How often have you found yourself clapping a book shut because the plot was ruined by poorly-developed characters? They were shallow, one-dimensional, or erratic, and they finally drove you to divest yourself from the story. All fiction readers and writers alike know that nurturing and creating characters who could walk off the page is paramount. The best narrative is easily eroded by a weak cast, but creating characters who are compelling stay with a reader forever.
Easy to say, much more difficult to do.
Some authors are firmly in the “characters write themselves” camp, but most characters do not spring, Athena-like, from their creator’s head, fully formed. Sometimes the initial idea for creating characters does come from nowhere, but is generally not really flushed out enough to stand on its own. For most writers, creating characters in leading and supporting roles must be carefully developed and consistently portrayed, from start to finish. This means that unless you’ve dreamed up a complex, rich and complete cast of characters who can carry your story from page to a reader’s imagination, you have some prep work ahead of you.
Creating Characters: Before You Start Writing
Many writers suffer under the delusion that if the words don’t come right away or the character doesn’t immediately click, then it’s a story not meant to be told. While sometimes creating characters and plot twists can work better in a different story, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t draft outlines and profiles for creating characters. This involves preparation before you put pen to your surely-magnum opus.
Study human behavior. If you have a good grasp on what drives people, and what makes them choose actions that appear irrational on the surface, you have a better basis for creating characters. Familiarize yourself with some basic personality categories to keep your character consistent – able to grow and evolve, but with the same fundamental personality and voice. There are two popular personality-grouping theories: Myers Briggs and The Big Five.
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): uses four dichotomies to categorize people, for a total of sixteen personality-type groupings:
- Extraversion vs. Introversion
- Sensing vs. Intuition,
- Thinking vs. Feeling,
- Judgment vs. Perception
The Big Five (five factor model – FFM) personality traits:
- Openness to experience: inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious
- Conscientiousness: efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless
- Extraversion: outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved
- Agreeableness: friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached
- Neuroticism: sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident
You don’t have to agree with the reliability of these categories when creating characters whose relationships and choices make sense within their framework. Keeping a profile for a character will protect you from veering too far away from what feels right for that character to your reader.
Know your inspiration
When creating characters, writers do so entirely from their imagination or based on real people. Many characters are essentially composites of those the writer has met or learned about during their lifetime. Profiles are especially helpful when you’ve imagined a character, because your only other reference points depend on your own memory. If there is a distinctive quality about a character that you’ve lifted from someone in your life, take care to protect them from potentially damaging assumptions readers may make about the real person based on the character’s thoughts or actions.
Archetypes vs. stereotypes
Know what your character represents. Only a lazy writer resorts to stereotypes when creating characters – it’s easy, no deep development is needed – but just as stereotypes are shallow and ineffective in real life, readers do not connect with simple tropes in fiction. The exception, of course, is in satire. Otherwise, the blonde need not be insipid, and the glasses-wearer just might be a dropout.
Archetypes, on the other hand, have been the friends of authors for centuries. It is impossible to avoid them, as humorously explained by TV Tropes as “The Tropeless Tale.” So if you choose to embrace them, you should be aware of the standard characters. The Writing Cooperative’s Valeria Black has pointed out the typical lead archetypes and their corresponding dark sides:
- The Businessman is sharp, ambitious, and distant. His shadow is The Traitor.
- The Protector is a warrior, passionate, and impulsive. His shadow is The Thug.
- The Recluse is mysterious, a lone-wolf. His shadow is The Psychopath.
- The Fool is carefree and creative. His shadow is The Delinquent.
- The Casanova is a confident lady’s man. His shadow is The Seducer.
- The Revolutionary is purposeful and motivates through speeches. His shadow is The Vigilante.
- The Artist is intense and creative. His shadow is The Abuser.
- The King is the ruler and law-maker. His shadow is The Dictator.
- The Seductress is attention-seeking and desirable. Her shadow is The Femme Fatale.
