While I’m between projects, it’s interesting to see what starts to bubble up in my creative mind. Sometimes it’s plot, sometimes it’s setting. Right now it happens to be character. For some reason, I’m getting wicked insults popping into my head in a new character voice.
Wicked dialogue does not a character make. I must craft one, and hopefully I will create one to suit these lines that my hindbrain is feeding me.
So, here are some notes on character creation.
When writing, you have to know your character pretty well before you start off. A lot of the discovery of who they are happens while you’re writing them, yes, but you need to have some idea of who they are at their core before you begin.
The trimmings can evolve as you go, and it’s quite thrilling when you discover parts of a character on the fly.
But who they are deep inside is yours to lay out and set in stone before the first time they grace your page.
It is a writer’s basic duty to lay out coherent characters. If the players in your story are unbelievable, that is to say, they are untrue and your audience picks up on it, you lose all credibility as a writer.
Your plot can be genius, your settings magnificent, and your prose delightful, but if your characters give your reader pause, you’ve failed.
This is a rare case when the converse of the rule is just as true: your plot can have some holes, your setting could be a little bland, and your prose might be a bit generic, but if your characters grab your audience, buddy you’re in the door.
My first draft of this post included some examples of this, but I thought it would be better for you to discover your own. Ask yourself, are there any stories that come to mind, films, TV shows, books, anything at all, where you forgave them a few mistakes because of their characters? When you excused a lame plot hole or some flat exposition, because you were being drawn onwards by the strength of the character?
We forgive a lot if the characters ring true.
So how do we go about making believable characters?
First let’s look at where we get aspects of the character from.
From life. “People watching” is a great way to spot things to stow away in your bag o’ writerly goodness. From the smallest gesture to the way someone stands, from their accent to their dress, you can take that and run with it. You can expand this into people you know, but there is a danger there. Tuckerizing someone as an injoke is one thing, basing whole characters off of people you know is entirely another. And I think very few writers would recommend it. Let’s keep the friends we have, eh? There are plenty of people yet to be invented that we can abuse.
A common mistake for new writers is to get hung up on names.
The name of your character is mostly unimportant.
Let me say that again.
You don’t need the name before you write the character.
Use a place holder name, and for godsakes, don’t wait until you have their perfect name before writing the story. That’s an excuse and you’re fooling yourself.
I’ve heard some people advocate changing character names every ten thousand words, or every few dozen pages, or every other chapter or whatever. The idea behind this is that we don’t want to get too attached to our characters- we need to be able to hurt them in brutal ways, and if you’re all precious about them, you’re going to have a hard time doing things that will make your work better.
So rename them. Figure it out later or as you go along.
I like to pick a name and generally stick with it, but I’ve often found myself at a loss for a name at the start of something, so I use placeholder names. Ctrl+F and replace is your friend. Don’t get precious. Names are unimportant.
But don’t be clever- stupid names that draw attention to you as the writer instead of keeping your audience in the work where they should be is something to avoid. If it doesn’t make sense in the context of the story, find something ‘less cool’.
I’ll do another post about how writers intrude on the story, but for the purpose of character creation, one of the big ones is naming them.
With that out of the way, onwards.
So where do characters come from? Life, yes, but also fiction.
Writers cannot ignore the thousands of years of story telling from cultures around the world, and all the myriad of characters that have already been created. There is nothing new under the sun, but we’re all beautiful unique snowflakes, right? So there should be characters left. There will always be characters left.
The archetypes are there and you have to be aware of them. Good writers get pretty familiar with maybe half a dozen archetypes, great writers have more. These skeletons can be helpful forming a basis for your characters. The specifics of their motivations, backgrounds, and surface details change, but these archetypes exist for a reason. Use them.
As you get more and more specific with a character, the closer you come to creating a character that already exists. It’s impossible to know every single story and every single character that’s ever been created, but this is where a sometimes overlooked aspect of creating comes into play: consuming.
You have to know what’s out there. What characters are in the popular culture right now? Are you inadvertently recreating them because they got under your skin without you realizing it?
One morning, I independently invented Dexter. Good thing I already knew about Dexter, or that could have gone on longer than it did. It was one of those “smack your forehead and laugh” moments. You can search the internet, ask friends, and check out TV Tropes.
Consuming media, literature, movies, TV shows, opera, whatever, is a vital part of the creation process. You cannot write in a vacuum.
Where else do characters come from?
This is very risky business. A lot of first-time writers write themselves as the main character. It’ll save you some time if you just listen when I say to NOT do that. (Other characters that are wasting your time: a writer, a writer struggling to ‘make it’, someone writing anything, especially in a coffee shop). I mean, I can’t tell you what to do… but know that agents and editors delete those stories without a second look as soon as they see those characters.
Of course, how do you write a character without putting yourself into them. I don’t know that it’s possible. Even the vilest of characters, those who I would be loathe to think I had even the slightest bit in common with, come from within me. And because I’m not just creating flat evil, as in, a bad guy who has no past and is evil personified for no reason, I know that they have motives, desires, and feelings.
Empathy is the strongest source of character creation.
Understanding why characters do what they do leads to crafting complexity into them, and this is the breath of life.
I’ll say it again. Empathy.
The best characters come from understanding. You craft their stories, and in doing so, delve into their pasts, their motivations, their thoughts and feelings.
Truly understanding a character will allow you to bring richness to their portrayal that will draw your audience in.
This seems like a good place to leave off, as this topic is rather dense. To recap:
Realistic characters are needed to tell your story. These characters come from many places: real life, people you know, characters that already exist, and yourself. Understanding your characters enables you to write them more convincingly. Understanding what characters already exist enables you to create new characters.
Well I hope this has been helpful. I do enjoy sharing my notes.
Until next time dear readers, thanks for stopping by.