Photo by -Curly-
A great story often requires great characters, or, at least, one great character. Great characters come in many shapes and sizes, colors and creeds, and, more importantly, carry a range of depth and dimension.
So how does one create great characters?
Below are a few things to consider when trying to create an unforgettable character:
- Names – Choose a good one. Consider a name that carries a certain level of symbolism or foreshadowing (like “Ender” from Ender’s Game). You can also choose something simple, like Joe or John. Whatever name you choose, just make sure it was done with a purpose — otherwise you’ll lose out on an easy way to build some depth into the character.
- Voice – Unique voices go a long way in helping the reader identify who the character is, especially when dialog tags (ie “said, asked, etc) are not present. This can be a catch phrase, verbal tick, speaking in long or short sentences, using slang or speaking formally, etc.
- Actions – Actions speak louder than words, right? Often referred to as Pet-The-Dog moments, think about how your characters would react to certain situations to really get an idea of who they are as a person. Ex. When faced with a friendly dog, do they pet or pull away? When served food that is cold, do they freak out or simply eat it? Would they stop to drop money in a homeless person’s cup or turn their nose up to them?
- Be consistent – Not only should you give your characters a unique voice and actions, but then you need to be consistent with them. Don’t have a mouse become a tiger, just because you need it to. And don’t have a foul-mouthed sailor speak like an English gentleman a scene later(unless the character is a performer or uncover spy, of course!).
- Physical descriptions – Focus on what makes the character unique (ie dominant traits) versus just creating another Barbie or Ken doll. Even their choice of clothing should be used to convey their moods or personality.
- Property – Don’t forget to cover what a character owns, as that is an excellent opportunity to show who they are. If you walk the reader into a hall filled with stuffed animals and antique rifles lining the walls, they will get a feel for who the owner is without you needing to tell them.
- Job or economic status – This often speaks to who they are forced to be, or possibly who they truly are. Are they wealthy or struggle? How does this affect them?
- Issues – What flaws or vulnerabilities do they have? Do they suffer from any anxieties, ticks or conditions? These are not only interesting tidbits. They can be used to show emotion, hint at something deeper withing the individual, or even provide a handy obstacle to throw at your character. Once you have one or two identified, exaggerate it. If the person is in customer service and they hate speaking to customers, showcase it loud and clear so it jumps off the page — even if its just an internal issue!
- Hobbies – example: do they collect a stone from every place they visit? Why? Are they an artist, movie buff, etc?
- Location – Where do they hang out or live? This helps to anchor characters (especially supporting characters) and helps to keep things consistent.
- Profile the character’s background – capture a snapshot of the following about the character to help you create someone who is truly unique:
- What was their childhood like?
- Parents and relatives – Did they come from a loving family (often boring, unless that family died in a tragic accident!) or were they abused, orphaned, etc.?
- Friendships – Do they have any friends? If so, what kind of people are they? What benefit does the character receive from them?
- Relationships – Did they find true love only to have it ripped away by an accident or by a rival?
- Any regrets or fears?
- Good or bad memories?
- Where have they traveled?
- Who are their enemies?
- Greatest accomplishment/failure
- What was their childhood like?
- Martial status or have kids? This can provide a lot of opportunities for conflict, tension, character building, etc.
- Spiritual domination – Do they believe in a higher power? How does this play into their life?
- Goals – What are their goals (or, at least, what do they think their goals are)? What lies do they tell themselves and what truths do they know? This will establish the internal battle for the characters. And make these goals relatable or understandable, if at all possible (ex trying to get out of a seemingly lifeless home town, to explore the world) Once you have their goals defined, be sure to interupted them often with roadblocks to overcome.
- Emotions and Personality
- How does the character react to various emotions? Happiness, stress, love/intimacy, anger, hate, sadness, etc. And what do they focus on during these times. Don’t just describe how they feel, but instead, focus on something more interesting. Example: while someone is walking through a war zone, they cannot help but watch a butterfly gracefully float through the air. This shows what the character wants — such as to fly away, or unable to cope with the destruction around them– versus telling the reader these things.
- Reveal a character’s true emotions during interactions. Spacing between the characters, gesturing, facial expressions, posture, etc. While dialog/tone can convey a lot, lots of studies have been conducted that show non-verbal communication makes up the majority of received communication. Have your characters go deeper than one level of emotion. For example: A boy’s mother dies after a long battle with cancer, he is distressed by the loss, but throw in a secondary, deeper emotion that he is also relieved he no longer has to care for her and you have really hit the mark!
- Create a multifaceted personality. Don’t just make a pirate a pirate. Make him a loving teacher or father as well. Don’t just create a billionaire playboy, add in some major insecurities and destructive behaviors (like alcoholism).
- Be proactive – Tend to make your characters be proactive (ie don’t just let them always sit around and let things happen around them). That’s not to say they should be ahead of every event or catastrophe. Just that when an event happens, its often best to have the character take a subsequent action as a result. Make them do something, even if its the wrong something, as it will make the character stronger versus them sitting and waiting for the world to unfold around them. Oh, and have them fail often in their actions!
- Use others – Utilize supporting characters to help build your main character. Are they foils or mirrors? What does the main character need from them?
- Outlook on life – Does the character like who they are? Are they optimistic? How confident are they? Are they affected by external factors (like world politics)?
- Talents – What gifts does the character possess (ex expert swordsman)
- Viewpoint of others – How do others perceive the character? What do people notice first? How can others cheer up or annoy the character?
And there you have it — not overly simple, yet an effective way to create unforgettable characters. I hope this information helps you in some way. If you have any thoughts or ideas to share, please leave a comment.