- The Amazon is a protector and a fighter. Her shadow is The Vigilante.
- The Father’s Daughter rejects other women and her own femininity and finds success quickly. Her shadow is The Backstabber.
- The Matriarch is the provider, she is devoted, and demands respect. Her shadow is The Scorned Woman.
- The Nurturer is sacrificial and her identity is based on what she gives. Her shadow is The Over-Controlling Mother.
- The Maiden is innocent and optimistic. Her shadow is The Troubled Teen.
- The Mystic is mysterious and empathic. Her shadow is The Wolf-in-Sheep’s Clothing.
- The Martyr is purposeful and leads through example. Her shadow is The Destroyer.
Creating Characters: Flushing the Complete Character Out
While you want to have the personality and archetype/role profile set when creating charaters, that is not all that goes into creating a well-rounded agent of your story. Many authors end up using files for each character so that they do not contradict a point in a longer book or a series (many of us have read books in which a lead or supporting character changes eye color in the sequel, for instance). These profiles should include the following information:
- Name and background as it relates to the story.
- Personality: small quirks, strengths, weaknesses, ambition, wants and needs.
- Their agency, ability to surprise, personal conflict, and emotions.
- Their thought process and speaking style in dialogue.
- Their appearance.
- Their connection to other characters and the reader.
- Room to grow throughout the story.
One aspect of creating characters that is sometimes overlooked is making sure there is a “livability” about them. Your reader does not have to like a character, but they have to be able to stomach them for the entirety of the book. Most people are nuanced enough to not be 100% good or evil, so resist the urge to paint a character in those terms – either way, you’d end up creating characters no one wants to live with.
As song as they are “livable”, you have to be willing to create unlikable characters, possibly even an unlikable protagonist. Unlikable, but compelling, characters are commonplace in the classics. Consider Dorian Gray, Emma Bovary, and Hamlet, all well-known, irritating characters who are so well developed that you keep reading because despite not liking them. Book magazine listed the “100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900” in 2002 and the top three were Jay Gatsby, Holden Caufield, and Humbert Humbert. They are all flawed, often disturbing protagonists, but the reader sticks around to see what happens to them. “You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.” – John Rogers
… and stick to what naturally follows. A first person narrative should not read “my thick, golden tresses whipped around me and my emerald eyes flashed at the warning bell — I was going to be late for gym class.” That is ridiculous. Whichever point of view you decide to write from will have its advantages and limitations, so you should the one that will allow you to tell your story best.
Creating Characters: When You Write
Show, don’t tell
Don’t tell your reader that the protagonist is a super great hero. Show them by what he thinks, says, and does. Anton Chekhov said, “Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.” Actions speak louder than stream of consciousness, too!
Let bad things happen
Imagine a character who is involved with the conflicts in your story. Not a passive creature to whom things happen, a victim in a cruel world, but a person who makes a bad choice that comes back to bite them in an unfair, but on-balance-not-too-bad-world? One looks much more like real life than the other. When creating characters, you have to be willing to give your likable character conflict. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Keep your characters connected
Your cast doesn’t have to be a group of plucky best friends since preschool, but once they are in the same story, they have to stay connected somehow. Make sure that when you write their interactions and dialogue, you are staying true to how they relate to each other.
When creating characters, use your character profiles to ensure that you don’t lose your reader’s interest with character inconsistencies. It is especially important with lead characters that they have a distinct thought process and dialogue that carries throughout the book.
Write what you know
The best explanation of this is found in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island when Anne is talking to Mr. Harrison:
“I’d write of people and places like I knew, and I’d make my characters talk everyday English; and I’d let the sun rise and set in the usual quiet way without much fuss over the fact. If I had to have villains at all, I’d give them a chance, Anne – I’d give them a chance. There are some terrible bad men in the word, I suppose, but you’d have to go a long piece to find them…but most of us have got a little decency somewhere in us.”