At the time of writing this question there are 5337 Harry Potter questions on SciFi and a further 165 on Movies. Many of these questions drill right into the character's motivations and emotions such as Why would Snape set his office password to 'Dumbledore'?, Why did the Minister of Magic execute Dumbledore's will?, and Why did Dumbledore hire Lockhart?.

I don't mean to suggest that JKR isn't a talented author. Literary critiques aside she's made millions of pounds from her writing. But I cannot believe that she anticipated every single thought, motivation, and emotion each of her characters felt during the seven books and associated works. Not to the level of detail to stand up to the scrutiny of millions of readers!

SciFi has thousands of questions which which ask about character motivation and why characters did particular things and people (with a LOT of reputation) can create plausible, reasonable, arguments to justify their actions.

There seems to be some kind of physiological trick here which allows readers to interpolate the missing information from what's there...

Remembering that at the end of the day Dumbledore, Picard, Gandalf, and Yoda are fictional characters and assuming that their creators cannot possibly delve into every single permutation and action how do authors create characters which can stand up to this sort of scrutiny?

In short, how does an author shift a character in the reader's perception from being a creation to a person in their own right?

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    It's always strange to me to see those questions, especially the Harry Potter ones, I can't understand how people get that far into those characters I find them extremely one-dimensional.
    – Ash
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 13:56
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    The government does it all the time: see corporations and "fictional entities".
    – nijineko
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 19:56

7 Answers 7


In my mind's eye, the characters I write about are "real people": I do not ask myself what I want them to do. I ask myself what they would do in the given situation. I know their fears and their desires and their quirks, I know how they would respond to events, what they would want to say in a situation and what they would actually say. I can recognise when they are acting "out of character", and when they are being stilted puppets, and I rewrite both.

I like playing a little game with myself: when I go to the theatre or the cinema, or I read a book, I ask myself "what this character of mine would say about this play/movie/story? What would be their experience of it if they were sitting right beside me?"

I do not know every single thing about my characters, but then I do not know every single thing about my real-life friends either. I still know what they would enjoy, how they would respond to things. In fact, if you think about it, you should know your characters better than your friends, since you can get into your characters' thoughts.

How do you reach that level of character development? How do you make your characters "take a life of their own"? You ask all those questions: why they're doing this, how, what they want to achieve, what are their misconceptions, what are their little quirks, how they would respond to situation X. You can think of it as dating your character, getting to know them, exploring, finding out what kind of people they are.

To clarify, you needn't sit and fill in the sheets of trivia you can find on the web, with questions like "what is this character's favourite colour". But when you write, ask yourself all the "why"s and the "how"s, and when you're doing day-to-day things, put your character in that situation. Very quickly things fall into place, you get the "feel" of the character, you know them.

Once you know your character that well, questions about "why character X would do A,B,C" answer themselves.

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    Not sure where I read it, but some author claimed that one way to accomplish what you are talking about is to write a detailed biography of main characters.
    – puppetsock
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 14:11
  • My difficulty with applying my characters to real-life situations is that I write primarily fantasy characters. They would never see a movie, go to the store, or do virtually any of the things I do in the modern world. Applying those situations to them just breaks reality for me, because they have no way to react in a world which isn't their own. How do you get around that? Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 14:15
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    @ThomasMyron fantasy characters might not go to the cinema, but they might see a similar story in the theatre. They might not go to the supermarket, but how do they shop? What would their experience of a market day in their natural environment be like? Etc. Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 14:49
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    @ThomasMyron I write fantasy characters too. My questions are more geared to real life things. How would they handle sickness? Rudeness? Theft? Defending somebody else? Even in fantasy, they may deal with vendors, people they dislike, parents, siblings or peers, perhaps teachers. Would they steal? Will they be kind and lend a helping hand? Would they rescue a person? Release an animal caught in a trap? Do they have survival skills? I don't ask any questions about favorite colors, foods, or anything with arbitrary answers, even if I decide upon an arbitrary answer like that while writing.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 23:00

I agree with Galastel; to the point I almost did not answer!

What I can add is that my main characters, perhaps like Harry Potter, have something special about them, a rare talent or natural ability. They are crazy good at something, which may be anything from card tricks to seduction, math to athletics, whatever.

For me, the talent comes first. Harry Potter is "The Boy Who Lived," marked as special for all to see by his lightning bolt scar and his special, natural, magical ability.

But I don't start writing my character until I imagine how her rare talent would have influenced her life. With that ingredient, where was the drama and trauma, growing up? How was it trained and nurtured, if it was at all? Who knows about it? What enemies resent it or hate it or covet it, and want to possess and control it, and therefore possess and control her?

How did she discover it? When was the first time she used it? When was the first serious time she used it; i.e. not for play or some fun, but to save herself, or make money, or punish somebody, or make a real difference in some outcome?

That rare talent will define much of the character, and present me (the author) with some arbitrary choices to make, the milestones of life that may or may not depend on the talent. I must decide upon an inciting incident that triggers the story, thus her age and relationships at that time.

As Galastel says, your decisions must be consistent, but I don't bother with cheat sheets to plan the character, I want her to grow up with this talent defining her life.

Being consistent, and showing the reader how the character makes their decisions, provides enough clues for readers to fill in the blanks. If my hero takes a lover, it will make sense with all the rest of her life growing up, and the reader will see that, and know if this is a lover that makes sense for our character. They get in her head and know, not just the specifics of what she wants in a lover, but the type of person she would even consider for a lover. The same goes for her other choices and actions in life, we give the reader a template they can use to reason about our character and her life and decisions. How and why she acts, gets angry, gets happy, and navigates her way through whatever conflicts or trials we put her through. From an authorial point of view, those are there and chosen to define some aspects of her.

