Whatever is the nature of your creation, every single writing tutorial or article screams not to produce uniform armies of cardboard stickmen or better yet, numerous versions of yourself. How can you do that? Easy: combine the people you know, wash off clichés if any, add a flavour of quirks, season with flaws, cook uncovered for a day or two by completing a questionnaire—shazam! You’ve got a character. Could be tiresome but the recipe is not essentially difficult.
Except there is more to creating characters than that.
All the recounted methods help broaden your knowledge of the person, not make up one. A character is not a sack filled with random trivia, or else computer generators would be writers.
A few weeks ago I was struggling over the protagonist of my current project. His psychological growth presents the most important element of the story, which means a superficial personality was not an option. After a while, I knew everything about his phobias, pet peeves, and first girlfriend, but even though I had a chart characterising how the protagonist is supposed to stand, walk, and speak, I could not picture a living man standing, walking, and speaking.
Do not treat your creation like a character. Treat it like a person.
A person is not born on a sheet of paper or a screen. Now, I don’t mean “Where Kids Are Coming From 101”. I mean your imagination. A character is a complex and highly sensitive entity comprised of a set of changeable features and a constant basis, inseparable from each other. In English, however controversial people seem, they are yet harmonious and complete, rather than frankensteins with their aunt’s arm, dad’s ankle, and an ear falling off. Little universes of their own.
Coming up with a universe appears a much more difficult task, so we better get going.
“To be an artist, you have to know who you are.”
—“White Collar” TV series
No other person can be as familiar to you as yourself, meaning all the examples are right within. When you are dissecting a character, try to find answers to the same questions in your mind.
Let’s start with the constant basis. The world throws a plethora of challenges at people yet some things about them never change. A perfect parallel can be found in physical bodies: the skeleton. It takes a lot of vain work to alter it without the bones growing back as they were.
Start your character from a simplified idea.
There are many ways to do it. My personal favourites are googling character’s profession or nationality to seek out eye-catching images, and of course various generators. The goal is to come up with a sentence or a phrase that would describe what the character (not the author) considers most significant about himself. Say, my protagonist defines himself as “a young professional with an impeccable timing”, while two other major figures would dub themselves “well, writing music occasionally, mostly doing science… sorry, is this enough?” and “currently single mother”. Mind you, that single mother is good at boxing, but she won’t mention it: drives men away.
Don’t make up anything. Instead, ask you characters; they know better.
If you have reached this point, consider it bumping into your creation in the street and saying “hi”. Now grab that wrist and begin the interrogation. Oh, and don’t forget what the wrist looks like.
Make him choose the place. Their family, quirks, tastes, occupation—let him tell you. Instead of filling in standard profiles, you can save both time and paper by making the description of the character tell-tale in itself. Feeling blocked? Refresh the page with the generator, google, answer the questions, and pick the right thing when the character yells “yes, that’s it” and not when you just find it funny. It will train you to write from this person’s point of view, and also, you can tag the character.
It’s my made-up term that may or may not coincide with someone else’s. A tag is a piece of something, usually art, that can immediately remind the author of how it feels like to wear this character’s shoes. You’ve probably already tagged the appearance and personality without calling it so. An image from a search engine, a character-focused description—all that, if done properly, will make you picture a self-sufficient person. But the point is that self-sufficient people can introduce themselves very differently under different circumstances. You, however, have a more or less established plot, through which the character is driven by some more or less unchanging motivation. You need specifics.
A father in search for the kidnapped son, a journalist trying to prevent a political scandal—it isn’t something that defines the person but what the person is up to in the story. And whatever that is, the character will be taunted by it to the end of the story. The objective creates a certain mood about the character, a strong feeling that might not always be manifest but sits in the back of the mind all the time, gnawing the soul until what done is done.
To delve into something this intense like the character would, I like to assign a certain musical track to a description. A song comprises a set of similar emotions compiled and amplified, especially with the lyrics. While I’m not sure if it’s vast enough to use for creating a personality, music certainly works as an “ice-breaker” between my world and my character’s.
Try writing down a line from the lyrics that would best describe the motivation of the person. For instance, “all the souls that would die just to feel alive” from “Starlight” by Muse perfectly fits for the aforesaid “young professional”. By the way, the choice of soundtrack is for the author, not the character. That young professional wouldn’t even like Muse.
Finally, imagine your character in different daily-life situations. If you can say on the spot how he would behave and what he would never do—you’ve nailed it. Making the pawns move on the desk in accordance with the plot is easy, but now you know the person beyond the story. Exactly how you benefit from it and why the characters are more important than the plot, I will discuss in the next how-to article.
And a few more tips on creating characters in general:
- Mentioned questionnaires and generators present a great source of inspiration and help with developing the characters. Links to some of them you can find below.
- You can gift a person with twitching brows, weird mottos, or a fear of spiders as much as you want, but the most peculiar quirks always come from real people. For example, my friend is not afraid of height or climbing or stairs, only of climbing the stairs with empty spaces between the steps. It’s that specific.
- Most of the life-changing events are to do with people. If your character is married, outline the spouse as a minor character even if he or she doesn’t make a physical appearance. Besides, that protagonist of yours probably still sometimes murmurs the song his father liked to sing.
- Speaking of biography, exploring it is one of the best ways to expand the character beyond the basis.
- Take a few psychological tests from your character’s point of view. It is also very useful to decide if the character is visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic.
What do you think is the limit to knowing your character? Is there one? And if this helped, please, share, like, and sign up to Writer’s Ink.