My favorite thing about writing has to be creating characters. I love coming up with their backgrounds, figuring out what makes them tick, and throwing them into situations that are completely over their head. I thought I might share some of the tips and tricks that I find useful when it comes to making characters. Of course, there’s no end-all, be-all guide to creating characters; these are ideas that help me, and maybe will inspire you.
Start with a concept.
I always start with a concept for a character before anything else. For instance, my character Alexis was based on the idea of a “rough and tumble librarian”. He’s been through a few iterations before the final version I have today, but that original concept hasn’t changed from his earliest appearance as an RPG character to today. Once you have a concept, you can branch out from there and create fully-fleshed out characters.
Start asking yourself questions. For Alexis, I might ask, “What made him want to be a librarian?” “Does ‘rough and tumble’ mean he gets into fights? Does he break the rules?” and can go into smaller details, like, “What does he think about eReaders?”
Try playing with old tropes and figure out a way to breathe new life into them. Anyone can make a half-orc barbarian or an evil sorcerer. What if you flipped things on their heads? Give us a barbarian accountant, a Lawful Good necromancer, or a dendrophobic elf. Then figure out how they got that way.
Which brings me to my next point…
Your past helps shape who you are, so it’s important that you know just where your character is coming from.
It’s a lot of fun to put your characters through hell before their story even begins, and to have their motivations spurred on by some past tragedy. Maybe your character saw his parents get murdered outside the opera house, or maybe he ran away from home to escape abuse. Something bad has happened to him, which gives him time to whine and angst about it. Which is fine. Everyone needs to whine and angst sometimes.
Don’t get stuck on that, but use it to shape the character. For example, one of my characters had been abused by his father, and while he rarely talked about it, there were some indicators of what he had been through: feeling uncomfortable with being touched by others, and worrying about what he would be like if he ever became a father.
Remember that the good times are just as important as the bad times. A great experience can be just as important as a terrible one. Going with the above example, the most important moment of his life wasn’t when he left home, but when he met his best friend for the first time.
Backgrounds matter, but they don’t need to be over-the-top. Going back to Alexis, the two worst things to happen to him were getting in a car accident and his cousin dying. These two relatively common incidents have affected him even years after they’ve occurred.
I know how much fun it is to torture your characters, and give them horrible trauma for them to angst about later. But one thing to consider: life doesn’t necessarily have to have tragedy for it to be tragic, and good memories can be as powerful as bad ones.
Mary Sues aren’t ALL bad.
I’m sure every one of us has written at least one Mary Sue character. I know I certainly have. The main problem with Mary Sues isn’t that they’re strikingly beautiful, or have a tragic past, or are ungodly powerful. The problem is that they have all these traits all rolled up into one character. Sue characters often have some cool concept, which could make for an interesting character. However, she gets bogged down by all the other traits that make her perfect.
One example of mine is Echo, a character I first created when I was sixteen. Echo was one of the best runners on her track team, had lots of friends, a quirky personality, and even made the cold-hearted Solflame Knight fall in love with her. After winding up in a magical land, she spent most of her time jumping in front of swords to save someone she’d just met, and learning how to use her newfound powers, because she was also half-kitsune.
Most of that just made me roll my eyes and sigh, but there’s one idea in there that I rather liked: a human becoming partly a supernatural creature. It’d be a great jumping off point for a story and something that you can use to develop the rest of her character around.
“Steal the gem, not the crown,” Holly Lisle advises. Find something that intrigues you about that too-perfect character and build on that--but if she’s a fighter, she doesn’t need to be a singer as well. If her parents were murdered in front of her eyes, you really don’t need to add rape in her backstory to make her life more tragic. One “Sue” trait can be a good place to start. Too many, though, and readers will be delighted when she dies in a most dramatic fashion.
Draw from real life.
We’ve all heard the saying, “write what you know”. Think of events that have affected your life, and the lives of those around you, either positively or negatively. What effect did they have on people? How were they changed by them?
Using your own life story runs the risk of your character becoming a self-insert, which can lead to the slippery slope to Suedom. Many of my characters share some aspect of my life--but not the entirety of it. It’s fine to pick one or two things from your life that you think would fit the character; maybe it’s a hobby you enjoy or a personality quirk. But don’t pick everything.
