Hey readers! So, I’m starting a series on this blog in which I give writing/craft advice, covering various topics related to writing. As you can see, I’ve titled it “Writes and Crafts,” and I’m super excited about it. I asked via Twitter poll what topic my followers would most like to see covered, and the first winner ended up being character creation. Awesome, right? Character creation is one of my favorite parts of the novel-writing process. Shouldn’t I be overflowing with ideas? Shouldn’t I be giddy over the fact that this topic is the one people most want to see me cover first?
But as the votes started to build, I noticed I was hoping people wouldn’t choose this topic. Which didn’t make sense to me. Isn’t this my wheelhouse?
That’s the thing, though. Sometimes, it’s easiest to dish out advice related to something you’ve struggled with. Because at some point, you had to intentionally develop that skill, which meant reading tips on how to improve and implementing them until you got better. That’s how I feel about plotting, which I used to be dismal at. Character creation, on the other hand, has always come naturally to me. So it’s harder to talk about.
Luckily, I’ve spent some time thinking about this since I ran the poll, so I do have tips I can provide. Here goes!
Tip #1: Listen
Generally, when I start a story, one of two things comes to me first: a character or a setting. When my novels are still tiny seeds with barely any details attached to them, I usually describe them as “my story that takes place in [x] town or area” or “the story with the [x] character.” I am a character-driven writer, so I know that if a plot is going to form, I’m going to have to figure out my characters first. What they want. What they’ve been through. How they engage with their world. Everything else tends to follow from there. When I start a book, then, my first job is to listen.
I know this sounds…vague. “Listen to the character? What does that mean in practical terms? Didn’t you create the character?” Yes and no? Technically, the character came from my brain, but I didn’t create them–or at least, it doesn’t feel like I did. I didn’t put conscious effort into creating them. One day they were just there, in my head, either waiting to be noticed or hoping I would ignore them, depending on their personality and how urgent their story feels. Funnily enough, this interaction itself teaches me something about the character. If they’re reluctant to open up to me, like my most recent main character was, why is that? Maybe they’re introverted, or maybe, like my recent MC, they have a story that’s hard for them to tell. If they burst into my brain uninvited, personality gushing out of them in a way that can’t be contained, does that signal an extroverted character? Usually, it does, at least for me.
That’s another thing: this is not how it works for every writer. This is just how I’ve experienced character creation since I was 14 years old. These interactions with characters may feel completely foreign to you, and that’s okay–it just means your process is different. Hopefully, though, some pieces of the advice I give here can be applied to your way of doing things, whether that’s something you’ve figured out yet or not.
Anyway, once my character appears, I put work into stepping into their shoes. This can be done as I go about my normal day. As I observe my own world, I think, how would [x] character react to this? Would this be something they’d notice, or would their attention be turned elsewhere? While speaking, I listen to myself: is that a word they’d use? Would they use more academic language? More slang? If you notice the character would behave and react to everything more or less the same way you do, you might have to put some extra work into this character. Characters who exist as clones of their author tend to fall flat and suffer from poor characterization, particularly because everyone’s perception of themself tends to be skewed. It is much easier to develop a well-rounded character when you can view them objectively and without an overabundance of positive or negative bias. Even if you base a character on yourself, or on someone you know, I would recommend giving them enough traits that don’t belong to the real person in order to 1) create some distance/reduce bias and 2) make the character more unique (more on this later).
Tip #2: Take Steps To Avoid Flat “Role-Fillers”
As a character-driven writer, I would sure love it if every single character I needed for the story sprang effortlessly to life in my head and provided me with everything necessary to flesh them out. But inevitably, you’re gonna run into characters who must exist for plot reasons…and who you just can’t hear in your head, no matter how many corners of your mind you check. For example, in the fantasy series I wrote, my main character needed to have parents. To this day, they remain two of the flattest characters I’ve ever written, even after taking time to develop them and their relationship outside the text and round them out in revisions. They just never came naturally–and I suspect it’s because my main character simply needed parents, personalities be damned.
There are a few ways to combat this. One is to pay attention to which characters are loudest in your head and find ways to make them crucial to the plot. There were two side characters in my fantasy series who I became really…obsessed with (seriously, to this day, they’re my ultimate OTP, which, considering I created them, is the most self-involved thing ever). They had nothing to do with the main plot, though. So I found a way to make them not only relevant to the main plot, but indispensable. And it made both their story and the main story a lot more interesting.
Another tactic is to try to yank a compelling character out of them. Attempt the see-the-world-through-their-eyes thing. Fill out character surveys online. Play video games as if you are that character, even if it involves sucking at the game on purpose. Hunt down songs they might relate to. Write journal entries from their perspective, even if your book isn’t in first person and doesn’t include their POV (this can really help to find their voice). This can fail, like with my MC’s parents above. But sometimes, it really works–sometimes, a character who refused to appear in your head for months, maybe years, finally starts talking. I wrote the entire first book of my series before the three mentor characters, who existed out of necessity, found their voices and began to use them. Their backstories, greatest fears, biggest desires, etc. expanded way beyond the text, until I knew them so intimately that they became some of my favorite, most unique characters I’ve ever created. Not only did it make them easier to write in future books, but I was able to go back to book one and say, “Oh, no, they wouldn’t say this” or “Let’s add this in as a subtle detail that reveals a sliver of backstory.”
