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How to Write a Freaking Cool Novel – Step 10: Character Depth: Putting Flesh on the Bones

novel writing tipsThis article is part of a series. To get the most out of this series, consider starting from article 1.

NOTE: To those of you who have been following this article series, I’m sorry for the latency of the past couple of articles. I’ve never written a book about how to write a novel and a novel at the same time. It’s double the work. I’ll try to get back on the rails and crank these articles out more consistently.  I expect to write 15 total articles. This one, being the 10th, puts me 3/4 of the way through the process.

Some authors pound their staves, declaring like town criers, that the best place to start when writing any story is by exploring the main characters. These authors are correct in this sentiment. There are other authors who, with perhaps an even larger staff, pound even harder, shouting that plot is the place to start and that without conflict found only in plot structure, character can not be fully fleshed out. These authors are also correct.

The truth is: there is more than one way to go about writing a story. I vary from project to project. For me, it depends on the place from where the story comes. Sometimes a deep character flashes into my mind, complicated and dimensional, a character upon which I can hang a great story. I get to work, uncoiling a plot out of the nuances of such a character.

Other times perilous situations grab my attention. I see a character– it matters little what type of character–in a dire situation, a situation worth writing about. I start with that situation and roll out an entire plot. Fleshing out the character comes later.

There is no wrong or right way to build your story. However, depth of character is absolutely essential, whether your characters are created at the beginning or the end of the story outlining process. The most intriguing plot, decorated with rich action, pithy dialog, and intense scenes of conflict, can never stand on their own; these aspects, important as they are, must be buttressed by complicated characters.

Character Sketch Anatomy
When fleshing out a character, taking a top-level approach works as an effective starting point. Undoubtedly, you have thought a lot about your character. But just thinking about him isn’t enough. You must build your character from the top down, from the ground up, and from the inside out.

This means writing. It is best to take a good, straightforward approach when sketching out your main characters. Each of your main characters should have an involved character sketch, which you must keep in your story canon. Less important characters do not require full character sketches. However, they must all be motivated and serve specific and required purposes to your story.

A breakdown of your character sketch sheets might have the following headings:

  • General Character Information
  • Character Summary
  • Character Interview
  • In-depth Character Description
    • Pre-birth
    • Birth and Early Childhood
    • Adolescence
    • Adulthood

The headings help keep your character sketches organized. There is also a logical flow in filling your character sketches out in the above heading order. Building strong characters is much like building your story; start with a general structure then fill in the details.

Lets analyze each heading individually.

General Character Information
The first heading in your character sketch is for your character’s demographic information. Keep it simple. Start with the following information. Feel free to add or take away any information that you feel is appropriate for your story.


Birth Date:



Birth Place:

Town where this character grew up:


Yearly income:

Just by filling in this simple form, you can already begin to visualize your character. Using this demographic information, you are ready to move onto the next headline in your character sketch.

Character Summary
Put more involved information about your character in this section of her sketch sheet. But stick to information important to the story. This is a place where you can outline your character’s motivation for getting involved in your story, her relationships at the beginning of your story, her approach to problem solving, etc.

Stay away from detailed information about her past, such as her relationship with her mother, her first love, a list of her high school friends, or her resume.

This section of your character sheet should be short, perhaps around 200 words. Remember that you will be writing an exhaustive history of your character later. Keep this section restricted to only information you need to know about your character as your character pertains to your story.

Motivate Every Character
Every character must be motivated to act by a compound of that character’s personal history and his present circumstances. The so-called bad guy doesn’t exude evil just for the thrill of being bad; he’s always after something: money, dominion, power, revenge. No so-called good guy acts solely for the sake of good. There must be something in it for him: absolution, fame, recognition, acceptance.

It is a good practice to consciously attach motivation to each main character you write. Even stating your character’s name and his motivation can help you to propel your character through a great story. A character named Jack who gives to charity says nothing of his character; but Jack who gives to charity to impress Sarah, his love interest, says a whole lot more.  Now we have something we can work with.

