There are many, many, books on creating decent characters, and we’re going to try to summarise character creation in a few brief study notes, so please keep in mind the limitations of what we’re doing here. We’ve distilled a few key points, rules of thumb and techniques but there is more – so much more.
You don’t need to go through all these stages for all your cameo characters, this is aimed at lain characters, who need to be flawed, with internal conflicts.
We’ll start with a broad brushstroke, then slowly fill in the detail and dig down into the character’s persona until we discover what really drives them, then we’ll keep adding spices and surprises until we have a fully formed, contradiction prone, fictional character with history, values and motivations.
Let’s get started!
Layer One: The gameshow introduction.
We’ll start by writing a gameshow style introduction for your character: a single sentence. This can be fairly flexible, here are a few examples.
- A depressed housewife whose closest friend is her little terrier.
- A geography teacher with sweaty armpits and lots of nicknames.
- A naive young prince with a good heart.
Once you’ve done that, move onto the next stage.
Layer Two: picking apart the overview
Now take each word or cluster of words in the gameshow introduction and ask and answer as many questions about it as you can think of, like this:
A depressed housewife whose closest friend is her little terrier.
Depressed – How does it manifest? Is she actually on medication? How long has this been going on? Does she confide in anyone about it?
Housewife – Does she have children? If so, how many? How big is her house? Where is her house? What does her husband do? Is it a loving marriage? Does she enjoy being a housewife? Is she a good housewife or a bad one? How long has she been a housewife?
Closest friend is her little terrier – What kind of terrier? How long has she had him? How did she get him? What do they do together? Are they ever apart?
A geography teacher with sweaty armpits and lots of nicknames.
Geography Teacher – Is he a good teacher? Did he always want to be a teacher? What age does he teach? What sort of school does he teach at? What sort of methods does he use? What sort of geography doe he teach?
Sweaty armpits – Why does he have sweaty armpits? Is it a medical problem? Does he wear too many layers of clothes (why?)? Do they smell? Does he exercise on the way to school?
Lots of nicknames – What are they? How many kids use them? Do the teachers use them as well? His wife (is he married?)?
A naive young prince with a good heart.
Naive – Why is he naive? Is it a lack of education? A lack of experience? Is he deliberately sheltered? Or is he simply a bit slow? Or maybe just optimistic about people?
Young – How old? Does he act young for his age?
Prince – Prince of where? Where is he in line to the throne? Does he have servants doign everything for him? Does he have brother to temper how well he’s treated? Is he being lined up for responsibility? Being groomed to be King?
Good heart – How does he show he has a good heart?
Layer Three: Inner Values and Mannerisms
It starts to get a bit trickier here, as you’re going to have to make more judgement calls. But bear with it, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Imagine you are a psychologist interviewing your character. You’re going to ask them a questions, then stubbornly keep asking then: Why? Why? Why? Until they really can’t go any further. At that point you’ll have found an inner value or trait of your character.
Then you can use that inner value to inspire a mannerism to go with it. That way your character’s mannerisms will feel genuine and not forced (hopefully).
Let me show you what I mean, we’ll start with our depressed housewife.
Why are you depressed?
Oh, I don’t know – there’s nothing to be happy about?
Oh, I just don’t have anything expect Archie.
Because my husband owns everything.
Because he earns the money, he’s always earned very well, and made a lot of money.
Well, he’s very smart, he worked hard at school and he works hard now.
He loves his work. It’s the most important thing in his life.
Now we’ve discovered something. She thinks her husband cares more about her work then about her. OK, it’s not exactly the most original inner value, but then humans often are quite stereotypical.
Speaking of which, this is a good point to say something about stereotypes. If you try to a create a character doesn’t follow any stereotypes (because stereotypes are unoriginal, man), not only will you find yourself fighting a losing battle, but if you succeed, what you end up with is likely to be a disjointed and jarring character. Stereotypes exist for a reason. The key is not to create a character that is completely original in every way, but to take a stereotype and twist it a bit, add flavour and uniqueness to it until you have something which feels like a real person, with depth.
If you think you’ve got it, go ahead and have a go.
Once you feel you’ve discovered something, take a different aspect and follow that one for a while. By following a different avenue, you’ll find out a different trait or opinion, for example, we may discover that her husband hates her little terrier, and this is a cause of conflict in their lives. Or that she’s actually terrible at housework, but makes a mean hot cross bun.
Layer Four: Enrichening Detail
OK, after that challenge, things are getting a bit more straightforward for a while. By answering a questionnaire from the point of view of a character, you can find out more about elements of their life that you haven’t thought about in detail before, building a more detailed, realistic person.
Here’s a questionnaire you can use:
- Nicknames –
- Face –
- Hair –
- Height and weight–
- Hands –
- Manner of speaking (accent, phrases etc) –
- Habits –
- Narrator’s opinion –
- How they react to strangers –
- How they react to friends, family –
- Who their friends are –
- Reaction to difficult situations, adversity –
- Obsessions –
- Hobbies –
- Family situation –
- Relationship situation –
- Nationality –
- Flashbacks –
- Contrasting with a different character –
- Social status –
- How they treat people better than them –
- How they treat people worse than them –
- Possessions –
- Job –
- Thoughts –
- Fears –
Layer Five: History
Finally, it can be very enlightening to write a full history of your character, all the way from babyhood to however they are now. By being forced to think about what family life was like, what their parents did, whether they had siblings, how they experienced school, etc, you can add a lot of realistic qualities to your character.
Write at least a paragraph about each of the following life stages of your character (until now – i.e. if they are a teenager, only do baby, child and teenager):
- Young Adult
- Middle Aged