Quick and Dirty Character Creation
By Jodi L. Milner
What do the best stories have in common? Amazing characters that we love to read. But, as we all know, making an amazing character is easier said than done. As I’ve worked with different characters and talked with other authors, I’ve noticed a few trends that seem universally true.
The harder you work to create an amazing character, the more likely they are to refuse to come alive on the page.
Secondary characters are easier to write because there’s less pressure to make them good.
Often these secondary characters steal the show
Take a moment and think about all the hoops we put ourselves through to create what we think is a genuinely interesting and memorable character. There are character development worksheets, interviews, creating their journal entries, writing entire scenes to explore who they are, the list can go on and on. Even after spending all that time trying to engineer what you might consider your perfect character, there’s no guarantee that they will come alive for you or your readers.
1. You can’t edit a blank page
Just as you can’t edit and improve a blank page, you will struggle to pull a character out of thin air. We’re all guilty of trying the “ideas in a bag” method of character creation. This is when we create a laundry list of attributes we want our character to have and then hope that as we write, those ideas will somehow coalesce into a unique person who will drive our story.
What usually happens is that when it’s time to write that character, we have to look at the list of attributes and then struggle to translate into something a real person might think or do. It takes a lot of time and frustration, not to mention stopping any forward momentum you might have had while writing.
2. There’s an easier way to create engaging characters
What I’m about to tell you feels like cheating. Listen anyway. Remember the padlocks you used to use on your school locker, the ones that used three unique numbers? No two padlocks in the school had the same combination because there were so many different combinations. This method uses the same idea.
Choose your inspiration
Start by selecting several inspiration characters whose appearance, manner of speaking, attitude, or skill set matches elements of the character you are working to create. These inspirations can be people from your real life, favorite movies, celebrities, doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you feel you have a decent understanding of them.
3. List specific attributes and expand possibilities
Once you’ve isolated these inspiration characters, list out the attributes you originally needed for your character next to their corresponding inspiration – so you don’t forget who had which cool trait. Now, also list a few other traits that the inspiration character has that you hadn’t considered using and see if those traits could work for your character. This will widen the uniqueness and roundness of your character and help you fill in the gaps that you might not have considered.
4. Decide on the essentials
Now you have a mega blob of awesome ideas, decide on the most essential parts of the character which will drive the majority of your writing. This includes preferred manner of dress, speech patterns, internal and external attitudes, if they are an introvert or an extrovert, and what they do when they are angry or upset – you can add to this list, but this is a good start.
5. Choose a name
Last but not least, you will need to choose a name. Honestly, this can be the hardest part because the name needs to match all the awesomeness you’ve just figured out, plus the cultural norms of your world. In this instance, if your world has naming conventions, start there and then work your way down to names that perhaps have a meaning that fits your character or a sound combination that evokes the right feel.
6. Start writing
The best part of this is that by using inspiration characters that you are familiar with, you already have a jumping-off point to write them into a scene. When you get to a point that you aren’t sure what the character would do or wear or say, turn back to your inspiration characters and imagine what they might do and pick the option that fits best in the story. You should instantly have a good gut feel for what works, and what the possibilities are.
Even better, sometimes if you get stuck, you can also turn to these characters and put them each in turn into the scene and play through what might happen. Not only will you get a few fresh ideas, but the ideas they come up with will be somewhat consistent with the type of story you’re trying to tell.
Jodi L Milner is the author of the YA fantasy Shadow Barrier series, which includes Stonebearer’s Betrayal, winner of the LUW Recommended Read award, and Stonebearer's Apprentice, winner of the LUW Silver Quill. When not chasing daydreams, she enjoys destroying movie plots, making amigurumi, and plotting to take over the world. Find her at JodiLMilner.com