Build Amazing Characters from the Inside Out

What fictional characters stick in your memory? Is it the hero of a tragedy? The lover in a romance? The wizard in a fantasy? Is it Hamlet? Cinderella? Harry Potter?

Creating amazing characters is key to writing a story readers will remember and return to again and again.

Normally, writers start with the outer appearance of a character – hair color, eye color, size, and attractiveness. But what if we started with the inner core – the spark that makes the character step onto the page and into reader’s hearts and minds? Here’s how to build a character from the inside out.

Inside Your Character’s Head

Our minds are powerful. They control how we see the world around us, and how we choose to interact with it. Weasel your way into your character’s brain and decide if your character believes the world they exist in is:

  • Challenging
  • Controlling
  • Dangerous
  • Exciting
  • Evil
  • Harsh
  • Tempting
  • Unforgiving
  • Unjust

Inside Your Character’s Heart

As much as they may deny it, all human beings have a desperate need to belong or to be loved. Look inside your character’s heart and decide if your character is:

  • Abandoned
  • Bullied
  • Expelled
  • Grieving a loss
  • Hated
  • Heartbroken
  • Lonely
  • Loveless
  • Missing someone


Inside Your Character’s Body

Physical survival is the ultimate driver of human action. Forces outside our character may threaten their life. Decide if your character is suffering from:

  • Exposure
  • Hunger
  • Illness
  • Lack of rest
  • Persistent pain
  • Physical injury
  • Thirst

Inside Your Character’s Motivation

Head, heart and body form the core of an amazing character. But none of those are enough to propel the character into action. In order for action to happen, the character must want their life to change. If they are ambitious, they want something more than they have. If they are abandoned, they want to discover a place to belong. If they are in pain they want that pain to end or find a way to live with it.

As the amazing character pursues that goal, they will meet roadblocks and obstacles, conflict and success. They will have a story, made richer and deeper, no matter what they look like.

For more ideas for amazing head, heart, and body traits see Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s:

The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus

Click here for

I love to hear from my readers!

Do you start with the outer view or the inner view of your characters?

Characters as Verbs

~ I ________ you ~

I was very fortunate to have the chance to hear Damon Suede speak at the New Jersey Romance Writers Conference last fall. The topic of his talk was character development.

Give Your Character a Verb

One thing that stood out for me was his suggestion that before you decide on hair color or height or even occupation for your main character, you should come up with a transitive verb that represents the internal core of your character. Then you should pick an opposite verb for the antagonist.

Let the Verb dictate the Character’s DetailsUsing a transitive verb like ignite adds pizza to a character

Once we have the identifying verb identified, all of the other features of the character should fall in place. For example, if the verb we choose for our character is IGNITE, then everything about that character will be bright and fiery. A person who ignites might be someone with red hair, sparkling eyes, emanating warmth, sexy hot, and working as a fireman.

With this verb in mind, our word choices and the character’s actions would also reflect this verb. An igniting character might light up a room or send flaming passion through you when they touched you.

Damon even suggested writers could use a different synonym of the character’s main verb as a guiding force for every chapter in our novel.

Wow, this idea really ignited me. So I set out to give it a try.

Identifying Transitive Verbs

Character as Verb Using Actions; The Actors' ThesaurusBut first, I have to admit the grammatical term transitive verb threw me. I mean I knew what it meant – sort of. A transitive verb is any active verb you can use to fill in this sentence and have it sound sensible.

I _____ACTIVE VERB_____ you.

So I ignite you works. I sleep you does not.

Damon suggested we consult a thesaurus to find our character verbs. But for me that involved a lot of “is it transitive or not” questions as well as tedious skimming through pages of non-verbs. So I went hunting for a thesaurus that focused on verbs and hit the jackpot.

Try Actions: The Actors Thesaurus

Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus by Marina Caldarone & Maggie Llyod-Williams isn’t just a verb thesaurus. It is a thesaurus of transitive verbs, and it has a very specific purpose. It is used by actors to choose how a character will behave when saying each one of his or her lines. This is called Actioning, a technique developed by the Russian actor and director, Constantin Stanislavski.

