10 tips for creating great characters
Are you one of those people who cry in every movie? I never used to be, but over the years as I have developed my writing and improved in my character design, I have found that I now cry in just about every sad or happy scene in films or on TV. I used to be worried about this. It’s a little bit nuts right? I mean, I even cried in the Chipmunk Adventure (an animated movie from the 90s) as my sisters are always fond of reminding anyone who will listen. But over time I realised that it was this empathy for the characters, which was growing within me the more I wrote myself, that was helping me to understand what it was that went into creating a great character. It’s not just the outer shell. For a character to be truly great you need to understand their motivations, their reactions, their place in the world and how they behave within this world, and also how that world responds around them. So here are my hints for creating a wonderful, enlivening and engaging character.
1: Create a basic character outline
Who is this creature (human or otherwise)? What is there name? What do they look like? At this stage you don’t have to go into too much detail, we'll use the next steps below to flesh them out more.
Now you have the physical appearance and name as a framework, you’ll want to give your character a personality, which will in turn drive their actions throughout your story. This can be anything from their moral code to their taste in music and movies, but it'll make it easier for you to write for them as you can refer back to this and ask yourself: What would ____ do in this situation? Would ____ really do something like that?
Once you have body and mind, you need to give your character a voice. How do they talk? How do they sound? Do they have an accent? This will be in part determined by the character’s back story (see #4), but giving the character a vocal presence will help your craft conversations between characters as you’ll be able to sound these interactions out in your head. This in turn will make your conversations seem more natural and engaging.
Time to create a history for your character. Though you may or may not mention this much in your actual story (it depends how far back you go, for instance are you starting the story at your character’s birth?), you'll probably need to allude to it at the very least. Where are they from? Why are they here? What led them to this current situation? It can even just be one sentence, but this piece of the puzzle will give your character depth and purpose, and will make their actions and behaviour understandable and believable. And, as mentioned above, it may also determine the way your character sounds and speaks.
5: Ambitions - what do they want?
Aha - now we want to add a bit more of a psychological element. What is your character trying to achieve throughout the story? What is their motivation to action? Are they a social climber who craves power and prestige? Do they need money? Are they tortured by events in their past, discovered in their backstory? Are they fighting for survival? Think about what it is your character wants - and then you can use this as motivation as they move through your story. Even if they simply want to be left alone, that is still a goal!
Just as you have your favourite pair of boots, sneakers, t-shirt, a jacket, or whatever, so should your character have a particular style. Though in all honesty, unless you are writing a Brett Easton Ellis Psycho type novel, you don’t have to go into explicit detail. Rather, you just want to set the scene for your readers so they know how your character looks, and it'll help them visualise them in the various situations they will face.
7: Accessories and weapons
Throughout the original Star Wars trilogy, Han Solo has his trusty Blaster. In my book, Thirteen Bones, the pirate girl Miss Blimey has a beautiful, jewelled cutlass given to her by her father, and her first mate, Betty hates Veronica, wears an aviator cap that she adores. Treasured items can help shape your character and can be used as triggers, or drivers for your story. They can also help to define your character. Why do they have these things? Where did they come from? Do they add weight to your story?
Throughout your story, unless your character is living in a vacuum, they will surely interact with other characters and develop different types of relationships - be they friendships, romantic entanglements, conflicts or whatever. So, how do these affect your character? How do they react to them? How do they influence the behaviour of your character? Do they help your character to evolve?
OK, so now you’ve got your character fleshed out. You know who they are, where they came from, that sort of thing. But where are they now? Where do they live? What is their house or apartment like? Or do they live in a spaceship? On a far-off planet? While some of this will form part of their back story, where they are at this current point in time, in your story, will also shape how they react and behave. The decisions they make.
10: You’re writing all this down right?
Just checking, because writing down all your character's traits and influences is so important. Trust me, you’ll want to refer to them later and it'll help you keep track of your character/s as they develop. Especially if they have a complicated backstory, or if you have quite a few players in your narrative. I learnt the hard way, so you don’t have too. Don’t try to keep track of everyone and everything in your head alone. It’ll get pretty crowded in there pretty quickly, and you don’t want to end up crossing the streams.