Keep Your Characters True To Themselves

Welcome to Techie Tuesday here at More Cowbell! This is the day each week when I unleash my inner geek and we talk about some groovy piece of technology or a technical point of writing.

Today, I’m clanging my Cowbell like crazy for my fellow Writers In The Storm blogger, Sharla Rae! She also happens to be the best critique partner in the universe.

Sharla has produced some of the best posts on writing Craft that I’ve seen anywhere and I’m delighted to have her here with us today. Strap in tight; this chick can WRITE. 🙂

Keep Your Characters True To Themselves – by Sharla Rae

Hey, who’s telling this story? I can make my
characters do or say anything I want them to.

Many beginning writers subscribe to this theory.

I hate to break anyone’s bubble but that’s hogwash.

When introducing characters, the author breathes life into them with a physical description, personality, goals and motivations. They look, act and think in a particular manner. Just like real people. If the character doesn’t stay true to themselves, their actions will make no sense and readers are pulled out of the story.


  • The drunken, hardnosed character Rooster Cogburn, (John Wayne in True Grit) suddenly goes soft on Mattie Ross, Kim Darby’s character?
  • Mary Poppins takes a belt to her charges?
  • 007 gives up his cool and goes mushy over his many sexual encounters.

Would you believe it? No. Because in each case the writer showed the reader who these people are – on the surface and deep down.

Two of the most common out-of-character traps involve age appropriate problems and inconsistent behavior. Ask these questions:

Do my characters act their age?

A mature woman or man of 30 to 35 years of age will not act, think or speak like a teen or young person fresh out of college. Recently I read a published book where a 32 year old female executive talked like a teeny-bopper when she got together with her thirty-something girlfriends of the same age. It totally threw me. Women of all ages talk a little trash with girlfriends but the nature of their conversations, even the language is different between age groups.

Do my characters act and react in a manner consistent with their personality?

  • Someone afraid of heights doesn’t climb a ladder.
  • A grouchy loner doesn’t suddenly play slap-stick jokes on people.
  • A prissy little girl won’t want to play baseball with the neighbor boys.

If a character does something that would never come naturally to them, they must have a good reason/motivation for the change of behavior. Example: The character who is afraid of heights might climb a ladder if a rabid dog is on her heels. An honest cop might rob a bank if villains are holding his family hostage.

My favorite tools to keep my characters in line

  • Character profile sheets
  • Horoscope personality profiles
  • Research

The number one rule in using these tools is: Always connect the dots between them.

Character profile worksheets serve as fast and easy reminders to writers.

They include a list of physical descriptions, best friends, dress, enemies, ambitions/goals, sense of humor, temper, basic nature, personal quirks, habits, talents, hobbies, family backgrounds, profession, educational background etc. .

A common weakness in these profile sheets is that they shed little light on personality. That’s why I dig deeper. I search horoscope signs for personalities that best match my characters. Whether you believe in horoscope readings or not, the personalities listed under sun signs provide a great basic outline of a particular personality.

Horoscope personalities are especially helpful in determining how a character will react to a particular situation.

Example: How would a hero with a Cancer personality react if he lost all his money or fell into a fortune? Money is no joke to the taciturn crab.

There are many horoscope books but I love Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. This treasure lists the general characteristics of each sign and more. For instance, Goodman describes the Taurus child, Taurus adult male and female, Taurus boss and employee — the total personality package. She also explains how these personalities interact with each other.

What about a character’s romantic relationships? Linda Goodman’s Love Signs  is amazing. Each sun sign is listed and then coupled with all the other signs to point out what the good and bad matches may look like, why they work or why they won’t. Example: Aries with an Aries, Aries with a Capricorn, Aries with a Taurus etc. Goodman further breaks it down into the female and male of each sign (i.e Aries female with a Capricorn male).

Note: Though Linda Goodman has passed, her books are still available. I recently looked at another Linda Goodman book on Amazon called Linda Goodman’s Relationship Signs. The contents suggest it contains a relationship chart worksheet. Sounds very interesting!

Do your research.

Horoscopes don’t cover nitty-gritty idiosyncrasies. What if you’re writing about a thief, a slave, an ad executive etc.?

Research types of characters by reading autobiographies and biographies of real people who share a similar background with your character. Writing about a serial killer? Read serial killer profiles. Writing about a Hollywood star? Read up on their lives, their business and what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Then connect the dots. Determine for instance how your Aries female will handle her stardom.

