“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
― Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury summed it up quite appropriately: without characters there is no story. Characters are strange…erm…characters. They’re the driving force behind our stories, striving to overcome any and all obstacles keeping them from realising their goals. Everything else is either plot or setting, and neither can tell a tale.
I know a lot of writers who struggle with character creation but I’m not one of them. Protagonists, antagonists and whole supporting casts can appear to me with little effort on my part, albeit rarely fully-formed. My problem is usually having a cast without a story. They sit around in my head like freeloading room-mates, eating my food and keeping me awake with loud music and incessant chatter. In the end, I have no choice but to evict them onto paper.
I know what you’re thinking (besides all the bad words): if you can pluck them from the air, why are you writing a post about character creation? Well, just because they come natural, doesn’t mean I don’t have to work at them once the spark has gone.
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
― Ernest Hemingway
Characters ARE people (not necessarily human but people none the less). They populate the worlds we create. Live, love, laugh, and generally spend their time being tormented by us, their creators. We pick them up, turn them this way and that, even give them a little shake to find out what falls loose. We place them into dire situations for our own amusement and test to see how far we can push before they break.
Love them or hate them, a well-developed character can affect us in more ways than we can imagine. Readers will stay up all night, eagerly devouring our books, simply to find out what happens next and how X will deal with the situation. They want to relate to our protagonists, despise our antagonists (although, not always), and sympathise with the long-suffering sidekick. People relate to other people.
So, how do we create a well-developed character?
I’m not going to lie to you, creating characters is hard work; a labour of love. The greater the influence a character has over the path of a story, the more you, the writer, needs to know about them. A main character should have no secrets from their creator.
1. Characters should have a voice
Every one of us is unique, shaped by our experiences. We all have our own way of telling our story and your character is no different.
How would your character tell their story if they could speak freely?
2. No-one exists in a vacuum
Most of us have some form of support network around us that we can call on for help when times get tough. Family, friends, colleagues are always (begrudgingly) on hand if we need them. We even have those who don’t necessarily want the best for us and will do all they can to hurt our efforts. Your characters have these too.
What is your characters’ support networks? Who are their closest friends/family members and why? Who are their enemies?
3. Goals and experiences
We all want something out of life, things we want to achieve, things we want to own. How we go about attaining these shapes who we are.
What are your characters’ goals, long- and short-term? What will they do to achieve them? How far will they go? How far is too far? Don’t confine yourself to the goals within the story you’re writing, think about their whole life.
4. Remember you’re unique
If everyone was the same, the world would be a very boring place. We all have our little habits and quirks that make us who we are. Some mask fear with humour, others are out-spoken to hide insecurities. I have colleagues who go through a precise morning ritual when they first arrive at their desks. All of these little traits add extra layers to our personalities. For instance, we all laugh at that crazy woman with the funny walk but if we look closer we’d see she walks that way to avoid the pavement cracks. If we took a moment to talk to her, she tell us that as a girl, she didn’t heed the warning and her mother suffered the consequences.
What are your characters’ quirks and mannerisms? Do they have a unique way of saying hello? What are the reasons behind all of these?
5. Be all that you can be
When we’re not out defeating the zombie hordes and saving the world from certain doom, we all have our day jobs and ways of relaxing. Your characters will also benefit from a life outside of the story.
What is your character’s occupation? What hobbies do they have? How do these impact on their actions and skill base?
Minimum character information
Fellow muse, Robyn LaRue,
is a character-obsessed nut…has produced a comprehensive worksheet for those dipping their toes into the murky waters of character creation. It’s free and you can download it here from her site. For those who don’t want to read (shame on you), we should know the following about our characters as a bare minimum:
- Age, gender, nationality, occupation
- Family, partner, close friends, workmates
- Desires, motives and fears
- Physical appearance
- Habits, mannerisms and unique vocabulary
The more you know about your characters, the more real they’ll feel. The days of one-dimensional archetypes are long gone, and good riddance. The “perfect” hero no longer excites us. We want to see flaws. Readers don’t just want to know that our characters are going down that pitch-black, blood-soaked staircase. They want to know details of the childhood trauma that caused their fear of the dark, their fear of blood and they expect you to know all about it.
I need to know everything about my main characters. It’s just not enough for me to say “oh, yeah…he tricked the guy into giving him is glasses” I need to know how he tricked him, what he said, what con he used. The information may never make it into the finished book but I HAVE TO know.
After all, the devil is in the detail.