Lets push Jack a bit further; see what we can spin merely out of his motivation. Jack donates to charity, a good thing, but not solely for the sake of altruism. Sarah, who sits on the board for the charity is a knockout, the object of Jack’s obsession. He will do anything to get her. So writing out a check for fifty thousand dollars is not out of the question. Those around Jack might say: “Look at Jack, he’s so great,” and wonder why Sarah doesn’t adore him. The whole time, Sarah is creeped out by Jack due to the fact that she caught him staking out her house.

Is Jack a good guy or a bad guy? We don’t know. But we do know that his motivation and what he is willing to do to get Sara complicates him.

Character Interview
Get to know your character by asking questions. More often than not, first impressions are false. You might see someone at a party and think, man, that dude looks like a jerk. Then, bam, you find yourself trapped with that person in an elevator for an hour and everything changes. You converse with him, you listen to his ambitions, his hopes, and his follies. As you listen, you learn to understand the place from where he comes. The more you understand, the more you sympathize with him.

Perhaps the stranger trapped across the elevator from you is a philanthropist, giving virtually all of his time to charities, but he has the face of a mongrel.

Perhaps your first impression was correct; he’s a jerk. But when you learn that he has grown up in an abusive home, or on the streets, you begin to understand that he has been forced to fight for everything he owns. Once you understand his past, you at least understand why he acts arrogant or even mean. With such knowledge about his background, you might not like him, but you don’t hate him, because you understand him.

The main characters in your story, particularly the protagonist and antagonist, must be fully fleshed out. This means you must spend time with them. Trap yourself in the elevator with them for an hour and see what happens. Take on the role of a biographer and sit across from them. Interview them, ask them questions about their lives, relationships, triumphs, defeats, joys, and shames. Get to the kernels that truly define your characters. Shine a light through the cobweb-clogged memories and force them to tell you about those moments in their lives that defined them.

Here is a list of questions you might ask your main characters. Make this a written exercise. Write out a Q/A much like you would read in a magazine interview.

Q: Where were you born?

Q: Describe the circumstances of your birth.

Q: Can you describe your parent’s parenting style as they raised you?

Q: Tell me about your first childhood sweetheart.

Q: What were your friends like in elementary school?

Q: What were your friends like in high school?

Q: Did you ever dream of becoming something other than what you are now?

Q: Tell me about your career.

Q: Tell me about your spouse and kids.
This is not a definitive list of questions. Be creative. You might choose an entirely different list of questions for each of your characters based on what is important to you and to your story.

You will find as you write out your characters’ Q/As that your characters will begin to come alive. You will become genuinely interested in them. You will want to complicate them, challenge them, maybe even give some of them bloody noses. You will learn about their passions, loves, hates, strengths, and weaknesses.

Even though little to none of the information you write into your character sketches will make it into your story, every bit of information you learn about your characters will help you write them in depth. Only by understanding your character’s motivation, background, and insecurities can you hope to instill sympathy for your characters in your readers.

In-depth Character Description
Now onto the meat of your character sketch. Buckle up because this section can be a journey. The in-depth section of your character sketch sheet contains all the dirty falls and triumphs of your character. While writing this section, you will learn about your character’s childhood, his painful or joyful developmental years. You will learn what events in his life changed him. You will learn how a lifetime of decisions, right or wrong, have dumped your character off right here at the front door of your story.

Expect to write exhaustively in this section. You should plan to write at least 1,000 words, about 5 pages. You be the judge as to when you have written enough information to thoroughly understand your character. When you feel you are finished, stop.

Use what you have written earlier—the character summary and the character interview—to flesh your character out and make him or her real.

Every Coin has Two Sides
Great characters exude both positive and negative traits. No person on earth is entirely heroic or villainous. There’s no black and white. There’s certainly charcoal gray and off white. But no absolutes exist on the extreme ends of the color spectrum when it comes to human character. Even Stalin adored his daughter, Svetlana. His relationship with his wife, Nadezhda, was complex and tortuous. Sometimes he even feared her. During marital spats, she became so vicious that he would run for cover and hide in the bathroom from her.