Okay, say you’ve chosen your sun sign and done your research, but the personality thing still doesn’t quite jibe with what you had in mind. We all know people who don’t fit the mold and characters are no different. So, can we color outside the lines or are these personalities set in stone?

Color outside the lines but don’t let the crayon slide off the tablet.  

Here’s a real-life example: I have a friend who is a Gemini but she was born on May 24th making her very close to Taurus. Most of the time she is more Taurus than Gemini, but she does share traits of each.

It’s okay to combine personalities if it suits your purpose. It actually makes for a more interesting character, perhaps one with more layers. Just make sure to outline the personality carefully and keep the character true to him or herself.

What about character arc/growth? While characters learn from experience and goals may change as the plot evolves, their basic personality won’t change. The manner in which they handle situations or problems should always reflect who they are – even when they’re pressured into something that isn’t natural to them. Connect the dots.

Like all tools, profile worksheets, horoscope personalities and research aren’t failsafe, but they are great guides for new writers and even for the seasoned writer who is writing a complicated character.

Helpful Links:

So, how do you keep your characters true to themselves?

Thanks Sharla, for the fabulous post! The More Cowbell Posse will have tons of questions for you in the comments section, I’m sure!! Happy Techie Tuesday, y’all. 🙂

About Sharla Rae

Sharla has published three historical romance novels to date and in the submission process with her latest manuscript, “HOW TO FELL A TIMBERMAN, a humorous historical set in the Pacific Northwest. The AX Men on the History Channel have nothing on the 1878 loggers in Whiskey Spit. You can find Sharla at Writers In The Storm, on Facebook and on Twitter at SharlaWrites.

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm ( Write on!
This entry was posted in Amazing Writers, Techie Parts of Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to Keep Your Characters True To Themselves

  1. EllieAnn says:

    Love this post!
    I’ve been caught doing this several times (and I’m sure I’ll be caught again). My antagonist said something rude to his friend when he was grumpy, but it was too over the top for his personality. Had to change it!
    I love the point about acting your age. So often in young adult I’ve also read about the teens being much more self-actualized and logical than normal, it pulls me right from the story, (Wendig’s Shotgun Gravy, although an awesome book, does that).
    And the practical tip about researching for characters is awesome! It will help you stay truer to reality if you know what real people in your character’s situation act like.


  2. Fabulous info! I love using horoscopes for character development and have heard nothing but great things about Linda Goodman’s books. Thanks for all the links.


    • Sharla Rae says:

      Thanks Raelyn. My Goodman books are dog-earred. All my characters get a horoscope sign. Of course a situation may call for the character to do something out of character but that’s what keeps the story interesting. 🙂


  3. LauraDrake says:

    Great post, Sharla! I can’t write a word until I know my characters, inside and out. Makes for a slow beginning, but once I get rolling, everything flows from what I know about them.

    Thanks for the reminders!


  4. Great post, Jenny. I like to “sit in” my characters—something I learned from acting classes. I spend lots of time imagining their lives and trying to think as they would. Research and observing people and dialogue around me are my other mainstays.


    • Sharla Rae says:

      I love that actors have this ability to “become.” I can see that it gives you a leg up on character behavior. I’m no actor but I think that’s why unlike some writers, I don’t like music or other distractions when I write. I want to be absorbed into the character’s world. Thanks for commenting August.


  5. What a great blog. I never thought of using horoscopes for basic personality traits. What a good idea. Thanks for that idea and the rest of the info in this piece.


  6. Great post. I have profiles for every character, no matter their role in the story. I even have profiles for locations, homes, and pets.


    • Sharla Rae says:

      Jeanne, you sound like my kind of gal. Even if I make up the town, I map it out with street names etc. so don’t put streets and businesses in two different places in the book.


  7. So wait… my clown antagonist who works as a stripper at night to earn money for his knitting club supplies is all wrong?
    I did a profile sheet for my characters when I first stated both of my WIP’s. They do help because I have gone off on a tangent and realized I was creating a scene for the wrong character!!!


    • Sharla Rae says:

      Ha! We all do that. What’s fun though is if you can work it so your character is “forced” to do something weird and out of her comfort zone. You just have to remember that her reactions to these situations have to stay in line with her personality.


  8. Karen McFarland says:

    I find that I can’t write anything until my mind embodies the character. It’s like the character speaks through me onto the page. So I write a detailed background/profile for all my characters. Then and only then will I start writing the story.

