Friday, January 16, 2015

Character Creation

Image courtesy of Akeeris at

So, let’s say you’ve had an awesome idea for a story.  You just have one problem: you don’t really know who your characters are.

Everyone’s creative processes are different, and often, different from project to project.  Some people come up with characters and then create a plot around them, while others come up with a plot and then create characters for it.  Some people have the idea hit them all at once. Either way, you have to create your characters. Unless you’re writing fan fiction, nobody will hand characters to you on a silver platter.  You have to sculpt them from the ground up.

Now, there are hundreds if not thousands of resources and recommendations regarding this topic, so my two bits really are just a spit in the ocean.

The first thing to remember with character creation is that your character is fluid.  You can change your character at any time.  Say, you’ve been writing your character as blonde but change your mind and want a redhead instead.  That’s fine.  Change it.  Need your character to be 25 instead of 21? Change it. Short instead of tall? Plump instead of slender? Robert instead of Joseph? Even male instead of female? Change it. You are not committed to the very first things you put down on paper.

But…what about character consistency? You might hear about this in literature classes, or maybe you’ve read about it.  Yes, your characters absolutely have to be consistent.  This is not an option. This just means they have to be consistent throughout the story, so if you do change Stephen into Stephanie halfway through your book, you have to go back and change every little thing to reflect that. (Unless your story is about a sex change operation, but you know that’s not what I’m talking about.)

So, yes, the character must always be consistent throughout the story, but the character him/her/itself is fluid. This is because you are the puppet master of the microcosm you’ve created. You don’t have to commit to anything. Simply remember that once you’ve made a change, the change has to be applied across the whole story – this is not an optional step.

The fact that character creation/design is fluid is an important thing to note, because I can almost guarantee you that your character will evolve and change from your initial plans as you write the story.  You’ll need to make changes, you’ll want to make changes, and this is totally okay. It is a pain, because when you change your character you have to rework literally everything you’ve written, but changing your character is, in many cases, necessary.

Additionally, please keep in mind that this reflects my creative process and is by no means the only way to do this. There are some things I feel more strongly about, but remember that none of this is written in stone.

Having gotten that out of the way, you need to start thinking about the fundamentals of your character.

Okay, Cassidy is five-foot-four with blonde hair and green eyes and she has a few freckles on her cheeks and she wears a size 8 US with a shoe size 10 US and she’s a little uncomfortable about how big her feet are –

No! Cut that crap out! These are, for the most part, SECONDARY considerations. This is not where you start when creating your character.  Well, I suppose you can, but this is a little like picking out serving dishes before you’ve even decided what to make for dinner.  You might get a little inspiration from the dishes, like we can get some inspiration for Cassidy’s personality based on her self-consciousness over shoe size, but in the long run, these attributes will be the most likely to change. Holding off on them for now might be best. (But, if you really want to start here, go for it.)

The first step in character creation, often times, is to ask “In what time period and place is this story set?” This is a bit like looking in the refrigerator to see what you have on hand before you start making dinner.  Why time period and place? If your story is set in Africa in the 1800s but your character acts like an American in the 2000s, you have a massive problem. Time period and region of origin are a huge part of how people define themselves and choose their behaviors.  If you’re a girl, you will have a significantly different understanding of your role as a woman in 2015 than a woman in 1915.  It will also be different based on whether you live in America or Papua New Guinea. (The same goes for fantasy worlds.)

Once you have a setting figured out, you need to decide on your character’s personality attributes. You may need to float around a bit in the process here, since if the character has a chronic illness, this will most likely affect his/her personality. So, this isn’t a hard and fast step.  None of these steps really are, as your character is totally fluid.  But these steps can help you stay on track. 

So, to establish personality attributes, first establish a baseline for your character.  This is your character’s wake-up-on-an-average-day behavior.  Are they diligent? Lazy? Optimistic? Morose? For an idea of what this might look like, try to imagine first how you would describe your average behavior, personality, moods, thought processes, etc.  Now, come up with descriptions that fit your character.  Keep in mind that if you are writing this down, a good trick is to use a pen, not a pencil. Strike out the things you change instead of erasing them. You never know – you might want to back-track.

Once baseline is established, explore your character’s extremes. How does your character behave when extremely elated? How do they behave under extreme duress?  All of these behaviors need to have some root in your character’s baseline. A very brave person will act differently under duress than a coward does. A lot of times, I like to establish extremes first, because that helps me choose their baseline behavior accordingly. (Not hard and fast steps, remember?)  

Now, you may pick a name for your character.

Wait…what? The name isn’t first???

Well, you can pick the name first, but keep in mind that names are a reflection of setting. A girl from the fantasy world of G’tharlubul probably won’t be named Betty.  A guy from 18th century Japan probably won’t be named Robert. An average white dude in 16th century England most likely won’t be named Tanaka. Conversely, in 21st century America, just about any name works, up to and including G’tharlubul, depending on how out-there the child’s parents are. (If your name is G’tharlubul, understand that I mean you no offense. Also: your parents named you G’tharlubul??????!!!!!! What’s your last name, Cthuluhu?)

Watch.  Now some person actually named G’tharlubul is going to leave me hate mail.

Ahem. Back on track.

Furthermore, names can often be symbolic. They don’t have to be, and they aren’t always, but they add a little something extra when they are. You can go with an ironic twist, like somebody who was born during winter being named ‘Summer,’ or you can go with something a little deeper. A woman who is trapped in servitude her whole life might be named Jenny.  At first brush, this might not mean anything to you, and if you look at what the name Jennifer means, it means ‘fair one.’ But, just like a female deer is called a doe, a female mule is called a jenny.  So, it’s subtle, but it’s a nice touch.

Once all of this is done, decide on the physical attributes of your character.  Keep in mind that certain physical attributes can affect personality, but a short guy doesn’t necessarily have to be insecure about it. Also, keep in mind that you probably won’t every actually tell people how tall your character is unless it’s relevant to the plot. However, you need to know so that you can write your character accurately.  

Character creation, at least as far I’m concerned, isn’t a tidy step-by-step process.  They make massive character checklists that you can download, and I’m sure that for some people, these are awesome tools. For me, character creation is a big page of random notes with lots of stuff crossed out, and then I finally emerge triumphant with a character that I am satisfied with.

If you want to learn more about good character creation, please check out Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.  It’s one of my go-to books, and he offers much more concise guidelines.

Do you think that this process is useful? Have you created characters before? What is your process, and do you currently like it? Share any thoughts or questions in the comments.

Also, I wrote this in a massive hurry, so if you find any major grammatical errors, it’s because I didn’t proofread this. Your tolerance and forgiveness is appreciated.

Did you find today’s post useful? Take a moment to share it on your favorite social network.

1 comment:

  1. This is great! I do like those checklists (and Dungeons & Dragons-style character sheets are excellent), but this is a really good process. I am definitely the characters-first type when it comes to writing, but my character-making processes vary all the time.