Nancy's Notes From Florida

Author Nancy J. Cohen discusses the writing process and life as a Florida resident.

Creating Realistic Characters

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on September 20, 2013

When Characters Stop Being Literal and Become Real
J.H. Bogran

On the dedication page of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, author J.K. Rowling dedicates the book to her daughter, proclaiming Harry is her ink-and-paper twin. In just one sentence, Mrs. Rowling demonstrates how real the characters are for her.

Every writer worth his salt knows that only when we believe and treat our character as real people, they will become so to the readers. Why? I could bet it is because our perception of the character seeps into them while we type them.    Firefall

I don’t pretend to preach to the converted, what I’d like to share today is the way I develop my characters, not that I think it is the one and only way to go about it.

After I decide the story I want to tell, I spend time developing a list of characters that I think are required to tell the story. The list includes the lead, lead’s love interest if any, the antagonist, and the secondary characters. I don’t waste time on the character with bit parts; I trust they will show up when I need them for a particular scene. Yeah, it’s kind of “if I build it, they will come.”

Two books that have helped me with characters and how to write them are Angela Ackerman/Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus, and the other one is Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress.

The main characters get special attention, of course. I prepare a worksheet where I list name, description, personality, profession and extras. The first four are pretty self-explanatory. Extras can be tiny little things like if he/she smokes, or notes the appalling story of how they became the person they are at the start of my book.

For the physical description I cheat a little bit, if it can be called like that. I use people I’ve met, sometimes movie or TV actors, but someone to anchor me to what they look like and keep me from changing hair or eye colors between chapters. Their personality starts relatively empty as I’d like to leave room for the characters to grow. Of course, that character worksheet keeps getting revised while I’m writing the story.

The secondary characters are not as developed, but I keep a close watch on them as sometimes they come back with surprises, or they make appearances in other stories. For example, the doctor who treated my lead female character suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder in the story Love Me Two Times, turns out to have a younger brother. In the opening chapter of my new novel Firefall, Doctor James Martin is performing an intervention on his younger brother Sebastian, who is the lead character in that novel.

One tip I learned during a ThrillerFest class on craft imparted by Robert Dugoni was to give each character a unique trait. It can be anything from always chewing gum to a limp. The idea is that the trait would be big enough to make them appear better than two-dimensional.

The making of my character is far from a refined technique, but it works for me, so I’m sticking with it. They become real to me because I can picture them in my head.

I’m curious to know how others do it, so please leave a comment if you can. Thanks.


About J. H. Bográn   JH Bogran

J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. He’s a member of the Short Fiction Writers Guild and the International Thriller Writers, where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and contributor editor their official e-zine The Big Thrill.

Website at:
Twitter: @JHBogran
Amazon author page:

About Firefall:

After losing his wife and son in an air crash, former NYC firefighter Sebastian Martin is spiraling downward into alcoholic oblivion. Then his brother sets him up with a last-chance job investigating insurance fraud, but his first case takes a deadly turn as he crosses path with an international ring of car thieves. Sebastian ends up strapped to a chair facing torture at the hands of a former KGB trainee who enjoys playing with fire on his victims to get answers.

Firefall Buy Links:

Rebel E Publishers:

6 Responses to “Creating Realistic Characters”

  1. Gina Fava said

    Great character tips, JH!
    I must admit that I also follow Dugoni’s suggestion of giving each character that one unique trait or mannerism, for both primary and secondary characters. For instance, the villain in my thriller, The Race, has a penchant for munching candy bars when he’s appreciating an instance of his own villainy–I guess then, it’s become a “power bar.”
    Excellent post, JH. Thank you!

  2. Munching candy bars is a good one. The heroine in one of my WiPs pops cinnamon mints into her mouth. If you watch people, you can see their habits, like tugging on one’s ear or stroking a jaw. These actions can be used in dialogue as character tags.

    • Gina Fava said

      I agree, Nancy. In fact, those are the humanizing elements that bring pathos to a character, whether a protagonist or an antagonist, or even briefly for a secondary character.

      I love your blog, Nancy. Thank you for sharing information from such great authors. And, I look forward to reading your work, too!

  3. J H Bogran said

    Hello Gina,

    I had forgotten you were also part of the alumni in Dugoni’s class. That’s probably because you and I didn’t talk until later.
    One of my character has a limp, other is addicted to technology, and another one loves cars so much he made a living out of stealing them.

    That Thrillerfest 2010 was epic. Still read my notes from it when I need some inspiration to carry on.

    Funny trivia bit: the book I was pitching back then was in fact Firefall.

    Thank you for stopping by.


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