Characters are the backbone of any story. The same story can be read hundreds of times over, but people are going to remember the most dynamic characters.
Like with anything, character creation is a skill. It takes time and practice to get to any level of proficiency. No one is going to write a completely fully-fleshed-out-almost-life-like character their first time. It takes a lot of writing – and plenty of exploration of the character and their motivations.
These are merely examples of what I’ve found works best for me! I’d love to hear how your process works in the comment section! Or even on my Instagram!
Where to start
With characters being the cornerstone of every story, it can be a bit intimidating to get started. I’ve met more than a few writers who have come up with an entire world before thinking of their main character(s). I’ve met others who focus so entirely on one character, they struggle to build anything around them.
It’s easy to hyper-focus and get bogged down by the little things. I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t. Sometimes those concepts are worth soldiering through for and, sometimes, they’re better off lit on fire and thrown into the gutter.
During your creation process, I urge you to employ a Marie Kondo-esque strategy.
Edit, bin it, save it for later.
If there’s something worth holding onto: edit.
If it’s just not working out, no matter how hard you try: bin it.
If it’s just not working right now, but is far too cool to bin in entirely: save it for later.
First, let’s figure out the approach.
Option A) Build the character before the world.
|Your story and its development will likely be more character focused/driven||The world building can feel a bit lacking|
|It’s easy to decide a character arch: the natural progression from point A to point B||The story can feel a bit superficial, or a bit obvious|
|It is easier to establish supporting characters, or other main characters to complement the main character||It can start to feel like the universe, in its entirety, circles around this one character|
Option B) Build the world and then build the character.
|There is a foundation for the characters to be built into.||Sometimes characters and their storylines can be bogged down by too much lore|
|There may be built-in conflict already, allowing for a self-writing plot-line||The text might read more nebulously about the world than about the people in it|
|There’s plenty of options to diversify the characters within the story||It might feel like the writer played character dart board and slapped a bunch of random concepts into their text|
There are pros and cons to both. And, like most things when it comes to writing, it’s all a matter of personal preference. Over time, you’ll find a system that works best for you. It takes time to blend world-building and character creation together seamlessly.
Half the battle is even knowing that you’re fighting it. With these hang-ups and pitfalls in mind, it might be easier to navigate them altogether.
Once you’ve decided your approach, you can start brainstorming. Different strokes work for different folks. Some people find word clouds to be incredibly beneficial, while others find concepts easier to summon.
Some might find it easier to base our characters loosely off people we’ve met in the real world, seen in movies, television shows or read in books.
I, personally, take a blended approach.
Let’s say I have a friend who sings to her plants and knits sweaters for her pet piglets – I might create a doddering elderly woman who knits tuxedo coats for her parakeet and has a penchant for botany. More specifically, all things poisonous.
Look at that! We already have a base concept down. Let’s name her Enid.
(I may be moved to do a character write-up for Enid upon request. I find her quite fun already!)
Once a framework is established, you can start worrying about the finer details. Where were they born? What accolades did they pick up along the way? Who are they to the outside world versus who are they inside?
There are plenty of character creation sheets out there on the internet. Even a cursory google of DND sheets will bring you a cornucopia of options.
However, you’re here! So you may as well take a look at mine! These are for those of you who like to write things down on paper! I may make a digital version at a later date!
You can go as in depth as you’d like. I like to focus primarily on these areas:
- Personality: Positives, negatives, how they appear to the world around them, how they perceive themself, their “fatal flaw”
- History: The beginning, the middle, the here and now
- Skills and/or Powers
- Physical Appearance: Identifying marks (scars, tattoos), style of dress, general physical appearance and any outstanding features
- Relationships: How they are as friends, enemies, lovers, misc.
You can work in whatever order works best for you. Give yourself the grace you need to be creative. Things will come to you as they come. Fighting the process can lead to getting stuck or experiencing the dreaded Writer’s Block™.
Getting Into Their Head
Writing prompts, writing prompts, and writing prompts. The Google machine is very kind in its offerings. You can type in anything. “Sad writing prompts,” “angry writing prompts,” etc. The easiest way to get into their headspace is to put them in different scenarios.
Write short snippets to acclimate yourself to their voice. I call this ‘flavor text’. Just the bit of sprinkling to add on top of your… literary stirfry (it worked better in my head, but we’re keeping it).
It’s frequently said, and certainly hailed as true that we have no idea what we are capable of until we’re put into extraordinary situations. We can’t feasibly know how we would react unless we find ourselves in them. Which is why we want to put our characters in as many scenarios as possible. We want to know them inside and out. We want to hear their voices, clear as a bell in our head, “I would never do that, you numpty.” Or, at least that’s how I imagine Enid sounding.
You don’t necessarily need to write these scenarios out, either. Sometimes, they can be interesting thought experiments to help flesh out the pre-existing ideas you already have.
This approach is what will ultimately help you maintain continuity with your character. Or rather, a consistent voice. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a character’s break for the sake of forcing a plot point!
Think about it this way: you’ve seen your best friend go through ups, downs and all-arounds. You know when something is out of character for them. Treat your character like your best friend and join them on their merry-go-round!
There is no real science, formula or right way to create a character. Over time, with lots of practice, you’ll develop a system that works best for you. What matters most is allowing your creative process to work how it needs to.
It’s easy to maintain a white-knuckled grip on how we feel things should go. But when it comes to creative endeavors, things very seldom go the way you want them to. And sometimes, that can be a lot of fun!