Character Development from the Heart

Welcome to guest author Joanna Campbell Slan. Joanna is the creator of three mystery series and winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award for Literary Excellence. She has been a television talk show host, an adjunct professor of public relations, a sought-after motivational speaker, and a corporate speechwriter.

Tell Me Who You Love: Character Development from the Heart
Joanna Campbell Slan

Here’s the Test

There’s an old adage: “Tell me who you love and I’ll tell you who you are.” It’s a great test to apply to our characters. Ask yourself, “Who or what does my character love?”

What Characters Are Driven to Do

Love is not only powerful; it also makes fools out of most of us. As authors we can use this primal drive to explain situations that would otherwise seem absurd.

Think back to Gone with the Wind. In the book, it’s Scarlett’s love for Tara that compels her to marry one unsuitable man after another. It’s her love of family that sends this fragile flower out into the fields to work like a common laborer. And her love of Ashley Wilkes forces her to remain beside his wife, Melanie, even as the Yankees approach.

Love Causes Conflicts of All Sizes

We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet, but love for life’s small pleasures can also cause our characters problems. Kiki Lowenstein loves food. Especially desserts. In many of my Kiki books, this amateur sleuth’s attention gets side-tracked when someone waves a particularly luscious treat under her nose. In one book, a nasty crafter ruins Kiki’s artwork while Kiki is too busy eating a gingerbread cupcake to keep an eye on her materials.

Telling Versus Showing

Of course, it’s not enough to tell our readers that our character loves someone or something. We have to show this emotion in practice. One way is by forcing our characters to make tough choices. When Cara Mia Delgatto adopts a Chihuahua with a broken leg, she doesn’t need one more complication in her life. However, she’s willing to adjust her world to accommodate the ailing pup because he’s a rescue dog, and Cara is all about second chances.

How our characters spend their time is another way we show what they value. If a character doesn’t spend time with his children, readers might assume they aren’t an important part of that character’s life. However, if a tattered family photo falls out of the character’s wallet as he pulls out a dollar bill, we have to believe his children matter, but something keeps him away from them.

Characters can demonstrate their love by their reactions. Perhaps your character’s voice changes when he’s talking to his wife. Or maybe your protagonist gets teary-eyed when coming across a man’s jacket in her closet. These responses show the reader a powerful emotion at work.

The next time you create a character, ask yourself who or what this particular player loves. Make a list. Using what you learn will help you build a more realistic, well-rounded character that readers will relate to.


JoannaSlanJoanna Campbell Slan is the national bestselling and award-winning award of twenty-books, both fiction and non-fiction. She has taught writing at Illinois State University, to executives at large corporations, and through Internet courses. She currently writes two mystery series.

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TearDownandDieThe first book in her newest series is Tear Down and Die (Book #1 in the Cara Mia Delgatto Mystery Series/4.8 out of 5 stars). or



Contest Alert! Enter May 7– 21 to win a signed copy of bestselling author Joanna Campbell Slan’s historical mystery, Death of a Dowager, and a $15 FANDANGO gift card to enjoy a movie this summer.

7 thoughts on “Character Development from the Heart

  1. Good reminder of what can go into back story as much as motivation and action.
    If I may, a similar list of dislikes, fears, and/or (dare I say) hates, can be just as useful – Indiana Jones and snakes comes immediately to mind.
    In the same way you listed actions above, your character could punch the radio button when he hears a rap ( or country, or Taylor Swift) song; he can cross the street when he sees a homeless woman, he could break into a sweat walking into the hospital; she can white-knuckle-death-grip the steering wheel as rush-hour traffic fills with big-rigs, or duck into a stairwell at work to keep from running into the blabbermouth time wasting guy from down the hall…
    Maybe I ought to quit here while I’m ahead…

  2. Thanks for the post, Joanna.

    Great advice. When we think about many of the things we plan in a character before we start writing, love stands behind those things and causes those things: absurd behavior, what the character wants and needs, conflict, etc.

    Maybe, when we develop a character, we should start with “Who or what does my character love?”

    Thanks for the post.

  3. I’m taking a class from David (Wolverton) Farland, and he says this is the “pat the dog” moment in films where we see the tough guy pat a dog. So, yeah… that’s the central question: Who or what does my character love? In the most recent Mark Billingham (DI Tom Thorne) book, a killer used the threat of harming loved ones to make elderly people kill themselves. Then Thorne has to make a similar decision–and we learn who he loves. Glad you liked my post, Steve.

  4. Hi Joanna, it’s wonderful to have you here at the Kill Zone! Welcome!

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