Usually actioning is done with the whole cast sitting around a table and going line by line through the script. Actors identify a transitive verb for each line as a cue to how they will say it and how they will move. For example, perhaps the line in the play reads: “Would you like to dance?” In concert with the cast, the actor might decide to say this as if “I love you” or “I seduce you” or “I hate you” or “I fear you.” The actor being addressed would then choose a verb representing how they would respond.

Taking it Farther: Using Active Verbs to Spark up Dialogue

Wow. This gave me a brainstorm. Why not do the same thing when writing dialogue? If a character already has a main transitive verb then we can use its synonyms whenever that character speaks. So, if the character is a beguiler (I beguile you) they might amuse, belittle, bewitch, cajole, charm, cheat, coax, court and so on when speaking.

In the WIP I am working on right now, Book 4 Under the Skin in my Skin series, I have chosen I escape you for my heroine and I protect you for my hero. I’ll let you know how it goes.

What do you think of ACTIONING? Willing to give it a try?

Post your thoughts and comments below.

Beneath the Skin is different

Now I read a lot of romantic suspense novels. I love them. Why else would I write them? I like the fact that there is mystery and threatening villains along with the love story. I like the complexity of the plot and the challenging of binding the romance so tightly into the suspense plot line that if you took out the romance  or took out the suspense plot the story wouldn’t work.

To do that you need a special type of hero and heroine and a very threatening villain. Most romantic suspenses, therefore, usually have at least one and sometimes both main characters working for the military, especially the SEALs,  or for the police or in some CIA or FBI undercover operation investigating a crime or trying to stop terrorists or other very bad bad people. Blood Code featured the CIA against a crazy Russian premier. Exit Strategy starred an ex-military guy protecting his assigned victim from being assassinated.

Beneath the Skin is different. My heroine is an anthropologist. The hero is a world-renowned artist living the good life. Not military, not undercover, not police. So why don’t they go to the police when Bella Bell is kidnapped? Unfortunately, both have something in their pasts that makes them wary of legal authorities, and by the time, they realize they are in too deep, it’s too late.

The book I am giving away for March is Low Pressure by best selling author Sandra Brown. The hero and heroine in this book are more like mine in Beneath the Skin. In this book, the heroine is a writer and the hero is a pilot. Like Melissa and Ari, they start looking for answers and end up running for their lives.

Sign up for my newsletter to be eligible for the drawing

Follow Zara button

Food Moments in Fiction

Characters have to eat too. Today is National Pizza Day so I thought I would give a plug for Fornino in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This is where my romantic suspense hero in Beneath the Skin likes to eat. Aristides Stavros might be a famous artist, but he’s not much of a cook. It also proves a great place to escape to with his graffiti crew when an unexpected visitor gets too friendly.

Read more….

Do you have a favorite Brooklyn pizza place?

Give me your suggestions and I’ll check them out and include the one I like the best in my sequel Close to the Skin.


Let Them Wear Red: Ethical Clothing for My Characters

Today is National Wear Red Day in honor of women. So I thought that I would share some red outfits my characters might enjoy wearing on this day. Note: In keeping with my new awareness of ethically made clothing, all the gorgeous garments featured here are made in conscience to worker’s rights and the environment or from recycled finds. Learn more about the ethical clothing movement here.

Melissa Dermott: The petite Asian-American heroine of Beneath the Skin is not a fancy dresser. She’s a debt-ridden graduate student. Most of her clothing is purchased in thrift stores and flea markets. But she has good taste and likes good design and simple lines. Her favorite go-to jacket is a boiled wool bolero with embroidery. Here are two jackets she might love.

Boiled Wool bolero jacket

Vintage Lord & Taylor jacket ETSY

Bolero jacket

Recycled Chico’s bolero jacket  e-bay

Bella Bell: Flamboyant and outspoken, tattoo artist Bella Bell dresses to match her personality. She loves flowing skirts and revealing cuts that show off her glorious tattoos. Here are two wonderful red dresses for her.

Avery Dress by Reformation Ethical clothing

The Avery Dress by Reformation

Fair Indigo organic fair trade dress

Fair Indigo organic fair trade dress

Jana Firth: Snarky, sexy, Jana dresses for success in expensive suits that say “Look at me. I’m on my way to the top, and I don’t care who gets trampled on my way up.” I think I found the perfect upscale outfit for her to wear on a night on the city, and it’s even vintage.

So what red outfit are you wearing today?