. An exercise I learned years ago was to write down what each character thought of the other characters. It’s very revealing.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Diana Stout says:

    Alex, that’s a great idea! Thanks for sharing it. 🙂


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