    Thanks Sharla and Jenny! 🙂


  9. Jenny Hansen says:

    I’m bad about this, as you know!

    The characters come into my head with their names and professions intact. Most of the time I know their final goals. I spend a lot of time on their basic 3-Act structure. But at the end of the day, I have to write to find a lot of these things out. I do most of my research in the middle and the end of a piece.

    It’s like knowing that a wheel is round and has a center with even spokes, but having to write to discover if the spokes are carved or painted, wood or metal. (It’s probably why it takes me so damn long!)


    • Sharla Rae says:

      Jen, I think it’s this way for all of us. We can out line a character to the inth degree but in the end they upstage us and tell us where they need to go. As long as we remember exactly who they are, there is nothing wrong with this. Sometimes it’s not what our characters do as much as what motivated them and how they react to what is happening to them.


    • Karen McFarland says:

      Jenny, I sometimes have to write for a while for my characters profile to come to light. But I am not that organized. I am more of a pantser and I’m trying to be a better plotter. For more information on Character, see Bob Mayer’s post today. For fear of pimping myself here, all I’m saying is he nailed it. I hope it helps you! We’re all in this together right? 🙂


  10. tomwisk says:

    I’ve got a guy who’s in his mid-sixties who discovers an old high school crush and ED about the same time. I’m trying to keep him true to his character. I’ve been through part of what I put him through. He’s moved past the conflict (Do I get Viagra?) and is into the home stretch. Do I give him a big win? Or do I resign him to cuddling with his love? I’ll find out this afternoon.


  11. bronjonesnz says:

    Thank you Sharla and Jenny. I agree about using horoscopes. I have done this for my main characters but I see now that the news service that supplied the horoscopes has cut back to just the short daily summaries instead of the full pictures of people via links. So I will certainly check out Linda Goodman. sometimes before I start writing on any day I check the daily horoscopes for inspiration. Thank you Sharla. Great posting Jenny.


  12. Sharla Rae says:

    Thank you for commenting! The good news is that Goodman’s books are still easy to find. Good luck!


  13. Geralyn Ruane says:

    Wow, Sharla, you clearly know your stuff, through and through! It’s a thrill to get such good tips from a pro like you. Thanks!


  14. I don’t use horoscope signs, but I do use the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types. I love that it gives me core qualities to work with and then I can build from that based on a character’s family history and background.


  15. Sharla, it’s always a pleasure reading your posts. I miss our critique sessions so much, as you have that special knack for keeping me on track. I still use Linda Goodman’s books, they are indispensable. Thank you for your insights and Jenny for having you!


  16. Stacy Green says:

    Great post! I enjoy developing my characters, but I’ve been asked more than once if my character would really do that. It’s so easy to get into our own heads and forget it’s the character telling the story, not us. Thanks for sharing with us!


    • Sharla Rae says:

      Thanks Stacy. I can’t count the number of times as a new writer when some one said, “Yeah, but would he or she really do that?” It’s hard to be good when you think of a really cool scene and want to use it. Whether you use a personality guilde like Myers-Briggs or horocopes doesn’t matter. They are both good roadmaps to keep us in line. 🙂


  17. Fabulous article! Thanks for the list of resources.


  18. Thanks Sharla and Jenny! This is SO good and I’ve already got the links bookmarked! I love it when my characters take me places I didn’t know they were going! My husband sometimes asks if I’m all right when he sees me moving strangely or making faces as I’m inside my character and way too caught up in what is going on. Gotta love it!


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  20. Donna Newton says:

    Excellent post! I am very big on only giving characters dialogue they would truly use. You have some fantastic tips here. Thanks 🙂


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  22. Susan Spann says:

    GREAT post. Sometimes other authors I talk with complain that their characters might become “too rigid” if forced to be “too realistic” – which makes me ask “do the real people you know become stagnant?” Some do, it’s true, but far more often the people we know are a constant source of curiosity and surprise. “Real” people behave consistently with their characters (generally speaking) but those character elements react in changing and sometimes surprising ways to new and different stimulus. A consistent character, poked with a stick, will do the same. I strive for that, and actually write journal entries and histories for many of my characters for just this reason!


  23. Good tips. Thank you. I love characterization and dialogue and it’s hard to write about a character you know nothing about. So, we have to do our research, get out there, listen to people, interact. All of that will help us to keep it real.


  24. Sharla Rae says:

    Thanks for commenting Patricia.


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