Writing Tips: Basic Character Creation

by Mar 20, 2020Blog, Characters, Writing Tips

One of the hardest things about writing fiction, except all of the other things, of course, is creating a good character. A good character will do more than just serve toward the advancement of your plot. They will have their own unique style, personality, mannerisms, and habits. Unless they’re a background character, and sometimes, even then, your reader should be offered the chance to get to know them, and build a genuine impression of them. In order to do that, you’ll have to know them, too.

Getting to know your characters becomes a matter of details, then. Not every character will need a full backstory, of course. Unless it’s important to the plot, the front desk clerk doesn’t need to have a favorite color. Your main character may not need to have a favorite color, either, but it can’t hurt to have one in mind.

All of your characters should be clearly defined. The level of detail you create may vary, based on the amount of page time you devote to them, but you should offer enough detail for the reader to build an image or idea of the character in their head. Your characters’ behaviors should be believable and consistent. That’s not to say that your character can’t be, do, or say something amazing, or something outside the bounds of reality. But your reader should believe that your character will actually do or say that thing. And your characters should all serve a unique purpose, whether you have a cast of only two, or two hundred.

My character creation process is simple and straightforward. It’s not easy, but then coming up with good, solid, enjoyable characters never really is. You may have a different process that works for you but, for the sake of my convenience, I’m going to use my own.

Illustration of two groups of people giving each other the high five

To create my characters, I just follow these few, simple steps:

1. Create a Clear Character Description

Who is your character? Have you given them a name? If so, that’s a great start. Now you just need to assign them every other important detail.

I always start with the basics, by noting their gender, their age, some basic information about their appearance, and simple description of their personality type. For me, that looks something like this:

Emily Jean Stone: Female, 31. She’s 5′ 6″ and slender with pale, freckled skin and long, straight, reddish-brown hair. She’s quick witted and funny, and usually talks a little too loud.

That’s pretty bare bones, but it’s enough to start with. Additional first details you could add are the character’s profession, since that’s usually relevant, and any personal history you may want them to have. Our character, Emily Jean, is a comedian and television actor, who grew up in suburban Arizona.

Once I have the basics, I usually feel comfortable enough to slot them into a story. It’s important to note that I don’t necessarily do all of these steps in order. So I may build the character entirely in advance, or I may paint them with broad strokes at first, then develop them in further detail as I’m creating my overall story.

2. Make Your Character Believable By Giving Them Clear Motivations

One important part of making a believable character is to have them be consistent. When I’m reading a story, the first thing that will turn me off is an unbelievable character. As in, I don’t believe them. That’s not to say that your character can’t be, do, or say something amazing, or something outside the bounds of reality. What I’m referring to is that feeling that I get when I read that a character has said or done something that I don’t believe they actually would say or do.

For instance, a down on his luck, tough guy with a heart of gold may use course language and questionable problem solving skills, but they would probably not murder someone in cold blood. Or, a character that is supposed to be a fresh, untested innocent probably wouldn’t look at things with the world-weariness of an ancient demi-god who has seen and done it all.

With Emily Jean, I know that she’s quick witted and funny. That could be a natural quality, but it would be more interesting for it to be a defense mechanism that she uses as a result of childhood trauma that’s given her conflict avoidance issues. If that were the case, then it would impact the way she relates to other characters in the story. When things start to get heated, or when she senses an impending argument, she may use humor to deflect or defuse in order to avoid it. I also know that she always talks a little too loud. It would be interesting if that were because she likes attention, or because she is compensating for a poor self-image. Either of those things would also impact how she relates to the other characters around her.

Here’s an advanced tip: You don’t necessarily have to spell out a character’s motivations. You can also imply them. You know why a character acts the way they do enough to keep them consistent. But it’s also fun to make your readers guess sometimes, especially if they see behaviors that they can relate to.

3. Make Your Characters Unique

It should go without saying that your characters are unique to you. Even if they’re inspired by someone else’s work, or a real-life person, your should develop them on their own, with characteristics unique to your story. But that’s not what this point means. You should also make you characters unique from one another.

If every one of the characters in your ensemble is attractive, stacked, funny, and talented, your story just isn’t going to be very interesting, will it? Even if your story is a gothic period drama dripping with velvet, lace, and sickly Victorian children, you could try to keep it interesting by having some humor or irreverence. Think about the people closest to you? Do you always agree on everything? Do you all have the same personality traits? Probably not. Neither should the characters in your story.

Try to keep things balanced. For instance, if your main character is the serious, straightforward one, then one of their companions or foils could be funny, unnecessarily long-winded, and complicated. That’s not to say that you need to create a polar opposite for everyone, though. If you have several primary characters, spread things around a little. More than one of them could be funny, but funny in different ways. More than one of them could be risk takers, but one could do it for the glory, while the other does it for self-satisfaction.

Some Other Tips

Keep Notes: Just like you probably have notes for your story outline, keep notes for your characters. For some of my main characters, their initial description has grown to multiple pages of notes. I’ve even gone so far as to write small test scenes with them, to try out different dialogue styles or actions.

Avoid Pitfall Tropes: It can be tempting to include a character solely to serve plot out of convenience. That’s often how you end up with trope-filled characters like the “gay best friend,” the “wise old black woman,” or the “funny fat friend.” If it’s important to have those types of characters in your story, then give them the benefit of their own backstory.

Diversity for Diversity’s Sake: Like the previous tip, if your story is in need of diversity, don’t just re-assign a character’s race, gender, or sexuality and call it a day, especially if those things are outside of your lived experience.

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