Building Blocks of Character: Part 1

Building Block pt 1

This is a middle grade manuscript. It has Issues.

Building Blocks pic1

Based on feedback from a recent round of submissions, its characters are getting a makeover.

Of course there are plenty of other Issues I could tackle, but for this revision I’m focusing on making the main characters more well-developed and relatable.

art-of-character-200To research this topic, I’ve been reading THE ART OF CHARACTER by David Corbett.   It’s a fantastic resource, but I’m only about halfway through because it’s absolutely packed with expert advice and spot-on writing exercises. So today’s post will be part one of a two-part series on the building blocks of character, based on what I’ve learned from Corbett’s work. That should give me plenty of incentive to finish the book (and my revisions) by early April.

(And don’t forget Friday’s excellent post by Rosalyn Eves about creating strong characters.)

Where do characters come from? Most do not simply waltz onto the page, fully formed. Corbett writes that characters typically stem from five main sources:

  1. The story
  2. The unconscious
  3. Inspiration from art, music, or nature
  4. Real people
  5. Composite characters

Each source has pros and cons, so it’s common for writers to use some combination of these. But it’s more than a matter of throwing traits at the wall to see what sticks. There should be thought and purpose behind who a character is, and why. We must tread carefully when it comes to common character tropes, e.g. the angry loner, the self-centered jock, the bookish nerd. A character will not feel real or relatable unless we as writers look beyond the usual stereotypes to create more layered, nuanced portrayals. And while it may feel innovative to write a character who’s both devastatingly handsome and painfully shy, or a picky eater who’s also a master chef, keep in mind that readers will cry foul when a character rings false or strains credibility.

Next, characters require a driving need, desire, or end goal. Especially the main character. Without one, your story will languish without momentum or urgency. Readers want to care about your protagonist and her journey, whether it’s across the ocean or across the street.

The obstacles that stand in the way of a character’s goal(s) create richness and texture on the page. Hidden traits come to light as the protagonist tackles these challenges. As writers, Corbett counsels that we must allow our characters to develop organically as the story unfolds. They must be allowed to surprise us—and ultimately the reader—with the choices they make.

Finally, Corbett maintains that in order to more fully understand our characters, authors need a measure of self-awareness. That is, we need the ability to view our own emotional lives through an objective lens: to analyze our desires, our weaknesses and disappointments, and then be willing to explore, embellish, and expose them on the page in the form of fictional characters. Easy, right? While it may sound daunting, the end result is that elusive realism and relatability that we all work so hard to achieve.

One simple tip that resonated with me was to use photographs to create a more fully formed picture of a character in your mind.

I happened to have a stack of antique photos purchased from a yard sale, so I dug them out of storage. They are fascinating in their own right, but even more so when viewed with the purpose of picking out a face to use for my main character, Milo.

Here’s the photo I chose:

Building Blocks pic3

After the pic sat on my desk for a few weeks, staring at me with those knowing eyes, I realized this boy is not Milo. He’s Charles, the protagonist for my next middle grade book, which I’m also working on as time permits.

Though it took me by surprise, I didn’t mind this little wrinkle at all. Inspiration is inspiration, and by its very nature is unpredictable.

I still haven’t found just the right photo for Milo, but I’m always keeping an eye out. In the meantime, I’m trying to more consciously gather material for both current and future projects. Every note, every photo, every observation becomes a potential building block for creating memorable, relatable characters.


Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at

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