We need to use the specific concrete choices we write about as clues to her inner character and belief system, so the reader can predict what she will do, and knows her well enough to predict in different situations what she will do or why she would have done what she did.

Think of it as a predictive model. All you truly have, for real people in real life, are a finite number of experiences with them, of what they have done and said. Even your lifelong friends. From that finite list, you have constructed a fairly accurate predictive mental model of them, what they will say and do in various situations, even if you have never seen them in such situations.

In fiction, we have an advantage over real life: I can show you the actual thoughts and actual feelings of my characters. Those are something you can only intuit from another person. This gives me a way to shortcut you into truly knowing them, a way to build that mental predictive model faster, so you feel like you know them as well as a real person: As long as I don't do anything so incongruent with your previous perceptions of their character that your immersion in the story gets shattered.


TL;DR: The more interesting the character and the world is, the more people tend to think about them.

Long Version:

The shift happens, if a character is written so interesting, that thinking about his motives and actions is fun and delivers so many alternatives and hidden facts.

Sure not every possible battle, turn or Mystery can be told inside a story and most things are mentioned through the books and a little sidestory. But exactly this is, what made the characters and formed their decisions. In the course of the books the reader learns a small part of the character and think about these actions.

So, the reader has a small amount of facts and outcomes, but tends to question some decisions. The author himself has knowledge about the past of the character, his hardships, his values, his entire being. So if people question the behavior of a character, they want to know what drove him to that.

Good characters are so well written, that they couldn't be distinguished from real characters. People should find themselves in written characters, so they can associate with the characters and their decisions. So it's only natural to ask questions about them, cause that is what the author wants. Creating a world and characters, that stick inside the readers heads.


Simple answer is that characters are more than the words on the page.

The Masters course in Creative Writing that I'm half way through gives us a Character Map that we're encouraged to fill for each major character in the story. We're encouraged to fill this in before attempting to write the tale. The template contains question after question about every aspect of the character you could possibly think of (and some that you wouldn't want to).

The point of doing this is not to create a list of everything that will be in your story, but to bring the character to life in your own mind. Indeed, it's probably not even possible to use every single piece of information in a character sketch.

A well written character will therefore be more than the words in the story. They will have, in the mind of the author, a rich inner-life of their own; a history; a physical description; a catalogue of good and bad habits; a slew of partners with whom they have experienced either heartbreak, love (or both); an emotional, social, physical and spiritual life; and all sorts of other stuff that fan-boys/girls will obsess about for decades to come.

This page contains a template and some further advice on how to create the above: How to Create a Character profile.

Good luck with your writing.

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    Wow your link is totally awesome. More detailed than that what I have. This is a very helpful resource. Thanks for sharing
    – Pawana
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 13:34
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    Good link, though it's rather built for a modern-day realistic American setting. I mean, "Does your character believe in God"? - Character is a god. Jokes aside, it focuses on things that are important nowadays. In a different setting, the important things are different: middle-ages, one's rank is crucial; ancient history - which tribe one belongs to; modern-day Japan - there's no "race" as Americans perceive it - whether you're blond, or dark-skinned, you're equally "foreigner". One has to be aware of one's setting, not follow a template blindly. Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 14:22
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    @Galastel I agree & love you answer. I started out with character profiles but found so many questions irrelevant. Now, I pick people I know or TV characters I admire and meld their best (or worst) parts into the character I want. I grab photos and set them as Scrivener's compose window backdrop, so they're in my face while I'm writing. One of my characters, who readers love, is an amalgamation of two men I deeply respect. I know them & how they think, my respect comes out on the page & writing them is easy. They feel real on the page because they are in parts. Templates don't come close.
    – GGx
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 17:57

Characters are ideas. First, you invent the concept. Then you dive in the concept. You do not need to know everything about it to be able to answer any question if you want to. Sometimes, you need to invent more about your character, but most of the time, what you need are just corollaries.

Think as in math. You know what a square is. You have a idea of it, you do not even need a definition. You can answer many questions about squares without thinking about them ahead. Some questions may be more tricky and required more thoughts, but, in the current life, tricky questions happen rarely.


How do I explain this? Most of the people people know are people, most people are good with people, most people also like people and have enough empathy to see people as "whole" even when they don't know everything about them. This makes most people good at filling in missing details when it comes to people shaped objects, such as fictional characters. Good characters, those with enough details that they look like people to most people, therefore do a lot of the work but readers fill in more of their personality than they usually realise.

The question is what details and how many of them you need to use to reach the threshold at which readers take over and finish the humanising process. This can vary greatly from reader to reader, and I can't really answer for the average person. I'm not a people person, to put it mildly, so if I'm going to invest in a character it takes a lot more detail than it does for most people. I need to understand the person-ness of a character in order to invest in them and tell the extra parts of their story that the author can't include, this means that, to me, the details that are important are those of personality, speech, and habit.


I relate it to "multiple personalities." For some writers, the character can seem to have a semi-independent existence inside the writer's head. The writer can tweak the character's personality, and put words in the character's mouth, but a lot of the character's actions and dialog are more "observed" than consciously crafted. The writer's job is to put enough of that character on the page that it can live again in the mind of the reader as well.

A flat character is one that never lives for the reader, possibly, but not always because it never lived for the writer. When the reader disagrees with the author over a character action as being "out of character" it means the character that lives in the reader's head is not in alignment with the character on the the page.

None of this, however, answers the question of what makes the magic work. It's quite possible for characters that are flatly written to nevertheless live vividly for some readers, who bring their own imaginations and experiences to bear. But in terms of what the author can do to support that mystical alchemy, it's basically a matter of close and loving observation of a character who is allowed to have more agency than just what is needed to support and advance the plot.

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