How do you begin turning an idea of a person into an actual person?


Image of a text quote on an orange background: When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. 
Ernest Hemmingway

You know the old saying. Character is plot; plot is character; plotty plot plot character plotacter charaplot. Well, it’s all totally true. It’s no good having a badass plot outline if it involves nothing your character would actually do, and no one gives a shit about your character.

So, over the next five lessons, we’re going to look at various different ways of turning your character into a person. As ever with Writers’ HQ stuff, these are GUIDES to help nudge you in whatever the right direction for you is. They are starting points so that you can sit down and go ‘hmmmm gosh that was interesting oh now look at all these thoughts in my brain whoa it’s like the big bang in here psheweeee crassshhhhhh bang TADA I’VE MADE A PERSON’.

Before we get cracking, let’s just take a moment to discuss character sheets. CHARACTER SHEETS. If you exist in the time after the Internet was created, and you have ever Googled something along the lines of ‘how to make my protagonist not suck balls’ you’ve probably come across these things – huge lists of like 4,000 questions asking such insightful questions as ‘what flavour sausage does your protagonist like to eat on Thursdays?’ and ‘how far can they spread their toes?’ and ‘do they prefer hopping or skipping or vigorous sex with strangers?’

So look. You can spend hours filling them in if you want. But no one really gives a fuck. And it’s not going to bring you any closer to taking this idea of a person that you have in your head and creating a realistic, believable representation of them. If you really want to turn your idea of a human into an actual human, you have to partake in our very favourite thing: Doing The Work. Making people on paper, much like making them in your uterus, takes a long time, is physically and mentally exhausting, and makes you wee a lot. So brace yourself, we’re going in.


As with most things in fiction writing, there’s no one single place to start. It’s more a case of diving into the top of the funnel and hoping you can shake the good stuff out the narrow end.

You’ve probably already got an idea for a character in your head already, maybe you’ve written a chunk of words, maybe you’re already a first draft in, but right now you just want to take all those thoughts and clarify them into something a bit more… solid.

So let’s start with a pretty simple but very important thing.

AS WELL YOU KNOW, all stories are stories of conflict and unrequited desire. The easiest way to make a story is to make your protagonist want something and then not give it to them. But hold your horses there, evil cackling writer. Unit 5 (the aptly named ‘Increments of Bastardy’) is the day for thinking of many mean ways to withhold your poor protagonist’s heart’s desire. Right now you just need to think of three very simple things:

  1. What does your character want most in the world PHYSICALLY?
  2. What does your character want most in the world EMOTIONALLY?
  3. Why can’t they have it? (This is a big picture ‘why’, not all the small increments that make your entire plot. We’ll get to that bit. Patience, young Padwan.)

And that really is it. Nothing magical or mystical about it. AND BEFORE YOU SAY IT: Yes, it’s a reductive and simplistic way of looking at complex characters. But you have to start somewhere. You gotta know the end destination before you can figure out the route. You gotta know the final meal before you can work out the recipe. You gotta take the first step before you can misjudge it and fall flat on your face.

Let’s look at some examples:

The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

Everyone’s favourite bespectacled boy wizard wants most in the world to beat the evil Voldemort (physical want), and he also wants a loving family unit and sense of belonging (emotional want). He can’t have a family unit because Voldemort killed his ‘rents and he’s struggling to beat the most powerful wizard in all of history because, well, he’s a child.

WAIT WHAT? You mean the emotional thing that Harry wants is being withheld from him because of the physical challenge he’s about to face OH MY GOD IT’S ALMOST AS IF SOMEONE CLEVERLY DESIGNED IT TO BE THAT WAY.

Gif of Professors Dumbledore and McGonagal with a baby Harry Potter. Dumbledore says "This buy will be famous! There won't be a child in our world who doesn't know his name."

Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

Everyone’s favourite dystopian handmaiden really wants most in the world to survive (physical want), and also she desperately yearns for her missing husband and daughter (emotional want). She can’t have her husband and daughter because the regime that is keeping her as a handmaid has taken them, and her survival under the repressive regime requires her to block their existence from her memory as much as possible.

WAIT WHAT? You mean the emotional thing and the physical thing are somehow interlinked and it’s almost as if one of the exact opposite of the other? GOSH WHAT A COINCIDENCE.

(Also see: She wants not to be raped (physical want), and she wants her family back (emotional want), but the regime is dead cert that she should be raped until she’s pregnant. Oh my. Conflict-central.)

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale TV series closes her eyes in dread and resignation. She's wearing red robes and a white bonnet.

Yossarian, Catch 22, Joseph Heller

Everyone’s favourite unhinged fighter pilot wants to stop flying missions and go home (physical want), and he’s also going insane from PTSD and the general oblivious denial of everyone around him, so would quite like someone to acknowledge that fact (emotional want). BUT, he can’t go home because of – duh – Catch-22: he can only be grounded if he’s crazy. But asking to be grounded makes him sane, because any rational person should be scared of flying more missions. “If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.” <head explodes>

WAIT WHAT? You mean it’s all a ping-pong of interconnectedness, with his efforts to stop flying feeding into his growing insanity and his growing insanity feeding back into his bonkers efforts to stop flying? OH WELL WILL YOU LOOK AT THAT.

Gif from the film Catch-22. An army official says "You're a very weird person."

So. You get the idea. Write some stuff down. Ponder it while washing up. Think about it on the commute to work. Tell us your charactery thoughts in the super-secret private forum of WHQ awesomeness. Then click on to the next unit.

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