Creating Characters

From time to time, I’m asked for my secret list of character building.  It’s not really “my” list.  I obtained it by taking Jack Bickham’s writing classes at the University of Oklahoma some years ago, and use it now in my own courses.  To most of these inquiries, I usually give the same answer:  read CREATING CHARACTERS by Dwight V. Swain or WRITING NOVELS THAT SELL by Jack Bickham.

But a response like that, while sincerely offered and genuinely helpful, tends to disconcert some folks.  I’m reminded of the advice I was given years ago when I decided I wanted to study Latin:  “go and buy a copy of Wheelock; you can learn the basics yourself.”

Sure.  Teaching yourself writing technique is about as easy as teaching yourself a different language.  Possible, but not very probable.

So with thanks to Bickham, I’ll be sharing a few things that I know about characterization in the series to come.


This very simple character checklist — or one similar to it — is something that you’ve probably seen before.  That’s okay.  Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s ineffective.





Marital status

Social and economic status


Friends & Enemies




Clothing and habitat


Key background facts

Opinion of self

Others’ opinion of him or her

Characteristic entry action

Repeating tags or tag clusters

Some of the items are self-explanatory.  Others obviously need more elaboration.  We’ll start on that next time.

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