Today, I’m going to talk about creating characters.
As a fiction writer, your characters are arguably the most important aspect of your writing. (After all, a plot isn’t going anywhere without someone to move it.) Whether you call them characters, figments, or simply the voices in your head, they should be as real as possible. If they’re flat or uninspiring, it had better be on purpose and for plot reasons.
I know of a few places to start when trying to invent a character; today I’m going to talk about three.
First, you can start with a name. Many names will give you a specific image when you hear them. Sally and Joe are normal, everyday people. Zane and Esperanza are exciting and perhaps slightly foreign. Kyinzarah and Tinuviel clearly belong in a fantasy setting. Pick a name that gives you the right impression, then go from there. If you have an impression, you have the beginnings of a personality.
Second, you can start with an appearance. Sometimes, a character will show up in your head complete with eye color, costume, and interesting hairstyle. Treasure those times. The rest of the time, you can pick some detail of appearance and go from that. For example, a girl with ginger hair. When you picture her, what comes to mind? Probably a stereotype, which you can either use or disregard. The important thing is, you have a start.
Third, you can start with a personality trait. This is especially helpful if you need a certain type of character, like a foil for your lead. Just think about what kind of person you want – serious, playful, etc. – and make that their center. (Both name and appearance should match that center, unless you’re going for irony.) Once you’ve got a basic personality idea, work from there. For example, a serious person will take more care with their appearance than a more relaxed personality would.
So, now that you have a beginning, let’s expand.
One of the most helpful tools I’ve come across for developing characters is the character questionnaire. The following list (courtesy of Gail Carson Levine’s book Writing Magic) is a great place to start, but feel free to add or discard questions as it suits your needs.
Nickname, if any:
Kind of being (human, animal, extraterrestrial, fantasy or fairy-tale creature):
Occupation, if applicable:
Describe his/her room:
Way of speaking:
Physical characteristics (posture, gestures, attitude):
Items in his/her pockets or backpack or purse:
Talents, abilities, or powers:
Relationships (how (s)he is with other people):
What (s)he wants more than anything else:
Although I hope this list is as helpful to you as it has been to me, when it comes down to it, the best way to find out more about a character is to write them. Oftentimes the most realistic quirks are the ones that show up when you’re not looking for them.
When your characters start surprising even you, you know you’ve done your job well. When they start disobeying your well-meaning orders… congratulations! Your characters are behaving like real people. Try your best to keep them on track, but don’t be afraid to let them venture outside the script. Best case scenario, you get some interesting and useful content. Worst case scenario, you get to laugh at them for whatever lunacy they’ve gotten themselves into.
With any luck, yours will be more cooperative than mine.