If all of this doesn’t work, you can always throw them out and write around them. In my most recent book, the plot was meant to revolve around my MC saving her boyfriend from danger. But as the story developed, the boyfriend just…wasn’t appearing. He sucked. There was no chemistry between them whatsoever, and for the plot to work, there needed to be. So I scrapped him and swapped the role with another, non-romantic character who meant something to my MC. I wasn’t even gonna give her a love interest anymore. But, lo and behold, a different character who I included in the story purely because she popped into my brain ended up being her love interest instead. Because my MC tapped on my shoulder and said, “Umm, I like her, actually. Can I kiss her?”
Tip #3: Be Intentional When Doling Out Traits – Especially Identity Markers
“Wait a second,” you might be saying. “Didn’t you say characters speak to you and reveal what they’re like? But then, above, you mentioned giving characters traits? Which is it?”
For me, it’s both. Sure, characters will come about naturally, but that has limits. They can only provide so much information about themselves. The rest, I have to put work into making up myself. But I never stop listening. If I come up with a trait and it really doesn’t work for them, I get rid of it.
I’ve talked about this before, but when doling out traits, I’m careful to give each character a handful of traits and experiences I can relate to and a handful of traits and experiences I can’t. This way, I can tap into what the character is feeling based on my own history having a trait or experience myself, but I can also open myself to new perspectives. When developing my MC for my fantasy series, I noticed I’d given her many traits that were similar to me–she loved reading, she was short, she was introverted. Again, cloning yourself and turning them into your MC is an easy trap for beginning writers to fall into, and I was aware of this. So I made her love math. I hate math. But it forced me to see the beauty in math and numbers, to consider why someone might enjoy it. I’m also a very decisive person, so I made her indecisive. This not only made her more interesting to write, but it also happened to add tension to the plot, which was a nice benefit.
You need to tread most carefully, though, when it comes to identity markers like race, sexuality, gender identity, disability status, weight, and economic status. With most characters, the earliest identity markers that come to me are race and weight, because I’m a very visual writer–I need to be able to see my characters in my head before I can write them. Because of this, I pay close attention to the traits I assign them related to those two markers. If my character is a black man, is my instinct to make the character a basketball player? Why? Is he the only character with this interest? If there are other black characters, do they happen to like basketball, too? If my character is fat, am I tempted to make them a dessert connoisseur? Is this playing into a stereotype?
Sometimes, it can help to combat this by subverting a stereotype. For instance, one of my main characters in my fantasy series is Japanese-American, and early on it was important to me that she not be fixated on her grades. But you have to be careful with this, too. Sometimes, subverting a stereotype can send the message that people of that group who do happen to fit that description are wrong or invalid, somehow. If you write a fat character who only eats smoothies and salads, that may give the impression that fat people who love cake and French fries are shameful, which isn’t the case.
When it comes to my characters, I usually let their personalities form naturally, which means learning about their sexuality, gender identity, disability status, and economic status later on. Sometimes, they end up changing. Guess what, I’m gonna say it again: be careful with this, too. You might have developed a character’s personality a certain way, changed one of their identity markers, and accidentally set them up to fulfill a harmful trope. I’ve run into this problem before. Let’s say you have a character who is a sexually promiscuous straight girl. Then you notice your entire cast of characters is straight, so you make her bisexual. Whoops: now you have a sexually promiscuous bisexual character, which is a hurtful stereotype that carries over into real life (many people, both straight and gay, are nervous about dating bisexuals because they’re convinced the person will cheat). Always keep this in mind.
Tip #4: Most Of This Creation Work Will Not End Up In Your Book’s Text
The above sentence may make it seem like much of this character creation work is a waste of time, but it’s not. Knowing more about your characters than appears in the text makes your story so much richer. You’ve probably experienced it yourself while reading–you can tell the difference between characters who jump off the page versus those who you couldn’t imagine living their life outside the narrative, because they only seem to exist for plot purposes. Odds are, the author spent time on this character and didn’t hesitate to develop them beyond what was strictly necessary for the story. Think of all those character backstories J.K. Rowling revealed (is revealing? Is she still doing this?) on Pottermore. She created those details long ago, which is one reason why her characters are so lifelike.
It can also benefit you in unexpected ways. While writing my most recent novel, there’s a late scene that takes place in a room one of the MC’s siblings used to spend a lot of time in. I needed set dressing for the room, but what? I could’ve focused on the political books in the room, since it’s been established that the character is interested in politics. But that’s the thing–it had already been plenty established, so while I did include this detail, it wasn’t enough. It didn’t teach us anything new about the character. I dug back into the notes I wrote when creating the character and remembered they had a passive interest in calligraphy. I decided, hey, maybe the last time they were in this room was when their calligraphy hobby began. So I scattered their desk with old calligraphy attempts, and boom. The reader now had further insight into who this character was, and I didn’t have to devote much page space to it at all.
I hope this post served as a good primer for how to create characters effectively! Have further questions on this topic, or wanna suggest what my next Writes and Crafts topic should be? Let me know in the comments!
Or: have a more long-form writing question that you want a direct answer to? Feel free to hop into my Tumblr ask box!
Thanks for reading!
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