◎ Characters: In Your Head Vs. On the Page

October 18, 2012

One of the most knock-me-on-my-ass things that's happened to me as a young writer was realizing what I saw in my head - a strong, witty, and confident girl named Zanni Anderson - had translated to nothing more than a flavorless, hesitant, and dry character on paper. Not just any paper: book paper. Printed, bound paper stuck between a cover. I self-published Darkness Surrounding when I was eighteen years old, and although the experience was fine and dandy, I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do. (Not a fun thing to realize after the fact!)

I stopped selling the book, and for 6-9 months, I took a break. Now that I’m refreshed and in the process of transforming Zanni into the character she was destined to be (get it? get it?), I feel more comfortable in advising you how to do the same. 

Note that this list is by no means exhaustive, and is simply a collection of strategies I've used to revise Darkness Surrounding. Ideally, you would have considered the "Vocabulary & Voice" and  "Pace" items prior to writing your first draft.

1. Write

Characters develop over time. Let whatever happens happen as you stamp out that first draft. Part of the novel-writing process is meeting your characters and getting to know them like you would a close friend, so let them introduce themselves and establish their identities. Once you have a better idea of who they are (which usually occurs toward the last few pages of your draft), you can feel confident in knowing what to do come editing time.

2. Vacate

Put some time (at least a month or two) between you and that first draft. If you don’t put enough distance between yourself and your novel, it’s going to become more difficult to pick out mistakes and flaws in your manuscript. 

3. List

Make a list of what qualities define your character AS YOU SEE THEM IN YOUR HEAD. This is something you can jot down in a notebook, on your computer, or whatever scrap of paper you find around the house. Hang on to this and refer to it often.

4. Vocabulary & Voice

Voice and vocabulary will be one of the first things a reader uses to evaluate your character's personality. Consider Bella Swan of Twilight. Because her thoughts are expressed in flowing sentences that are chock full of sensuous detail, it’s natural to assume that she is a passive, sensitive individual who likes to take in and contemplate circumstances. Max of Patterson’s Maximum Ride series, however, is quite the opposite: because she uses short, snappy phrases, less detail, and a very assertive/haughty vocabulary (seriously, whatever, take your spyware and shove it), it’s easy to see that Max is a very aggressive and action-driven character. 

5. Pace

Now, determine whether or not your character is like Bella or Max. If your character likes to soak things in and react later, your novel will contain a lot of self-reflection and less action. If your character is action-driven and confrontational, your novel will require a fast-paced, action style. 


Sit down and think hard: What Would The Main Character Do? Re-analyze every decision and reaction they make, and refer to your list. Ask yourself the following question.

If someone I didn’t know reacted in this manner, what would I assume about their personality?

 If your answer isn’t one of the adjectives you wrote on your list, you need to adjust the character’s reaction accordingly. Think of it this way: 


Because Zanni’s responses to situations were passive and non-confrontational in the original DS, there was no possible way to read Zanni as anything but a passive and non-confrontational character. Folks, showing means a hell of a a lot more than telling. (No amount of telling a reader a character is tough is going to make them believe it if the character acts like a total pansy!)

7. Perception

The manner in which your character inwardly perceives events will say a whole lot about their personality. Do they shift blame toward others? Avoid thinking about conflict? Embrace it? Do they think about others more than themselves? Do their thoughts wander? What do they think about and why do they think about it?

When long-time friend Sean denounces his friendship in chapter three, it wasn’t Sean’s immaturity and lack of “getting it” that was on Zanni’s mind after the door shut; instead, it was feelings of guilt for feeling as if the falling out had been her fault. If Zanni is supposed to be a confident, cocky character, her first instinct definitely should not be to perceive herself as being responsible for Sean's faults and shortcomings.

8. Consistency

Stick with your list and keep your character consistent in their reactions, thoughts, and motives. If any shift occurs to the aforementioned, you MUST justify the character’s inconsistencies. A chronically weak character cannot simply become brave in a split second. There needs to be an inciting incident which sparks a believable change in character, and optimally, such changes would occur incrementally rather than all at once. 


  1. Kat, your amazing. This really helps because my main writing problems are describing setting and getting to know characters. And outlining of course. But seriously, thanks for posting this. It'll really help for NaNoWriMo. :)

  2. Thanks for the informative post. =) I often have trouble developing my characters and often they turn out one dimension compared to what they are in my head. I'm getting better at it though, at least I want to believe it!


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