Hitler loved his German Shepherd, Blondi. He kept her by his side and even allowed her to sleep in his bedroom. He was also an ideal and loving son to his mother.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to sympathize with these characters. They were both evil men. But by showing their sympathetic traits, along with their murderous histories, they become more human and, hence, even more potent.

It is important to realize that the nature of a character comes from her personal history. Only by exploring this history can you understand the light sources and dark corners of character.

Find that Defining Moment
Erik Erikson, one of the foremost psychologists on early psychological development, theorized that people become aware of themselves and their identity at between the ages of 10 and 14. He thus posed that this crucial age of adolescence is the best time for intervention. It makes sense. At this age, we are easily influenced. We have come to an understanding of our individuality.

This crucial age, between 10 and 14 years old, hence, becomes a great tool you can use to shape your characters. You can learn a lot about your characters by inserting a traumatic, happy, near death, glorious (pick your poison) event right in the middle of this early developmental period.

How does an 11-year-old live out the rest of his life when he witnesses his abusive father commit suicide with a shotgun? How does a 12-year old girl go about putting the pieces together when an earthquake hits her town, brings her house down, and kills her sister? What lifelong habits does a 10-year old boy pick up after he falls into a nest of rattlesnakes and survives? What does an 11-year-old boy do after he accidentally heals someone with his touch at a tent revival? Sometimes the event defines the character, as long as the event blindsides the character, rocks his world, and occurs during an impressionable time of that character’s life.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
Rich character is all about motivation. Hard decisions are the byproduct of a motivated person. As you write about your characters, make sure they are the ones making decisions. Throughout the process of composing their histories, explore points in their lives where they have found themselves at crossroads. Write about the decisions they have made at those points in their lives. Write about why they made those decisions. Write about the results of those decisions. Write about what your characters learned from those decisions.

In a way, you are playing God. A good God doesn’t intervene. He lets his subjects wander around and bump into each other. He allows them to fail and learn. He allows them to flourish or curl up and die. He even allows them to kill each other some times. As you write your character’s in-depth descriptions, stay out of their way. Play the good God.

Gus the Plumber: A Character Sketch
The story of Gus the Plumber seems to be coming along nicely. We have a complete description of the plot. Every plot point is present. Every part of the story is motivated. But we haven’t fleshed out the characters. Even the most intriguing of plots will fall flat if the characters who drive it are not deep and rich. So here we go: here’s a character sketch for Gus the Plumber.


Character Sketch

Gus Saxy

General Character Information

Name: Gus Saxy

Birth Date: June 5, 1981

Sex: Male

Race: Caucasian

Birth Place: Marian, Ohio

Town where this character grew up: Marion and other towns in Ohio

Livelihood: Plumber

Yearly income: $53,000


Character Summary
Gus Saxy is in love with Dierdre Rosen. He adores her. Being overweight and a little bit ugly, he’s grateful that any woman would have anything to do with him, much less a woman as beautiful, in his eyes, as Dierdre. Gus plans to marry Dierdre. He’s been putting away some money for a wedding ring and a lavish honeymoon.

Gus runs his own plumbing business. He makes an okay living. He could make more, but money just doesn’t motivate him. He would rather experience life and spend time with friends than become a workaholic.

Being an only child, with his real father in prison, his stepfather dead and his mother living in Florida, Gus has learned to live alone effectively but tends to think of his friends as his family. People love Gus because Gus loves people. He loves life. He loves being a plumber.

Harper Plumbing, a large company, has been working hard to push out the small guys. Gus’s business survives solely due to Gus’s personal approach to his clients and his ability to under-promise and over-deliver. Harpers has attempted to rehire Gus on a few occasions. But Gus is happy just running his own shop. He doesn’t want to become beholden to a boss and another company’s rigid policies. Besides, there’s something about Harper lately that Gus doesn’t trust.

