“Where do your characters come from?”
It’s a question many authors are asked, and each one has a different answer. Some characters are based on a single individual, while others are a collection of several. Some characters are slowly discovered through painstaking work, while others appear fully realized in a dream. Some characters appear in the front of an author’s mind and demand to tell their story, while others must be drawn out of hiding. Yet, as disparate as all these “births” are, not one of them is the wrong, right, better, or worse to build a character.
For the sake of this article, let’s say no characters have worked their way into your dreams and no one is knocking on your eardrum demanding your attention. Let’s say that you know you have a character lurking in your subconscious, but they haven’t come out of hiding yet. How do you draw them out?
But I want to preface this with the acknowledgement that this is both a variation and a generalization of the technique I use myself. It may not work for everyone, so feel free to adapt where necessary. Also, at the end of the article I have included a template on which to keep all character information organized. Read the article first, and then use the tips to fill in the template.
The thing to start with is the overall feel and personality of the character. Are they strong? Independent? Stubborn? Weak-willed? Subservient? Ingratiating? Create a list (as long or short as you need) of dominant, important, influential, but general characteristics. Once you’re satisfied with your list, look carefully at the personality you’ve built. You want to steer clear of stereotypical, and this is where it’s easiest to catch. Watch for groupings of traits that are archetypal and overused like “tall, dark, and handsome.” Think about the character you are building and make sure you give them something unique, something that makes them different from all the other tall, dark and handsome heroes—a fear of balloons, an obsessive personality, a penchant for French bread—then, figure out where in your story this character fits.
Is this a main player, one who isn’t willing to wait for the action of the story to come to them? Is this someone who waits on the sidelines for the perfect moment to act? Or, is this someone who will only get involved if they’re dragged in by someone else? Whatever the case, knowing this can help you figure out the part this character will play.
Once you’ve developed your character’s personality, it’s time to look at why they’re like that. What helped develop that arrogance? Why are they shy? What made them scared of heights? Information like this may or may not come into your story, but it will give you a deeper understanding of your character’s internal motivations—what drives them, what scares them, and what they truly want out of life. This kind of development will also give you a window to not only how your character would naturally react in a particular situation, but why.
Next, move out of their head and build the more superficial aspects of character. This is where you develop physical appearance (height, weight, eye color, hair color, etc.), distinguishing marks (scars, deformities, injuries, etc.), and the all important, but sometimes daunting, task of naming them. Since physical appearance and distinguishing marks are incredibly subjective and dependent, I will jump directly to naming.
How you go about finding character names depends on the kind of story you’re writing. If you’re working on a sci-fi/fantasy novel, you may want to create original names that fit the society you have built. There are several ways to do this: Buy a baby name book, pick a unique name, and alter it, string letters together in different combinations until you find something you like, or build a language and use it to create interesting, original, appropriate, and structured names. If writing a fantasy and choosing any of these methods, you won’t have to worry about something that plagues writers of mainstream fiction: name associations.
Most people I know have said the following at least once: “I’ve just never met someone named (fill in name here) that I liked.” Personally, there are a few names that carry this kind of stigma, and I know that I would never be able to use those names for a character without becoming biased against that character. Now, there is no possible way to guard against this kind of association. You can’t guarantee that the name you choose won’t be a name someone else hates—you’d give yourself an aneurism trying—but you can be aware of general preconceptions some kinds of names carry with them. Chad, Ethel, Bert, Missy—for most people, names like these conjure general stereotypes like jock, old-fashioned, geek, or cheerleader. Once you recognize this, though, you can use it to your advantage. Maybe you have a boy named Bartholomew Anderson Winston III and, even though he’s athletic and intelligent, he’s shy and depressed because kids constantly picked on his name growing up. Maybe your character was named after a very important family member and is very protective of their name. Maybe the name everyone calls them is one they chose for themselves to fit the type of person they wish they were or are pretending to be. A name can be a very powerful thing.
Why go to all this trouble, though? Why can’t you just pick a name you like, give them a pretty face, write a story, and see what happens? For several reasons, most of which revolve around the reader’s perception of your character’s humanity. People aren’t perfect. (I’ll elaborate on this in the next article.)People have dimensions. Certain sides of a person’s personality only come out around certain people. Others are hidden from everyone. Humans are just like that.
A person’s dimensions developed from somewhere. It is rare that someone develops a habit for no reason. Maybe they started dying their hair because someone told them their natural one looked hideous with their complexion, but now they don’t even remember what their natural color is. And maybe they started biting their nails because they broke often, but now it’s an inescapable nervous habit. Maybe a teenage girl’s eating disorder started from an offhand comment her old dance teacher once made, but now no one can convince her she doesn’t resemble an elephant. Even if the person themselves doesn’t remember why they started doing something, or thinking a certain way, it all had to start somewhere.
Taking the time to fully develop and understand your characters helps readers feel as though they’re reading about real people because, to you, they will be. Besides, I can promise that if you see your characters as anything less than human, you won’t be able to convince anyone else that they’re anything but words on a page.
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