Character Focus

So I've written the life histories of my characters. I have a good idea of what they look like. I've even thought of actors who could play them in a film. Sometimes though, even after carrying out these useful exercises, my characters still lack a focus. They're this and that but none of it really knits together to make a whole.

A couple of weeks ago, while working on Split, I came up with an exercise that, so far, has worked for me with each of my characters. It may not be new and my memory is possibly dredging up this method from past reading but it's an idea that has helped me immensely whenever I am struggling with one of my characters.

Sit your character down and, examining him/her/it from all angles, decide on a word, one word, that describes the essence of that individual. What is it that drives/scares/inspires them most? I'll give you some examples from Split.


Here's a description from the first chapter.

'At a richly coloured, sturdy desk to one side of the shop, sat a short, thickset man. He had something of a leonine presence to him with his mane of grizzled chestnut hair and his wayward beard. His age was unguessable. He could have been fifty or one hundred and fifty.'

Hartley is a character who has been with me for many years. On his own homeground - his shop or the Old Town - I find it very easy to write about him. However, when he is taken out of his element, I become less sure of how he will react.

The word I came up with for Hartley is 'rogue'. My dictionary tells me that rogue means (a) a dishonest person, (b) a person who is playfully mischevious, (c) someone or something which is not true to its type and is inferior, and (d) a vicious wild animal which lives apart from its herd. Well, Hartley can certainly be elusive, if not necessarily dishonest. He rarely tells the whole story. There is much behind those hazel eyes that will not reveal itself. He is certainly playful and mischevious. He uses humour whenever he can and his laughter is a rumbling, roaring delight. Is he true to his type? That depends on what you deem his type to be. Is he a typical shopkeeper? Probably not. The shop serves to provide him with knowledge, enjoyment, a meeting place for his friends and a front that hides much of what he is. I wouldn't say he was a vicious wild animal but he does have a dangerous side to him and he can be unpredictable.

He's a rogue, no doubt about it.


Isabelle has lost so much, so many people that she loved. Her magical powers are nurturing, not agressive like her family or husband. As a result, she feels powerless. For much of her life, she has been on the run, always hiding. Now she has her daughter to think of too.

The word I came up with for Isabelle is 'fear'. She is driven by the fear of loss and in the end it is this fear which will drive her to leave her safety zone.


Winters is the head of security at the Corporation. He's not one of the original characters I came up with when my novel was in it's original form but I do enjoy writing him. In the past, Winters felt in control of his life. He was especially smug about how much control he had over his boss. Now that has changed and he is struggling.

His keyword is 'pride'. Pride drives his reactions because in his mind he thinks he knows best.


Try it for yourself. What is your character's keyword? What drives them most? You may be surprised by the results.


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