Character Interview
Q: Where were you born?
A: I was born in the heart of America, Marion, Ohio. It’s like a little oasis in a whole world full of war, crime and depression.

Q: Describe the circumstances of your birth.
A: My dad worked as a machinist at the Defense Supply Center in Columbus. He didn’t’ make a ton of money, but we got by. I don’t talk much about him because he was an alcoholic and abusive. He’s in prison now. I consider my stepfather to be my true father. Unfortunately, he died when I was in college.

Q: Can you describe your parent’s parenting style as they raised you?
A: Well, my real dad beat the tar out of my mom and went to prison, a place that he can’t seem to leave. My step-father worked hard as a plumber. Although he was strict with me, I think he was fair. He dominated the home, but wasn’t abusive. His philosophy, which I have adopted was, “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” I live by that in the way I work and in the way I pay my employees.

Q: Tell me about your first childhood sweetheart.
A: That would have to be Sarah Feinman. Man, she was a sweetie. A Jew. I loved her blond hair and her squishy nose. I remember her coming over to the swing set in the schoolyard back in the 2nd grade. I got off my swing immediately and offered it to her. When she asked, “why are you being so nice to me,” I clammed up. I couldn’t talk to her. It never went beyond a hello in the hall after that. I’ve been shy around girls ever since.

Q: What were your friends like in elementary school?
A: I lived in a blue-collar area. Sports were important. With two pro football teams in the state it behooved every kid in school to meet at recess in the schoolyard with a pigskin for a game. I wasn’t any good at competitive sports, but I loved playing as a kid. I don’t play any more because of my bad back, but I still like to take in a good game every now and then.

Q: What were your friends like in high school?
A: I spent my high school years in the late 90’s. Everyone was listening to bands like Everclear and Foo Fighters. I was partial to the classics. I’m a die-hard ACDC and Judas Priest fan. I was lucky when it came to style. Everyone wore cut off shorts, untucked flannel shirts and Adidas. We weren’t rich so I could get everything I needed at a thrift store. Most of my friends drank a lot. But because of my real Dad’s addiction, I was smart enough to learn from his mistakes. I went to all the parties, collected everyone’s keys and drove everyone home when things wrapped up. My parents worried, but I always tried to keep my nose clean.

Q: Did you ever dream of becoming something other than what you are now?
A: I’m happy with where I am now. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I guess everyone has ambitions of being something big when he grows up. I think there was a time that I wanted to own an auto dealership, but I don’t have the checkered coat and million-dollar smile to pull that one off.

Q: Tell me about your career.
A: I’m a plumber. I work hard and I get paid well enough for my work. There are other plumbers in town who like to rip off their clients by doing shoddy work or overcharging for minor fixes and cheap parts. I’m not that guy. When you hire me and shake my hand, you can rest assured that you will get the very best job I can do for a fair price. That’s why I own my own business and have even hired employees of my own.

Q: Tell me about your spouse and kids.
A: I’m not married. I’d like to be. I think I would be a great dad. There is a girl in my life. Her name’s Dierdre Rosen. As it turns out, she went to Marion High with me back in the 90’s she graduated 2 years down from me. Although I would never admit it to her, I don’t remember her from school. I fully intend to propose to that girl. She might not be the world’s top model, but I’m not the best looking guy on the block either. We have what’s important; we love each other, and I make her laugh.

In-depth Character Description

Gus’s father, Gerrard Saxxy, grew up in Jackson, Ohio to Bethany and William Saxxy. Gerrard’s father, an abusive alcoholic, had difficulty holding down a job so the family lived in extreme poverty, most of the time without power and other utilities.

Birth and early childhood
Gus was born at a low in life when Gerrard was regularly beating his wife, Bethany. There was a brief respite in Gerrard’s behavior when his son came along. Bethany thanked the Lord her child had been a boy. She felt that if they had conceived a girl, things might have gotten worse, even to the point where she feared for her and her child’s life.

