How to Develop Characters That Live and Breathe #writing

Some books contain unforgettable characters. Those that spring to mind for me straightaway are Cormoran Strike in the Robert Galbraith novels, Lila and Lenu in My Brilliant Friend, Anne of Green Gables, Miss Jean Brodie, Scarlett O’Hara, D’Artagnan and the three Musketeers. The characters in these books are almost like real people to me. I have an image of them in my mind, and I’d know them at once if I passed them in the street. (Well, I guess the Musketeers would be pretty recognisable on my high street. Bumping into them would be brilliant, though!)

helena fairfax, freelance editorBefore I started writing, I didn’t really think about how writers developed these characters. As far as I was concerned, Athos, Aramis and Porthos appeared in the writer’s mind with their personalities fully formed, and now they were real to me, too. Once I started creating my own characters, though, I realised that what seems effortless to the reader involves a lot of time, ingenuity and thought on the writer’s part.

Here’s an example of how I turned one of my own ideas – or perhaps more of a daydream than an idea – into a living breathing person.

How a living, breathing character was born

My idea came to me when I was ill with a flu-like virus. I had a high temperature, and I was too exhausted even to read. (I must have been ill!) I was lying under a blanket, flicking through the channels on the TV, when I came across a BBC programme called Antiques Road Trip. There was one particular shop owner on the show whose interest in antiques seemed less like interest and more like a passion for the items he was selling. When he showed a beautiful art nouveau necklace to the camera, he brought the hundred-year-old item to life, in a way that made me feel as intensely curious as he was about how the piece had been made, and about the women who must have owned and worn it.

I began to think how wonderful it must be to have such a knowledge and to be able to use that knowledge in a job that you loved

Margaret Macdonald Art Nouveau Embroidered Panels. (I’d love to find something like this in an antique shop!)

with such passion. This real life shop owner provided the seed of my idea for a character who became the heroine of Penny’s Antique Shop of Memories and Treasures. If I couldn’t run an antique shop myself, I’d create a character who could!

So I started with a woman who passionately loved antiques. Not much to go on, but I decided a person like that was probably quite a romantic. Owning an antique shop is a business, the same as selling computers or mobile phones, but this character of mine would be invested in her stock. She’d see the romance in every item, and treasure its history and the memories of the people who’d owned it before her.

And so I decided a strong streak in her character would have to be her highly developed imagination, along with her romanticism. But this still wasn’t enough to make a fully developed person. I had to ask myself why she had turned out like she did.

Fleshing your characters out

Why is Penny a daydreamer, and why so romantic? I went through quite a few ideas – I tend to scribble them down one after another in a notebook – until I’d formed the background for her that I felt happiest with. I decided her mother had been an actress – beautiful, glamorous, and the star of many romances. Because her mother had died when she was quite young, Penny (my heroine) never got to see the real woman behind the screen presence. Her mother was driven and actually quite selfish, but in Penny’s mind she is still the romantic heroine of the screen. Penny, by contrast, isn’t beautiful. She’s just an ordinary woman who owns a shop, and who feels she can never live up to her film star mother. Deep down, she feels second best – but actually her generosity, her lively imagination and her passionate nature attract the hero as soon as he meets her.

And so this is how my heroine came gradually to life. I called her Penny because it’s a simple name that suited her. Her mother had wanted ‘Penelope’, which sounds more glamorous, but that didn’t suit Penny at all. And I gave her the surname ‘Rosas’, which sounds almost like ‘roses’ – the flower Penny associates with love and romance.

Gustav Klimt. Artist of the Art Nouveau era, and Penny’s favourite artist

So that was my heroine. And since Penny’s Antique Shop of Memories and Treasures is a romance, then of course Penny had to have a hero – someone whose personality and background would clash against hers, keeping them apart for the whole of the novel, even though they are made for each other. Penny’s hero, Kurt, is an accountant. Kurt by name and curt by nature, he believes in facts and figures. Imaginations only lead to trouble, and as for romance – well, that’s just for dreamers.

