So, we’ve gone over setting, and we’ve gone over plot. What comes next? The most important part of a story, of course! At least, the most important part to me.
It’s time for us to talk about characters: the actual figures who will be populating your fictional world and playing out the narrative you’ve written for them. I consider myself a character-driven storyteller, and I’ve found that characters are potentially even more essential to a great story than plot. A generic plot can be kept afloat by strong, compelling characters that the reader wants to learn more about. On the flip side, weak and uninteresting characters can spell doom for a well-crafted, intricate plot. So how does a writer create the best characters possible?
Back to Basics
Before we can get into the nuts and bolts of building a character, we must first decide what type of character we want or need to have. Or rather, what archetype. This may seem like a scary word at first: it brings to mind the concept of a blueprint or formula, and we don’t want our characters to be formulaic. We want them to stand out! And they will, but first, you need to know what role they fill in your larger narrative.
Merriam Webster defines the word archetype as “the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies.” When we’re talking about characters, an archetype is a vaguely defined figure with a specific set of recognizable traits. Here we’re talking about the fresh-faced hero, the mentor, the ingenue or the femme fatale. It’s a character broken down to their most simple and essential components, the ones which often indicate what that character’s role is in the narrative as a whole. The mentor’s role is to impart wisdom to the hero, the everyman’s role is to be a relatable figure for the audience, and so on. One of your first steps for creating a great character is figuring out which archetype they fit best, or which one you want to emulate. That will give you a better idea of who they are.
Starting At the Core
You can use archetypes as a guide when you’re just starting out, but you can’t stop there. You’ll just end up with a flat character otherwise. The next step in the character creation process is to learn what makes your character unique, and you’ll do that by starting with their innermost wants and needs.
I’ve seen so many character templates on the internet that encourage you to start with your character’s external appearance and leave the psychological stuff/personality traits for later. After years of trial and error, I figured out that this is a rather backward way of approaching the creation process. Before you can know what a character looks like, you need to know who they are on a deep, intimate level. The best guidelines I’ve found for how to write strong characters always start with the simple question of “What does this character want?” The Snowflake Method for outlining makes you start the character process by defining each character’s ambition, or what they want out of life in a general sense. Then you narrow your focus by determining the character’s storygoal, or their specific plan within the narrative for accomplishing their ambition. In Save The Cat! Writes a Novel, characters are first defined by three things: the problems in their life that need fixing, what they believe will fix those problems, and what they actually need in order to fix those problems. By defining what a character wants and needs and how they plan to go about getting those things, you’ve got the makings of a character you can build a full narrative around.
What Makes You Different?
Now that you’ve got your foundations, you can add your details and embellishments. This is the part of the creation process where you make your character, well, yours. It may not be the most important step to having a functional character at the center of your story, but it’s definitely the most fun part and the one that will help your readers fall in love with these people you’ve dreamed up. At this point, fill in the information about what your character looks like, what they like and dislike, their strengths and quirks and insecurities. Give them a story: not the story you’re going to write for them, but the story they’ve been living beforehand. The best characters an author can make are the ones who feel like they’ve existed long before they set out on whatever journey the author has prepared for them.
I think the best part of this process is the total lack of limitations you have on what you can create. It’s a little bit like worldbuilding on a much smaller scale. You can pull inspiration from a variety of sources — books, film, television, art, music — to create a character of any race, gender or even species you like. What’s really important here is that you create something you’re comfortable with and make it stand out as a unique creation, something which is set apart from the characters that have come before.
Go back to your archetypes for a bit. Think of the various characters in media who fit the same archetype as your character, the ones where a critic could conceivably say “You’re just ripping off Character X from Story Y!” Now take a look at them all and ask yourself this question: “What makes my character different from these other guys?” It doesn’t have to be some huge difference, but it should be something noticeable. When the whole creation process is more or less complete — it’s never 100% complete, not really — you should be able to see something of yourself in the character you’ve made. That doesn’t necessarily mean they should be based on your own personality. Instead, it means your characters should reflect your creative style and be well-suited for the world and narrative you’ve got. You can’t stick a piece from someone else’s puzzle into the puzzle you’ve designed and expect it to fit perfectly. You have to shape the block of wood until it’s the piece you need.
Journey Into Headspace
You can have a list of every conceivable quirk and tidbit about your character, but you can’t truly know them until you’ve lived with them. It’s time you took them out for a few test drives.
First, make up a scenario. It doesn’t have to be a scenario specific to your story, or even the world your story takes place in. It can be something like “Imagine your character’s reaction to failing a math test” or “Imagine your character being stuck in line at Starbucks.” These can be as elaborate or as mundane as you wish. There are plenty of websites and blogs that offer these types of prompts. Try searching for “character writing exercises” online or something similar, and you’ll find a bunch.
Now, start writing out different situations and scenarios while thinking as your character. They don’t have to be very long or detailed, just a few sentences will do. What’s important is that you learn something about your character when you complete them. It’s best to relax and go with your first instincts about what feels appropriate for a certain character. Sometimes, you’ll discover that what feels right may not be what you initially planned for the character, and that they want to head down a different path. That’s good! Moments like these are what the scenario exercises are meant for. It’s all about getting to know your characters. Once they come alive for you, they’ll come alive for your readers.
A story can be made or broken by whether or not it has strong characters. An author should be able to identify what space each character occupies in the narrative and also how the character makes each space their own. Writing exercises and prompts for various scenarios can help in developing a character further and showing how they react in different environments. Once an author is aware of how their characters are wired and why they work, getting the readers to love them will be that much easier.
I’m planning to have my next post be a book review, so expect to see that pretty soon. Bye for now!