During brief windows between drinking binges, Gerrard showed genuine affection for his son. But one Christmas eve when Gus was 4-years old, Gerrard had flown off the handle. Ranting over a comment Bethany had made about Gerrard’s lack of money to provide a decent Christmas for little Gus. Gerrard grabbed a poker from the fireplace and beat Bethany unconscious, little Gus crying and cowering in a corner the whole time. By the time the police and paramedics came, Gerrard was sitting in an overstuffed chair with his head in his hands crying. The police took Gerrard away. That was the last time Gus saw his father.

After Gerrard had gone to prison, things got better for Gus. Bethany got a job as a receptionist at the city facilities building in Marrion and made enough money to keep the lights on and to buy shoes, books, and clothes for her dear son.

Although they were poor, Gus and Bethany loved each other. Bethany was strict with Gus, making him do his homework and behave himself. She vowed that Gus would never touch alcohol his whole life.

Over time, Bethany made friends with a man named Artie Lands, a plumber with the Marion state facilities department. Artie became a permanent fixture around Gus’s home. Bethany was glad that Artie came around so much to give Gus a good role model.

At age 12, Gus went with his now stepfather on a large repair job for an apartment complex in Cherry Creek, on the Westside of Columbus, Ohio. As Gus sat outside an apartment building eating an ice cream cone Artie had bought for him, a group of Hilltop Bloods came onto him. They knocked his cone out of his hand and began beating him up for no reason other than he didn’t belong there.

After losing 2 teeth, lying belly down on the pavement with gangsters kicking him in the ribs, Artie came out of the apartment complex with a lead pipe and went to town. Artie put 2 of the gangsters in the hospital and sent the other three away with cuts and bruises. As they ran away, Artie pointed at them and shouted, “don’t you ever touch my son again, or I’ll kill you.”

After sending the gangsters away, Artie offered Gus his hand. As Gus looked up at Artie, bending over him with the sun backlighting his big frame, Artie realized that Artie was more than just his mother’s husband; Artie was Gus’s true father. In many ways since that occurrence, Gus strove to become as much like Artie as he could, even becoming a professional plumber.

Gus made many friends throughout junior high and high school. He treated everybody kindly, cheerleaders, jocks, members of the band, and chess club members alike. He wasn’t popular, but everybody liked him.

He showed real mechanical promise as a high school auto shop and metal shop student. He completely rebuilt his teacher’s, Mr. Wament’s, 1968 Camaro and aced the class at the same time as a junior.

Although most of Gus’s friends drank and partied heavily, Gus did not indulge in alcohol. He remembered too clearly the last night he had seen his real father, even though he had been extremely young at the time. On occasion, after coming home from a late party, Gus’s mother would ask him, “Do I need to smell your breath?” Gus would respond, “No, Ma, I’m no fool.”

During Gus’s first, and only, year of college, his stepfather suffered a heart attack and died. Gus mourned for nearly 2 months over the man who he thought of as his father. Gus’s father’s death caused him to do some soul searching regarding what he truly wanted to become as a man. He quit school, enrolled in a tech school for plumbers and, 18-months later, got a job working for Harbor Plumbing.

After 2 years of working with Harbor, never satisfied with his supervisors or coworkers, Gus quit Harbor and started his own business. Shortly after starting his business, Gus hired Mark Atwood, a good friend from high school, on as an apprentice plumber.

Mark set Gus up on a date with his cousin, Dierdre Rosen. Gus took her out for spaghetti at Leo’s and they hit it off stupendously. After nearly a year of dating, Gus proposed to Dierdre. He thinks about her all the time and dreams up new ways to make her happy almost every moment of his life.

Now it’s your turn
Time to roll up your sleeves. No doubt you have thought a lot about your main characters. It’s time to put all that thinking on paper. Organize your thoughts using this guideline to draft character sketches for at least your story’s protagonist and antagonist.

Good luck and I’ll see you next time.

-Craig Nybo

To read the next article in this series, click here.

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  1. […] my book series The Salaam Chronicles, I use a format I found online years ago. There are four major headers under the format: general character […]

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