The Shape of A Character

Several months ago, I saw an article on talking about the way that photographers chose to capture the essence of the same man. All six of them were told something different about the man. He was introduced as

  • a psychic 
  • a self-made millionaire
  • a former convict
  • a recovering alcoholic
  • a person who had saved someone’s life
  • a fisherman

Though he wore the same clothes for each shoot, though the setting was the same, though they all only got about 10 minutes with the man, what they had been told about him completed guided what they wanted to capture in a single picture.

I’m not going to take the time to detail how they decided to capture him, but you can watch the short video here (I dare you not to feel something).

It got me thinking about the way that we choose to craft characters. I usually think about the characterization before I consider the physicality of a character, getting a feel for how they might sound, the kind of language they would use, the things in their environments that they will respond to well or weakly. And then I try to convey all those emotional factors to my reader, try to guide them to think about my characters the same way I do.

However, teaching high school English for nearly 10 years taught me something interesting as well. I would read a classic like The Scarlet Letter, or Hamlet and had to train myself to sit back and let the students tell me what they thought about the character. You see, they hadn’t internalized the possible character motivations yet, hadn’t considered the character across a decade of their own existence, and the way they interacted with this new person was often very different than how I’d come to know them.

With all this in mind, I’m left considering how I create the shape of a character.

  • Am I so determined to make everyone see my character one way that I am eliminating the possibility of a deeper character? 
  • Have I locked into a character with such determination that I don’t allow him/her to reveal deeper, closer nuances that could drastically elevate the story? 
  • Even if it doesn’t show up in the story, have I taken the time to consider why my character is the way he/she is? 

Just as most people have more depth than their first impression alludes to, so should our characters. We, as the writers, get to also be the photographers (to follow along with the metaphor of this post) of each character, which means we have the responsibility to show them to the world in an interesting and unique manner.

How do you go about character creation? Have you ever had a character who you thought you knew, who then surprised you? What about in books/movies/TV shows (spoiler free please). 


Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.