Creating Characters: Introduction

Disclaimer: As with all my posts relating to writing, this is purely personal and my methods and opinions will not hold true for everyone.

Creating characters is one of the most exciting and frustrating parts of writing a story.

I’m currently in the middle of trying to tease out the protagonist of my fantasy novel. I know his culture, his religion and his backstory. I know what he looks like. His personality is proving elusive, and so is his voice.

This is him:

Please ignore my terrible art and terrible webcam photography. :c

For now, his name is Cricket, but that is not his real name. He goes by William sometimes, but that’s not his real name either. His real name could get him killed.

*dramatic pause*

*tumbleweed*

Creating a character is exciting for many reasons. For one thing, you’re creating a human being with nothing more than your mind. You are sculpting them a life, a personality – a whole history with nothing more than words. Done well, a character can breathe. They can take on a life of their own and surprise you with the things that they do and the things that they say. You can discover in them a strength that you didn’t think was possible. In one gesture, they can create hundreds of new fangirls and -boys across the vast world.

Okay, so that last one might be stretching it.

If you’ve spent much time on the NaNoWriMo forums, or around a group of other writers, you probably have heard the lamentations of an author whose characters are running amok. These characters are protesting every word that is written. They’re falling in love or into bed with other characters who they weren’t meant to say two words to. They are ignoring the main plot and running off to chase shiny new subplots.

When your character is real enough to you that they become a voice in your head – when they start telling you what they would do, what they would say, no, they’re not going to go in the haunted house, that’s stupid – that is when you know you have created a living, breathing person.

You need to know your character inside out. When you can take any random situation outside the plot of your novel and you know instinctively how your character would handle that, or when the dialogue seems to write itself because you just know exactly what a character will say, or when you’re in the supermarket buying chocolate and you know which chocolate bar your character would choose (and when you even think about that sort of thing) – that is success.

Of course, these are only a few examples, and everyone’s characters present themselves in different ways. How do you know when you’ve created a successful character? (Let me know in the comments, I’m curious.)

For every character that comes out right, however, there are about ten others that don’t. We’ve all been there.

These characters are flat, lifeless. Every line they utter is robotic. Their movements are cardboard. Their personality flip-flops from one scene to the next. They are black or white, rather than multiple shades of grey.

How do we avoid these characters, then?

Some of this stuff is to do with the writing. Dialogue in particular is hard to do right, particularly in the first draft. If some of the dialogue is just not working for you, read it out loud. Does it sound like something a real person would say? If not, why?

Sometimes, yes, it does. But it doesn’t sound right for that character. So, what’s wrong there?

That’s not an easy question to answer.

I believe that characters need five things in order to make them successful. They need an appearance, though this is arguably the least important point. They need a personality, with strengths and flaws (and no, being ‘too kind’ or having ‘slight buck teeth’ are not flaws. The second is not even a personality trait. Get out.).  They need a backstory, a life outside of the story. They need a goal, a motivation – something to work towards, or something that they desperately want out of life. And they need a voice that is undeniably theirs. The latter is what would be missing in the above dialogue example – ie. the dialogue sounds perfectly fine, but is generic, not what that character would say, but what anyone would say.

Any one of these things could be a starting point for a character, and all of them are important.

The posts linked below (there are no links yet D: – that will change) will discuss each of them in more depth, using my very own Cricket as a model (if he co-operates).

1) Appearance

2) Personality

3) Backstory

4) Motivation

5) Voice

So this post has a bit more of a point to it:

What characters are you guys currently working on, and what was the starting point/idea for them? Any difficulties you’re currently having? Share your darlings with the world (and me, because I’m curious and I love learning about people’s characters)! :)

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2 Comments

  1. I think I’m kind of odd when it comes to creating characters – I actually spend very little time thinking about them or trying to create them. They just sort of happen. And sometimes that works well, other times it definitely does not. But I tell myself that’s what editing’s for.

    I’m writing a character at the moment who I’m finding a bit difficult. She’s supposed to be unlikeable and she’s definitely that, but I keep worrying that I’m going too far and people won’t be able to relate to her, or that I’m actually not making her dislikeable enough. This is especially difficult because I’d also like the reader to have sympathy for her, even though nobody in their right mind would want to be her friend. It’s making my brain hurt just writing this!

    • Probably because I used to draw a lot, I get kind of obsessed with finding out everything I can about my characters. Usually, if I try creating characters your way, I end up getting distracted by them until I’ve fleshed them out. Also, I always get swept away by secondary characters, which is a problem all of its own.

      Writing unlikeable characters is hard work! I find it commendable that you’re attempting it; I don’t think I have before. Two books off the top of my head with unlikeable narrators if you’re interested: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12891111-prince-of-thorns), and Becoming Bindy MacKenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1022737.Becoming_Bindy_MacKenzie). One is dark/brutal fantasy and the other is kind of a school-based drama. :)

      I think you just need to try to find a balance, though. Try letting some trusted people read a bit, and see what they think of her. Everyone’s going to react to her a different way though! I think it’s better to go too far than to not go far enough, because if you don’t go far enough it’d make her kind of a limp character (If you know what I mean? o.o). You can always tone things down in a later draft if everyone despises her to the point she’s unreadable.

      Thanks for the comment!

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