Building Character – Who, what, where, when

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Back in May 2012 I wrote a post about my writing exercise called Who, what, where, when? The original article is linked here. I originally came up with the exercise to help with writers block but it can also be great for focusing how you want to develop your current work in progress. I used it for this second reason to great effect when my friend was chatting with me in the wee hours of the morning  about how frustrated she was with her current work in progress. Although she had a good idea and had created a couple of the main protagonists, after the first couple of scenes she was racked with indecision about how to move the story forward.

It was clear from talking to her that she had no clear plot outlined and that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, some people are plotters*1 and some pantsers*2. However my Friend was simply undecided and was turning on a sixpence between a few possible ways to develop the story. For her it was not only the plot that was unformed, she was unsure how she wanted the characters to develop or where she was going to set the novel as it moved forward. She was looking for a way to focus her ideas and formulate them into a cohesive structure.

For the genre she was writing, and from knowing her style and her as a person I knew that her work was going to be Character centric. So I advised her to use Who, what, where, when? for her current work in progress focusing on building her characters.

Characters, protagonists, antagonists and players in any work of fiction need to have meat on their bones to be realistic. A sure way of loosing the interest of your readers is to either create stock characters that are 2D and badly drawn or to create characters that the readers neither care about or empathise with. Even anti heroes when written well are sympathetically portrayed. We may despise their actions or values but as readers we emotionally engage and care what happens to the character. You have to hook your reader by making the characters believable. Here’s one way to do that.

If you have half an hour spare take a piece of paper and think about just one of the characters in your current work in progress and ask yourself how well do you know this character? If someone put them in a hypothetical situation how quickly could you say ‘They’d react this way’, or ‘they’d never do that’. You should know the character well enough and have drawn them in enough detail that you know them as well as you know yourself. Even if you take Hemingway’s advice and use the Iceberg principle where the reader only sees the tip of the iceberg, you should know your characters well enough that the depths of their character hidden under the water is implicit. So….

1. Who? – Who is your character? What do they look like, what’s their temperament, their values? What motivates them? What do they love or hate? What do they fear or rule over?

2. What? What has happened or is happening to the character? What is their situation? How did they get there? Where do they want to be? What stands in their way? What must they overcome to succeed?

3. Where? Where is  your character? Are they on the Isle of Skye or  a prison cell in Dubai? Have some idea about the conditions they are in and what their reaction is? What effect does the where have on them physically, emotionally, psychologically?

4. When? When is your current work in progress set and how does the time affect them? If they are in Medieval England then the likelihood is that they will be strictly bound by the accepted social norms and rules. What is it about the time that influences or motivates your character? Are they a suffragette or a tribal warrior protecting their land? What effect does the time period have on your character directly and the way in which they interact in the novel?

Once you get started using these warm up questions you should be able to create a fully formed character that is well rounded, believable and most importantly will engage the reader emotionally to sympathise with the character.

You can do this for all of your main and minor characters in your current work in progress, sure it takes up a bit of time but it’s time well spent if you know who your characters are and what will motivate and antagonise them.

Happy Writing everyone


*1 Plotters – Organise and pre plan how the plot is going to develop in each chapter, sometimes all the major and some of the minor detail within each scene is laid out so the writer knows the bare bones of the story before they start.

*Pantsers – write by the seat of their pants, allowing the plot to be formed and develop as the words are being placed on the page.

About V C Willow

V C Willow has always loved to write and read for pleasure. During her teenage years she wrote a lot of poetry but graduated to writing Science Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fiction, Urban Fantasy and Suspense as she reached her twenties. She is a geek and comic nerd. A very keen reader, an enthusiastic cook and gardener and loves to craft. She's even been known to get down and dirty and do some DIY. V.C live in Manchester, England with her ball of cat fluff, Willow. She is currently writing her début fantasy novel. You can follow her authors page on Facebook at: Connect with her on Linked in at: Follow her on Twitter: Follow her on Goodreads: )O(
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3 Responses to Building Character – Who, what, where, when

  1. Nicole Frith says:

    This is a really good post VC! I cannot wait to use your strategies to help my novel move forward. Thank You!

    • V C Willow says:

      Hi Nicole

      Thanks for your kind comments. I use this as a warm up exercise to help get a basic character development, but if anyone is interested I can post a blog about developing characters in more depth. Anyway hope it helps with deepening the characters within your novel.

      Kindest regards


      • Nicole Frith says:

        Hi VC, Yes I would be interested in reading an extension to the process of character development. It is not only helpful to see another writer’s point of view but it is purposeful to always be learning the art of writing from different sources. Writing is a journey just like the characters we like to write.

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