Kathy Carlton Willis

Kathy Carlton Willis shines the light on God and His people through her communications firm as: writer, publicist, writer's coach, book doctor, speaker, and more. She’s built a network of industry connections and is affiliated with Advanced Writers and Speakers Association and American Christian Fiction Writers. Her columns and book reviews have appeared online and in print. She served as grammar guru for three publications and ghostwrites books and e-books. Kathy is a contributing author for The Reason We Speak, It Happened By Design: A Series of God-Incidence Stories and Groovy Chicks’ Road Trip to Peace. She has a background in newspaper journalism as copyeditor and feature writer. She is a contributor and editor of daily devotions for The Christian Pulse. Kathy and her pastor/husband minister together in Raymondville, Texas. She set up a church library and served as librarian for several years and also has facilitated church book clubs. Read her professional blog at http://kcwcomm.blogspot.com and learn more about her at http://www.kathycarltonwillis.com/.

Character-Building Toolkit

Your one-stop CFOM resource—chock-full of how-tos and helpful hints—equipping you to get more out of your reading. Designed for the individual, libraries, and book clubs.

Did you ever wonder why some novels have characters that seem to jump off the pages and into the room with you? They are so realistic, so complex. Authors who develop 3-D characters rather than paper-doll people who fall flat provide readers with a satisfying experience.

For you who are discerning readers, here’s a peek into the workstation of a novelist transforming Pinocchio into a little boy.


1. PHOTOS. Collect pictures from Google images, Flickr, or other online sources to help envision each individual.

2. PERSONALITY. Do a personality test for each character. Perhaps the protagonist is a sanguine and the antagonist is a melancholy. Or maybe you imagine each one taking the Myers-Briggs test.

3. NAMES. Select names from baby name books, being careful not to repeat the same initial letter of the alphabet for characters’ names in the same story.

4. RESUME. Imagine each character at a job interview. How would they respond? What’s on their resumes? This helps novelists flesh out their lead roles.

5. SURROUNDINGS. Build a file or corkboard of photos that typify the characters’ surroundings: where they live—house exteriors and interior rooms; do they live in the desert, the mountains, or near a beach? what they drive—are they more of a sport utility vehicle driver or a hybrid green machine? Knowing all of this helps characters and stories seem real.

6. DEEP POINT OF VIEW. Deep point of view (POV) is close third person, a combination of first and third person omniscient. It is driven by the character’s experiences and emotions. Through this deeply penetrative POV, readers see the scene through the character’s eyes. The words on the page never leave his/her thoughts. We learn the motives behind actions. The character’s attitude is portrayed as he/she is living it, rather than looking back on it at a later time and describing it.

7. INTERNAL DIALOGUE. When used carefully, internal dialogue can help readers become voyeurs of the mind. There’s nothing like reading someone’s mind to feel like you know him better! It helps us sense his emotions, intentions, and reactions.

8. CONTRAST. Jennifer Knight says, “Great characters couple universal qualities, emotions, and motivations with a unique combination of attributes and impulses, some of which are contradictory. These contradictions are at the heart of your character’s originality and her struggle to grow. Without them your character will come across as one-dimensional, not quite human, a type rather than an original.”

9. GROWTH. The main characters will grow throughout the story. Readers enjoy sensing the ups and downs of that journey, and appreciate when characters mature and progress through various trials, situations, and circumstances.

10. SURPRISES. The best novels aren’t predictable. Authors will cleverly write in shocking reactions or suspenseful choices or mysteries. When a surprising character trait is revealed, we are hooked—the author then reels us in with a roller-coaster story arc.

11. QUIRKS. My cousin used to say that it’s always good to show one “oops” on purpose so that others don’t try to keep finding your flaws and faults. He’d go into business meetings with his tie slightly askew or a hair out of place. He figured then they’d be satisfied he wasn’t perfect, and they could move on to the business at hand. Book characters also need flaws and peculiarities for us to bond to them or despise them or however we choose to respond. On television shows, some of my favorite characters are the quirkiest: Abby Sciuto from NCIS, Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds, and Adrian Monk from Monk.

12. CELEBRITIES. What star would play the main characters in the movie version of the book? Often it’s fun to morph two actors together and come up with complex characters.

As a reader, it’s always interesting to get into the heads of our favorite authors and learn more about how they create such amazing reads. Creating 3-D characters is just one way they deliver the goods.

Reading Assignment: Take the book you’re currently reading and run through these dozen tools to see if you can learn a little more about the main characters. Use your imagination to fill in the blanks.


Kathy CArlton Willis