Published by The Institute of Children’s Literature, Novel Advice, and Gotta Write Network


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By Richelle Putnam


What makes a man rush into a burning building to save a child?
What makes a woman abandon her children?
What drives a secret agent to betrayal?
Writers must create characters with vivid emotions.  In real life or fiction, people act and react according to who they are, where they've been, and who they want to be.  Anger can enrage to the point of murder, but it can also provide strength to say no to a destructive relationship. Creators must reveal the difference.

Here’s an excerpt from my recently completed young-adult novel, You Are My Sunshine.

The foul stench of crack seeped into my nostrils. Mama sat on the filthy floor against the refrigerator mindless of everything but the need she sucked into frail lungs. My eyes adjusted to the dimness and I watched, silent, unmoved.  The bottoms of her feet were grimy.  Her bra straps had collapsed from under short sleeves that were stained underneath. Half the buttons of her blouse were undone.  Milky flesh protruded over her pushup bra as if her breasts yearned to get out and prove their worthiness.  Nausea rose up into my throat.

I trudged to the light switch, flipped it on.

“Hey,” she blurted out.  “Baby, what are you doing?  Turn that light out.”  Her head wobbled, and fell on her right shoulder.

My body went limp, then stiffened hard as rock.

And from William Armstrong’s, Sounder, Scholastic Books, copyright 1969, ISBN 0-590-47834-6.
He carried in wood for the night before the sun began to weaken.  Then he looked out of the window again to where his mother would appear.  Finally he saw a speck moving on the road.  He watched it grow.

“She’s coming,” he said to the younger children, and they crowded around him and pushed their faces against the window. “She’s been gone long enough to walk and town and more,” he added.

“What will she bring?” one of the children asked.

“She’ll bring nothin’, but maybe things to eat.  She won’t bring no stick candy.  Don’t ask her for none.  Don’t ask her for nothin’.”

In “You Are My Sunshine” and “Sounder,” we view mothers through the eyes of their children.  We also see different personalities, circumstances, settings, and lives.

Here are seven easy steps in developing character emotions:

(1)   Reminisce.  Try to remember how it felt to be jilted, cursed, rejected, complimented, encouraged, and loved? Did your stomach lurch?  Did your skin turn clammy? Did you stutter?  Reliving powerful emotions can help you transform lifeless characters into lifelike characters.

(2)     Analyze.  Can you recognize someone who is insecure? Fearful? Prideful?  Actions and reactions speak loudly. An independent woman tackles a job with little hesitation, while a dependant woman shies away, happy to disappear into the background.  An indigent man’s reaction to a stale piece of bread is very different from a wealthy man’s.

(3)   Study award winning movies and plays. They all have one thing in common—-inspiring characters.  In STEEL MAGNOLIAS, when Sally Field grieved the loss of her daughter, she cried, "I just want to hit something." My chest ached from crying. But when Olivia Dukakis yanked Shirley MacLaine into the forefront, and said, "Here hit this. Go on. Hit her hard," I laughed so much I didn't know if my tears were from laughing or crying.  Through actions and reactions, these actors reveal who and what they are.  Study their movements, facial expressions, nervous habits, and the way they pull a strand of hair from their eyes.  Now show these actions with words.

(4)     Create histories.  Your characters must have a past, but please not all on one page. Spread it into different scenes so it’ll blend in and not sit on top like curdled milk.  Lifestyle, environment, education (or lack of it), and upbringing create views, dislikes, fears, aspirations, etc.  These long-term feelings don’t change in a day.  Introverts may gain confidence, but don’t miraculously become extroverts because they overcame an obstacle. Keep emotions true to a character’s nature. 

(5)   Forget generic words.
"She was so mad." 
Madness can be silent, loud, violent, or vengeful. So which is it?
"She clenched her fists to keep from slapping his face.” 
"In silence she turned away, determined not to look back."
See the difference?  Showing, not telling, allow readers to experience what your characters are experiencing

(6)     Become an analyst. When your character says, "I'm angry," know them well enough to answer, "You are angry because your old-fashioned mother doesn't let you do what the other kids do.  She makes you wash dishes, fold clothes, and baby-sit your five-year-old sister.  You long to run away to a world without expectations. Your insides churn like a blender crushing ice.  One day you’ll be out of there.  One day soon."  Only the writer has the power to reveal story characters to readers.

(7)   Learn from, but don’t copy the greats.  Discover your own greatness.  Don’t try to recreate V. C. Andrews, Virginia Hamilton, E. L. Konigsburg, or other prize-winning authors.  Research them.  What makes their characters stand out?  Use a highlighter to mark emotions and descriptions that stirred you.  Practice rewriting a scene, using different names, setting, circumstances, and emotions. Here’s a rewrite of the above William Armstrong scene:

She took out the trash as the sun dropped further into the horizon and returned the empty can to its place under the kitchen sink.  She glanced at her watch wondering if her father would really come.  After two hours and seventeen minutes of pacing, she heard the worn out muffler of his ’68 Cutlass.  It grew louder and louder.

“He’s coming,” she whispered, pushing her face against the cold windowpane. “He’s coming back for good. I just know it.”

She ran to the front door and flung it open.  I won’t ask him for nothing, she thought.  Not a thing.  I’ll wrap my arms around him and squeeze him so tight, he’ll never want to leave again.

Trust yourself and your characters.  Be patient.  It takes time to build any relationship, even a fictitious one.  If you follow these steps, you'll develop characters your readers are not likely to forget.


Copyright 2001 Richelle Putnam (


Richelle Putnam is a former writer for All Headline News.  She has been published in Common Ties, E2K Literary Journal, World Wide Writers, Orchard Press Mysteries, Southern Hum, The Copperfield Review, Cayuse Press, Writer’s Journal, Obadiah Press’s Living By Faith Anthology, A tribute to Mothers Anthology, A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Daughters, and more.  Her children’s literature has been published on the Institute of Children’s Literature’s website, Writing Korner, and Wee Ones, Boy’s Quest, Appleseeds, and Hopscotch Magazine for Girls; Her work is soon to be released in Flashquake, Fireflies in Fruit Jars Anthology, and GCWA “Mississippi” Anthology. Her novel, Fallout, was released in 2000; She is the Founder and President of Mississippi Writers Guild.