This is where other people come in.
Here’s what I love about people: They’re weird. They’re strange and unique, and no two are exactly the same. Watch people. See what they talk about, what they think, what quirks they have. Maybe someone enjoys bookbinding, or bites their nails, or collects cacti. If you need inspiration for character traits, sometimes, you only need to look as far as the nearest mall or your gossipy next-door neighbor. Pay attention to what they have to say. You never know when you might find a gem in the rubble of conversation.
Characters need motivation.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” The desires of a character are what propel the story forward. These motivations don’t have to be complex or convoluted: Katniss wants to survive. Harry Potter wants to keep his friends safe. Westley wants to be with woman he loves. Those simple motivations propel great stories, and are ones that most everyone can relate to.
Sometimes you don’t need to delve any deeper than that. But other times, consider not just what your character wants, but why he wants it. Even something simple and straightforward can have deep meaning. Maybe what your character wants is to avenge the death of his father. Maybe he wants this because this was the only significant relationship this character had as a child. Maybe it’s because he was raised with a “might is right” philosophy. Maybe he’s violent at heart and uses the death of his father to justify his bloodlust. One familiar character trope--someone looking for revenge--allows you a lot of room to explore the character.
Characters need something to strive for. What is missing from their lives that they need so badly? Is it money, purpose, a missing pet? What lengths will they go to attain what it is they’re looking for?
Consider your character’s culture.
Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where it was apparent that the writer didn’t bother to do any research about the setting? Maybe it was shown with cringe-inducing stereotyping, or blatant ignorance as to how a character should have acted in a particular situation?
These are things you want to avoid.
Make sure you do your research about any place you’re not familiar with. A few minutes of Googling can help avoid a lot of moments like these. You can find out information on almost anything you plan on writing about. Taking that time can mean the difference between a stereotype and a fleshed out character.
Also, remember that there are cultures within cultures. I live in Upstate New York, in a small city, and have spent most of my life in small towns. Living in New York City would make my life vastly different. Would it be more fast-paced? More competitive? Would I still be shy if I were surrounded by people all the time?
Think of your own life. How have the places you’ve lived affected you? What do you think would be different about you if you grew up someplace else?
Your character will have biases.
As much as we might like to think differently, we all have our own prejudices and biases. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we act in a discriminatory way, but our thoughts and beliefs are influenced by our biases.
While creating a male character, I decided that he most likely holds sexist attitudes. He doesn’t manifest this by being disrespectful to women and telling them to get back in the kitchen, but he does display shades of benevolent sexism--the idea that women need to be cherished and protected. His intentions are good, but his actions can be unintentionally insulting.
Look at your own biases--they could be anything regarding race, gender, sexuality, religion, social class, and even much smaller things. Maybe your character doesn’t like cheerleaders, or farmers, or thinks that everyone she knows is a snob. How do those prejudices affect your character’s thoughts and feelings? How do they reconcile those feelings? Are they aware of their prejudices and want to change them, or are they happy to remain as they are?
Let them make bad choices.
Whether they’re heroes, villains, or the plucky comic relief, we care about our characters. Writers put a lot of time and effort into making their characters dynamic and fleshed out, and it’s easy to get attached. That’s a good thing--you should like the characters you’ve made.
But sometimes we get too close and don’t let our characters stand on their own. While we want our protagonist to be victorious and the antagonist to fail, we have to make sure that the road isn’t too smooth for our heroes. It’s easy to come up with external obstacles to stop them from reaching their goals. It’s more difficult to allow them to become the obstacle.
Conflict is what drives a story forward, and it keeps us watching or reading because we want to know what happens next. When a character makes a bad decision, she has to deal with the reason she made it (anger? Jealousy? Seemed like a good idea at the time?), the consequences of her choice, and the resolution. How does she solve problems that could have been avoided? Will she blame herself, or someone else? How will she react in a similar situation in the future?
A bad choice will take your story to interesting places, and helps explore how your characters handle challenges, especially ones they’ve brought upon themselves.
If you’ve ever grumbled that your characters aren’t listening to you, that’s a great sign--it means they’ve got a life of their own. Let your characters surprise you and take your story to unexpected places. And most of all, don’t forget to have fun with it!