An effective story is more than just an engaging plot. You have to create characters that your readers can connect with and that come alive on the page. Without compelling characters, you will struggle to craft a compelling story. This is one of a series of posts discussing ways to build multidimensional characters that are realistic and engaging. Today, I’ll talk about how to start creating those characters.
Depending on the story I’m trying to write, I almost always find myself starting with the characters, and then building stories around them. In some cases, it’s a simple idea: a girl who is able to do magic that she shouldn’t be able to do, a prophesied warrior who fails in their quest, a passenger on a spaceship who has to choose between sacrificing himself or his friend to monitor the statis systems keeping the rest of the passengers alive. I like character focused narratives, ones that center on how people react to the people, places, and events around them. That means I generally need strong characters, meaning characters that are realistic and easy to relate to.
Characters, for me, always start with their defining characteristics. I determine gender, race, and age first, then start fleshing them out. Depending on the setting (and you might want to check out my post on world building if you aren’t sure how to go about creating a setting) these three characteristics are going to be the main definers of your character. For example, let’s look at Ender from Ender’s Game. Ender is a young boy from Eros. Because he’s young, he trusts the adults around him. Because he’s a boy, he’s expected to be aggressive. And because he’s from Eros, he wants to join the International Fleet that’s headquartered on his home planet. Now, these points lead to a lot of the conflict that Ender is faced with, along with how he overcomes those expectations and disadvantages to be the politician and soldier he wants to be. If Ender were a girl, if he were older, or if he were from a different planet, the story would not fit him any more. So, when determining the age, gender, and race of your character, you need to think about how those things will change the story around them.
Once you determine these core identifiers, you can start extending your character. Are they kind of mean? Easy-going or tight-laced? Introvert or extrovert? Build the
personality piece by piece, then start fleshing out their background. Explain why they’re introverted or extroverted. If they’re mean, are there any people that are an exception to that rule? The more thought you put into your character and the more time you spend thinking about them as a real person, the better. Writers regularly talk about their characters not doing what the writer wants them to, and it’s because the character has been developed to the point that they’re like an actual human being. I’ve been writing Kim, the protagonist of Burner, since 2013, and she’s definitely become a person in her own right. Her personality is distinct and clear to me, in such a way that when I’m writing her, she can take me in different directions than other characters might. And because she has a life of her own, she’s understandable. People relate to her and her decisions, though they may disagree with some of them (no spoilers, though).
Ideally, when you’re done building your character, you’ll have made a whole person. Someone with wants and desires, fears and hopes, prejudices and blind spots. These elements can help influence your plot: if you know that your character has been hoping to find love their entire life, then you can very easily write a romance for them. Or, if you’re slightly sadistic (and I think most writers are, especially when it comes to their characters), write a missed romance. Either way, knowing what motivates your characters makes crafting a plot significantly easier.
There are a ton of templates online that you can use to lead your thought process through the creation of your character, but I think this one is pretty good. It starts with the basics, then gives you ample opportunity to build your character into a fully-realized person. But, as I’ve said time and time again, do what works for you. That form may be too detailed for you. Or it may not go into enough depth. I highly recommend googling for templates and finding whatever fits your needs best.
Once you’ve created your character, you’ll want to start thinking about their voice. In my next post about character creation, I’ll discuss how to find the voice of your character, and how to stay true to it throughout your writing process. I’ll see you all on Wednesday.