I was asked a pretty good question recently. How do I build characters? Well, unfortunately it is not an easy question to answer. I wish I could give you information about this in a straight line, but it’s not as simple as telling you step by step how a character is formed. It’s like everything else about my story building: I couldn’t possibly stop to write down everything I decide as it happens, because sometimes the decisions come so fast into my head that I can’t put to words how it happened. One idea breeds another, I ask rapid questions to myself to narrow down choices and paths a character might take, and then there it is. This is going to be an attempt at letting you know a few of those things.
I have a friend who often asks me to help her when she thinks up a story idea. She says to me “I have this idea” and then she gives me a very brief description of the plot, tells me she doesn’t have a beginning or an end, and then says “Well, my character is a girl and that’s all I know. Help me.” …she doesn’t get much from me. I can’t work magic. If that’s all that you have, this post may not help you much. You have to have some kind of starting point.
Pointer 1: Starting
Well, if you have decided to write a story, then you were probably inspired by something, and if you have a story idea, then you probably have an idea of what your character is, even if your current story description is “a girl does (blank)”. So, it’s a girl. You might already know what she looks like. Maybe you have no clue. Both of these are alright. You have to start somewhere, but there is no rule about where the starting place is. Maybe you’ve been inspired by a character that already exists.That’s fine too.
Example: Let’s say I want to write a story that’s kind of like Peter Pan, and I choose for my main character to be like Wendy. I have a base in this case, but she can still be whatever I want, and I have to find her out. I like to think that characters are discovered instead of created.
Pointer 2: Ask yourself A LOT of questions
And I mean, a lot! That’s how I’m so thorough with everything. If you know absolutely nothing about your character, start with basic questions. Write them down if you want. How old is your character? What sort of world do they live in? What class of society are they? What might the character’s role in the plot be? Even if you only have a general idea of what the answers are, it will help you narrow down what you want.
Example: My character is Wren (which is a big leap to say that she has a name. I do not always name them first): Since I have been building backward, I already know who my characters are, mostly, but Wren is not Wendy, so I still have to do some building. Let’s make a decision about her. Because of the plot, I know she is going to Nevermor eventually, but I don’t know what her life is like before that. My question is: what is her life like pre-Nevermor? Well, what best serves my purpose? I review my world rules for Nevermor, which state that going to Nevermor is born from a desire to escape one’s life. So, Wren can’t be happy with her life. So do I want to make her a spoiled, petted girl who is upset because she thinks she’s getting older when she looks at herself in the mirror and soon she won’t be able to find a husband because of her aging? No, let’s give her some real worries. She has no parents. Her life is bad – bad enough that she really wants out – and not just because some annoying suitor is trying to propose. What’s the time period? How might her life be if she is an orphan struggling to keep her family together in London in the 1800s? She lives in an orphanage. She works in a factory where child labor is the norm. She worries about her brothers growing up in this life. What effect will this sort of life have on her personality? She’s not quite so haughty now, is she? It goes on and on. Build build build!
Pointer Three: Become the Character
I believe that some degree of natural talent is important for writing. Not everyone can do it well. I feel like I have a natural talent for this kind of thing. I have this ability (whether or not it’s healthy) to have these characters living in my head. I can feel what they feel. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is something like actors have when they get into a role. I become my characters, and I think that’s very important for what I do.
I know that some people base their characters on people that they know. They take traits and life experiences from others. I don’t do that. It’s possible that I pick up a tidbit from someone that know, but mostly I draw from myself – but my characters are not me. I’ve also talked to people who always write about themselves, like every main character they have is them. I don’t do that either. I’m so boring that I want my characters to be as far from me as possible, but they still have to be close enough that I can understand their motives and feelings. It is okay, however, if you do those things I mentioned. Ever writer is different…but if your main character is always you, won’t all your main characters be the same?
Pointer 4: Do let the events in your story have an effect on your characters.
Let’s say that down the line in your plot, you want to have the character’s house burn down, and they are really upset at that point, but actually in the chapter before, you had the father yell at the daughter about not letting her go away to college, and somehow the house burning is more significant. She’s free because of it. Maybe she’s happy now! Go with it! So, you changed the character and the story. That’s not a bad thing. It is good to let characters change. The plot had an impact on them and they became different.
