Character creation is an important part of developing a story. It’s one of the key elements of fiction, right up there with plot and setting. A unique character can make a stale plot seem new again. Alternatively, an overused character type can drag down a brilliant plot. So what do we do? We plan. We carefully craft our characters before we start to write. Sometimes, before we even start to outline.
(Obviously not all characters are planned in advance–you’re not always able to plan for everything that may come up as you’re writing. And maybe pantsers don’t have any characters figured out before they start. Is that a thing? I don’t even know. If so, though, at some point, I would think they’d have to slow down and flesh out the characters that came as they wrote.)
For me, character creation can sometimes go hand-in-hand with the outlining. As I’m weaving the plot, the characters are being defined by what the story needs. Sometimes, an idea for a character is sharp in my head before I’ve even figure out what may ever happen to that character.
In my early writing, I wasn’t great at making various characters have their own distinctness. That doesn’t mean there were 5 of the same person, but with different names and genders, wandering around interacting and moving the plot forward. Rather, I seemed to have a general nice, friendly type of character and a general crabby, anti-social type of character. I noticed that a lot of my side characters almost mirrored the main character.
In the time since then, I’ve been more careful to give each character their own sense of being. It has been an important part of my current revision of “Pithea” to flesh out side characters who are actual people in my head, but don’t get a lot of “screen time,” so to speak. Just because they have small parts doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be as much themselves as I can make them in those parts.
There can be a question, though, of how to really craft your character into a real person. Character sheets are an obvious answer, and you can find different forms of those all over the place. I’ve tried that before, but I’ve realized I don’t care for them. For a while, I thought that if I couldn’t answer a question like, “What is your character’s philosophy on death?” it was because my characters weren’t deep enough. Obviously I needed to answer that to have a really good character. But the truth is, no matter how I answered, it felt silly. It felt forced. It just didn’t work for me. (Character sheets or profiles can be a great tool if it works for you. I’d never discourage anyone from doing it. I may even try it again someday. Maybe I just need the right template.)
To get to know my characters, give them their own voice, or discover why they are who they are, my favorite method is just writing. Write a scene unrelated to the plot, centered around the character in question, maybe even from the point-of-view of that character, even if the main story isn’t. Writing prompts can come in handy for something like this, if an idea doesn’t readily present itself. But the general idea is to write out a scene and let that character shine in their uniqueness, and it gives you a better feel for that character.
As I’ve been working on “Pithea” with my sisters, one of them defended a character that was meant to be disliked by other characters and readers alike. My sister said, “He’s tactless, but everything he says makes sense. Why does everyone else always jump on him? They’re all really mean to him.” I was shocked and confused. He was a bully! Rude! Horrible! But as I read through his parts in the story, I realized that she was right. He wasn’t the nicest guy, but the other characters reacted to the man I saw in my head, not the one on the page.
So I spent some time getting to know him. I started with the personality I wanted him to have and asked what in his life could have led him to be that way. Then I wrote out important points about his early life. Over the course of a couple days, I did some writing practice from his perspective. None of this would ever make it into the story, but it was important to me. I shared it with my editing-partner sisters so that they could understand how I saw him. Then I changed some of his parts in the story, based on the deeper understanding I have of him now.
One more thing–while I don’t fill out a pre-made character sheet, I do make sure to write down traits or other important notes about my characters that I realize along the way.
Plan for yourself: Think about any characters you may have that you feel are not very well developed. Or that you feel have confusing motivations. Consider why they are in the story in the first place, and what specific personality or outlook on life their role would require of them. Then go backwards from there and think through why that personality might develop in them. Does he look down on women because he had three older sisters who treated him harshly? Did she become a nurse because when she was younger, she remembered how her sick grandfather’s nurse had brightened his stay in the hospital?
Spend some time getting to know them. Fill out a character sheet if you like and haven’t already, but go further than that. Write more with them than you might plan to for your story. Write as them. How would they describe themselves? How do they see the world? What do they think of the main character? Put them into a conversation with someone else, about something important or just what to have for dinner. How do they talk, react, or move during the conversation?
Make sure to write down anything you learn about your character during this time, somewhere that you can easily refer back to it.
How do you get to know your characters? Do you have a character sheet template that you use for every one? Do you ever struggle to avoid copy+paste characters, or do you excel at creating unique individuals? How many times do the words “character” or “characters” appear in this post?