Just as I did with Penny, I had to give Kurt a reason why his personality had developed in the way it had. This took me some time. I came across my notes long after the book had been published. Is divorced??  Poss wife died? Has a son? Or never married. Works in the City? My random thoughts made me laugh when I read them back. I’d fleshed out all of these ideas, until I found the background that seemed to ‘fit’ Kurt the best and make him most believable.

Of course, this was just the beginning of developing well-rounded characters. There was still much more to do as the book progressed. I had to show how the Penny and Kurt interacted with their family and friends, show what drove them and what they really wanted from life, show how they dealt with setbacks, show how their growing love for one another made them act out of character. I also had to develop a cast of supporting characters.

Creating characters that live and breathe is a long process. They don’t just leap fully formed into the writer’s head, as I used to imagine when I read as a child. But there’s nothing better as a writer than having your readers believe in your characters and talk about them as though they were real people.penny's antique shop of memories and treasures

Here’s what readers said about Penny and Kurt:

These two were really lovely characters and I loved the sparks that flew between them, despite their best efforts to not have that happen! I enjoyed the secondary characters too, they were also very endearing.’

A delightful, well written read with lovely characters…An exploration of romance versus reason.

This is a feel-good romance at its best – and I loved every minute of it.’

Penny’s Antique Shop of Memories and Treasures was formerly released as The Antique Love by MuseItUp Publishing. It’s available in print and Kindle format here on Amazon.


As a reader, what characters have you loved the most, and which would you most like to meet in real life?

If you’re a writer, what process do you follow to turn your small germ of idea into a larger-than-life character?

If you’ve enjoyed this post, or if you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!



8 thoughts on “How to Develop Characters That Live and Breathe #writing

  1. Bit of an odd answer, but I just seem to have the knack. Felt at one time I’d failed with THE LEGEND OF JOHN MACNAB because I didn’t care about the characters but, years later, a great review said how vivid they were…

    Reader, I don’t know how I did it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Helena, I enjoyed your blog and the comparisons. Like James my readers tell me all the time that my characters are real with depth but I am not sure how I do it. I just love getting into my characters heads. I think as you say it has something to do with passion. Just a side note, I clicked on your workshop and see that you are in Bradford UK, I live in Canada but visit the UK often and when I leave Heathrow I get the Bradford bus to East Midlands Airport to go to my mother’s place.A touch f serendipity :-)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hello Susan, lovely to hear from you! It’s always a source of wonder to me how our characters take shape and become ‘real’. For me it’s part hard work, and part a sort of magic.
    I hope you enjoy your trips to the UK. It’s pretty cold and miserable here at the moment – but I guess it will be even colder in Canada! Thanks so much for your comment, and for dropping in!


  4. So interesting to hear about the behind-the-scenes bits of a story. Loved learning how you developed your characters in Penny’s story. You do so well at showing us instead of telling us the story. And yes, I do have characters I have fallen in love with including Felicity and her hero and characters in Water for Elephants and To Kill a Mockingbird. What a wonderful opportunity to sign up or your class on writing! Sounds like fun to attend. Wish I could fly on over to Bradford! Wishing you success with your latest release!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi JQ, thanks for your kind words about my post – and about Felicity! I wish you could fly over to Bradford, too! We’re really looking forward to hosting the workshop in Bradford. There is a new cafe just opened (not far from the hotel where we had afternoon tea) and we will be holding the class in the room upstairs. Plenty of tea and cake! :) I wish you could be there.
    Thanks so much for your lovely comment, and for dropping in!


  6. First I just had to smile at your statement that you must have been very ill if you couldn’t read at all!! That is my benchmark as well … so glad you’re better!

    Fascinating insight to your Penny and I feel I know her already from your post and I’m enchanted by the book … will take a closer look.

    Helena, I’m so tempted by the course you’re running. I’m in Ilkley for Christmas but will see if there is a way I can come up again in January. It would be great to meet you and your friends.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would be absolutely wonderful if you could make it, Annika! It would be great to meet you after all this time!
      I do love the lights and decorations in Ilkley over Christmas. I hope you have a lovely time. Thanks so much for dropping in – and fingers crossed we get to meet in Jan…!

      Liked by 1 person

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