One thing I always try to do is give all of my important characters (especially my main character) a personal connection with the storyline, even if they don’t know it. So, the sky is falling, and this one character takes it on herself to warn everyone (as if they can’t tell that the sky is falling, sheesh) But why is this character important? Why should we care that this is the MAIN character? Maybe there is more to her than we see. Maybe we don’t even know that it was something she did that caused the sky to fall! Or maybe you just need a character with her sort of personality to view the story through. Maybe she’s seriously naive.
Example: One of the most useless characters I have read about recently has been Bella Swan (sorry fans). Nothing annoys me worse than a character that is only there to discover the real story. That’s probably why I hated my Wendy the first time, but even Bella is connected to the plot(eh). She has that thing where she can’t have her thoughts read and junk. She does have a connection to the overall story, at the end of the day – though maybe not the end of the first book…
Pointer 6: Know how the character feels about the other characters
This is part of building too. Past issues and baggage have a large bearing on what the character is. Ever tried to write something and you know that two characters are SUPPOSED to get together but you just can’t get them together? That’s because the relationship doesn’t seem believable to you. Or maybe these two characters hate each other but you can’t make them fight? (That stuff comes down to what I said about natural talent. You can’t force two characters to be in love if they aren’t, and a person like me can feel this. I’m not sure that everyone is able to do it this way.
Example: Wren’s feelings about her brothers have a large bearing on actions in the story, though it could be possible that one of them might annoy her so many times that she might give up on him…or maybe she would never do that. I have to go with what I feel because I KNOW her now.
Pointer 7: Know what the character looks like.
At least pick general stuff, like eye and hair color, skin color, body type… If your character has purple hair, then they have purple hair! Who knows, maybe later you can think up a very cool reason for why they do! I’ve said this before, but I find that it really works for me to pick an actor or celebrity to represent my character. Even if you really didn’t mean for them to be that person, it will give you a starting point. It helps you know what they look like and see the small details of their appearance. Just pick someone. You don’t have to know who they are or be a fan. If the first one you pick isn’t working for you, try another. I’ve changed up during stories before. Sometimes a character won’t be going well for me and then I put another face with them and suddenly they come alive! I think picking a character model really helps keep mine rooted so that the character isn’t floating all over the place. If you pick an actor, watch a movie they are in and see their facial expressions, their mannerisms. This helps describe them in the story as you talk about them.
Pointer 8: Name your character (obviously) but don’t fight with names for too long.
It doesn’t matter if you can’t find the perfect name with the absolutely perfect meaning from babynames.com or wherever you hunt. I rarely look there myself. Sometimes I do if I get stumped, but most of my character names come easily, because I just let them stick. Sometimes even a name like Billy Bob can work, even if it’s not the most beautiful, poetic name there ever was. If that is what your gut is telling you, don’t fight it. Maybe it’s an old family name. Maybe the character hates it and that’s part of the story. …in addition to this, I also want to add that spelling names strangely or giving your character a name that can’t be pronounced is just, well, kinda silly. I can’t say I haven’t done it, but if you don’t want to constantly be correcting your fans, stick with something they can read. There is a difference between unique and obnoxious.
Pointer 9: Give your character some quirks.
Sometimes this happens without you having to try. Maybe a character has a habit of pushing up on his glasses, or crossing his arms, or rolling his eyes. See them doing this and sometimes they’ll keep doing it as you think about them more.
Hmmm…I guess those are just a few things that I can think of… If you have any other specific questions, feel free to ask.
Along with some of the serious things I do, there are a few quirky things that help.
DO read your dialogue out loud! Pretend you’re reading to a kid at bedtime and DO use voices! Even if you don’t sound like the character, it’ll help you hear the tone of voice that the character is using and that can help you map out the conversation.
Take a break and listen to music! I have come up with some seriously good ideas for scenes by listening to music. Also, lyrics inspire me. There might be a small snippet of a song that doesn’t even mean how I interpret it, but it will send me off in an entirely new direction.
Here is a big writing secret that I’m sure others have said before, but it’s very true: Make rules for yourself, and then break them. You can’t approach writing like it has an instruction manual. The creative process is all over the place! It happens fast and then it’s there and you don’t know how it got there but then you add and build and then it’s bigger! …so don’t stress and don’t forget that it’s whatever you want it to be, and that you’re doing it because it’s FUN!
I hope you can forgive how jumbled this post was. If you think it’s all over the place, I can only hope you think I’m a super genius who just can’t put all their awesome thoughts in order. 😛