A friend asked me: “How do you build characters?”
Wow, that’s not a question I can answer in a simple sentence. Not just because I tend to ramble, either. (Speaking of which, brace yourselves.)
This is a subject that I enjoy mulling over, being a creator of countless characters. Many of them go to waste as fun side-projects, never to be written into a story. But that doesn’t mean they were pointless. It’s good practice!
After giving this some further thought, it seems worth posting online. So, buckle your seat-belts, and prepare to take off.
Getting right to it–this is the hardest part, for me. Laying the base for your character. Figuring them out. What they’re going to look like, their name, job, ambitions–no development required yet, because the character themselves is in–well–development.
Imagine you’re writing a sketch. Put together a simple reference sheet, on paper, digitally–both–whatever works for you. (For this I’ll be using my NaNo’ character as an example.)
As an artist and a writer, I tend to draw a lot of character concepts, while also writing one out. (It’s wisest to write it first, otherwise they could end up looking veeery different from their–you know–intended character. I’ve seen multiple artists experience this issue.)
Here’s a fleshed out ref’, taken from the notes of this year’s NaNoWriMo book.
Name: Barnaby Hugh Button
Birthday: Born 1915, January 13th (age: 30)
From: Liverpool, England
Occupation: Airmail Pilot (UK)
Appearance: Curly red hair (different type of curly from Helmut’s—like cousin Zack’s old hair), with blue eyes. Average height, about five ft 4 inches. Healthy, grows stronger and swifter after spending time on the island—but not always the most agile—especially at first, he’s rather dorky.
Fun fact: Puts gross amounts of pomade in his hair, in a desperate attempt to keep his red curls tame. It doesn’t work. Poor guy can’t keep with 1940s fashion.
Most of this reference has been added while writing the book, as new ideas spring up that I don’t want to forget. As you can see, there’s some references in there to stuff that… You just can’t get. There’s no way that the reader is going to see ‘like cousin Zack’s old hair’, and understand that. These are my notes, and if I picture his hair as a certain real-life person’s hair, that’s what I’ll note. It really doesn’t matter–don’t be OCD with the sketchy writing. Put a joke in there, reference your cousin’s hair–do whatever that helps you flesh it out. Consider this your character’s 1st draft.
I consider this next part to be important, but understand if you aren’t a big drawer, why you may skip this.
Sketches. Concepts. On paper, no matter the medium, draw that character. Figure their appearance out. You wrote it, now draw it. Or maybe you drew it first, after setting the rest of the base down.
It doesn’t have to be the strictest character drawing. Don’t stress yourself out, it’s called a concept for a reason. Do whatever. Draw them interacting with another character, their world, an animal. Doodle what they’d look like as a dog, the opposite gender, in a different art style–it’s also a great break from writing.
For the hardest part? The Dreaded Name. For some reason, this is always the most difficult for me.
Many, many, many, many times I have slapped a generic name onto a character, because I couldn’t make up my mind. But over time I’ve found that the best names, are the ones that have a meaning to me.
This doesn’t have to make any sense to anybody who isn’t you. This name could be special to you for the oddest reason, but it feels great on the character. Make it something from a childhood movie if need be, just as long as you don’t say something like ‘Darth Vader’.
Onto the more interesting part.
This is important. Vital to the outcome of not just your characters, but your overall story.
If there’s anything I beg that you do not do, it’s create a generic hero. The best, most relatable, interesting characters are the ones with flaws. They’re more like real people. It makes the story more intense, knowing that the character can fail, might fail, and maybe are failing.
My favorite characters–not just my own, but from shows/books/other–are the ones who aren’t perfect. They’re obnoxious, religious, overbearing, disappointing to their families–any number of things. They are no Superman. And that’s great.
Take Sherlock Holmes for example. He’s a butt-hole to everyone he meets (pardon), flaunts his ridiculous intelligence everywhere, smokes/has smoked, is on drugs (at least in the stories), and is often a tad misunderstanding of normal human emotions. But he’s loved by generations of readers, and now watchers. He is not a God among characters, but by being so perfectly imperfect, he is.
Give your character a mental disorder, make them extremely opinionated, stubborn. Make them afraid of dogs because of multiple past experiences. Maybe they’re horrible with children. Perhaps they’re divorced, a crappy dad/mom. A stuttering teacher who hardly knows what he’s/she’s teaching. Or a moody teen who’s set on wearing fifty earrings and making the irresponsible decisions in life.
I’m not saying that it’s your duty to create a self-righteous religious nut (like Javert), but it’s not out of the question, and it’s still more interesting than a perfect, blank slate. Especially if your flawed character does end up making the right choices–it shows more. It’s stronger. Because people are like that. The kid from the bad neighborhood could have better manors and a higher maturity level than the one from the great, wealthy family. Stereotypes aside.
To develop the character, release backstory a little bit a time. Not all at once. Develop them, over the course of the book–or series. You can’t start it off with ‘he’s super depressed and hates goldfish’. Reveal these things as you go. Don’t start off the book with a page about the character’s personality, appearance and attitude. Write these things as they come up–so the reader becomes attached to them in time.
They happen to see themselves in a reflective surface. Describe their appearance. Throw in small details, like saying: “She pushed her frizzy, black waves from eyes and scoffed.” But don’t start the book off describing them in full detail. It just doesn’t work as well.
Have deep conversations with another character. Show their relationship growing. Take a break, crack a joke. Show how your character reacts to jokes–what’s their sense of humor? Put them under stress, show how they react when under pressure. Show them happy–happier than they’ve ever been.
Characters are people on paper. Getting to know a person means seeing them in many different elements, exposing all their sides. An okay or a good friend is the one you see at church once a week. The great friend is the one who you’ve seen go through a lot. Because you’ve witnessed how they act in different situations, with different people, in different settings. Humans are not so simple that you can see them in one mood, and know all about them. Personalities are straaange things.
With that said, go off and write your person! The flawed, interesting thing in development that they are.