Creating great characters is the number one thing you can do when you’re trying to tell a compelling story. I’ve written about the basics of character creation before, but I wanted to delve a little more deeply into my process. Keep in mind that these are things that work for me, and you may find that other methods work better for you. That’s ok. While we’re both headed to the same end goal, there’s no one, right way to get there.
There are generally two schools of writing–the outline school, and the make it up as you go along school. I’m mostly in the outline school, since I find it useful to have a roadmap of where my story is going as I’m writing it. Doing that helps me keeps my plots logical, relatable, and believable. I like to follow the outline practice with my characters, too. It helps me get to know my characters better, and thus helps me understand the decisions that they make during the course of the story.
When I write a character description, I start with the basics, and go from there. My basics are:
- Physical Description
- Profession & Interests
- Personality & Mannerisms
I usually write those details out in a narrative format. For instance, with Nix, the main character of my recently published short story, Downstation Blues, I wrote that he’s a thirteen-year-old pickpocket. He’s skinny and short. He’s poor, and unable to access any government assistance. He’s mature for his age in some ways, but less so in others. He’s a loner. He’s mostly serious, and he has a soft spot for helping out the few people he’s close to. That was enough for me to get an idea of who Nix is. For the main character of a longer story, I might write even more, including a back story and sample dialogue. The better I understand who a character is, the easier it is for me to understand why they do what they do.
But let’s break the process down more.
Nix is thirteen, skinny, and short. He’s a boy, and uses he/him pronouns. I never ventured beyond that with him, because I wanted a character that was more a blank slate, at least visually, to allow more readers to see themselves in him. It works for that story, because the conflicts he encounters are class and lifestyle-related and, in the context of the story, his race is not a key factor.
I didn’t describe anyone’s skin tone, hair color, eye color, or any other visually identifying characteristics for this particular story. I’ll delve into this subject further in a future post, but for now, my rule of thumb is that if I describe anyone’s physical characteristics to that degree, I do the same for everyone.
Tasha Leondrova is a character from another project. She’s a 26-year-old woman from Saint Petersburg with ashen, blushed skin, short, spiky, black hair, and a lean, swimmer’s build. She first appears in the story wearing tight-fitting jeans, a loose, white shirt under a dark jacket, and black work boots. That’s enough of a description for most readers to create a strong mental image of her.
Profession & Interests
Asking someone what they do for a living is generally one of the first things people do when meeting someone new. It makes sense, since we spend so much of our waking time working. For character development, this could include hobbies, or areas of interest as well.
Nix is a pickpocket. He haunts markets and tourist areas to steal money and small goods. He steals because he doesn’t have access to the resources and social services that more fortunate people in his position do, and he’s never learned much else. Tasha is an agent for a secret government agency. Tasha has her job because she developed great skill and determination after being orphaned as a teenager, which impressed her future partner, to whom she shows fierce loyalty.
Personality & Mannerisms
Here’s where you get into defining who a character is. What are their strengths? What are their flaws? What makes them people?
Nix is a loner, and tends to keep most people at an emotional distance. A few people in his life are close to him, but he prefers to go it solo. He’s mature for his age, and makes decisions using the judgment of someone who’s had a lot more life experience than someone his age has generally had. But he’s also been poorly socialized, and can seem immature when it comes to emotional situations. He has a serious demeanor, and doesn’t joke around a lot.
Tasha comes off cold, and she’s the first one to admit that. She doesn’t do affection well, prefers to demonstrate her feelings through action. She uses a lot of sarcasm, and has a very dry delivery. She has a fiery temper. Although she has a general distrust for authority, she’s fiercely loyal to individuals in power over her if she feels they’ve earned that position.
These are the kinds of details I use to determine how a character will act or react. Both of these characters have good and bad qualities. When Nix is in a crisis, he may react calmly and with maturity, or he may lose his composure, depending on how emotional he is. When Tasha is under pressure, she tends to lose her temper.
Remember that people are complicated. Protagonists should have flaws, because a hero with no flaws is unrelatable.
What drives your character? You should know that, because the reason why a character does something is just as important as how they do it. Setting up their motivations helps me, the author, guide them through the conflicts I’ve created for them. Both Nix and Tasha are orphans. For Nix, that means he feels more comfortable on his own. The more emotional ties he has, the greater the chances of loss. For Tasha, that means she attached herself to the first authority figure that demonstrated integrity and compassion, and hasn’t let go since.
In contrast, Tasha’s partner, Finn, comes from a well-balanced family and social environment, which assured that his basic needs were always met. His grounded nature and calm demeanor were taught to him, instead of learned through trauma. His upbringing has made him level-headed, even in the face of crisis. It’s also made him much more comfortable than Tasha with expressing emotion.
Don’t forget about what motivates your villains. Antagonists should have some morality, because villains rarely believe that what they’re doing is wrong. It’s much more likely that they think they’re doing the right thing, regardless of how twisted it may seem to the hero and the reader.
Everyone’s got something about them that makes them unique, be it a personality trait, quirk, or even a flaw. Your characters shouldn’t be any different. Being the sci-fi future version of a street kid, Nix uses a lot of slang when he speaks. He’s mistrusting of technology, so, despite being around a lot of it, he doesn’t use it if he doesn’t have to. Being Russian, Tasha speaks decent English, but with a heavy accent, and she tends to forget her definite articles a lot.
It’s these little things that make characters relatable. Maybe your character avoids eye contact, or has an annoying laugh. Maybe they dress shabbily, or always look put together. Maybe they think they’re funny, but they can’t tell a joke to save their life. Maybe they have a disability, or a superpower. Or both.
These factors will then come throughout your story, and, along with the character’s personality, define how they interact with other characters and the world around them.
Once you’ve got your character’s starting point, you need to figure out where they’re going. Their goals often come from the plot, but it’s important to define it, at least for yourself, because it helps establish your character’s arc. Here are a few questions to help answer that:
- What do they want?
- How will they get it?
- What obstacles are in their way?
- What are they willing to do to overcome those obstacles?
For Nix, his goals are to find stability and become self-sufficient. In his story, he faces many obstacles on the way to those goals. Some of them are surprising, a few are insurmountable, and one ends up redefining who he thinks he is. And that’s where the fun and interest come in. Because I have Nix well defined in my head, it’s easier for me determine how he would react to something, and why.
We all have goals. Some of them are easily achievable, and some of them we may never reach. But those goals have helped shape our personalities and mannerisms. They’ve impacted or inspired our motivations. They help make us who we are.
Following these steps is what’s worked well for me. They may work for you, too. Or, they may be a good fallback if you prefer to forge ahead and let your characters show you who they are as you write them, but get stuck.