Updated: Apr 11, 2019
This week I was tasked with writing a blog post around a theme of my choosing. Since my focus is mostly on stories I wanted to talk about one of my favourite parts of writing: character creation and how to make them believable/come to life. A story can’t be told without some form of character; whether that character is yourself as you talk about what happened at work one day or the avatar on screen of your favourite game.
So what makes a good or strong character? Let’s look shall we?
For the purpose of this article I’ll be using some of my own characters and I’ll have links to anything I’ve mentioned here too.
Firstly, let’s look at what makes characters not so great, the forgettable ones.
To me, a bad character is one who doesn’t serve much purpose, they’re kind of useless and have little dimension. Kat from DmC, is a good example of this I feel as her story doesn't quite make sense. People may disagree, but I found her to be quite irritating, her character didn’t do much other than wear skimpy outfits and complain about how dire her life was. I could go off on several tangents about her but, I shall refrain!
Another example of bad character design would be having a character suffer with crippling social anxiety, but they can go and get an attractive person’s number while hanging out in a bar without a shadow of a doubt.
In contrast, a good character is well rounded, they are multi-faceted and do more than just complain about how terrible their life is. I look for the underdogs, the outcasts and flawed characters. One of my favourite characters from a novel has stuck with me for many years is Jacob from Shadowmancer, written by GP Taylor.
‘A charismatic and sardonic smuggler who dresses in an elegant, dandified manner, Crane is strong, independent and opportunistic. Despite his veneer of selfishness and cynicism, he is an honourable man and genuinely cares about saving the world.’ - Wikipedia. I honestly couldn’t have put this better myself, Wikipedia, this is exactly why I love him. More stories about this guy, please!
Another who will forever stay with me as an awesome character is Dorian from The Night Angel Trilogy. He is an interesting character from the start as he is introduced on the run, then is forced to do some questionable at best and vile things at worst, all while struggling with his mental health. And as a more recent example, Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones. *Waits for people to disagree* These characters are anti-heroes, or in Dorian’s case anti-villain. The first two are not good people as a whole and ultimately, very flawed. This makes them more believable because no one on earth is perfect and who doesn’t love a redemption story? Dorian, on the other hand is the opposite of Jacob and Jaime, he is forced to do things that weigh heavy on him and that ultimately comes at a heavy cost.
I have used male characters as mostly good examples as I feel a lot of female characters aren’t written well, or I just haven’t come into contact with that many female characters. I actually find it easier to write male characters. I will talk more about this in a later post.
How do I write a strong character then? I’m going to outline how I basically write my characters. It’s also worth noting that a character can and should change throughout the course of the story, for this reason I keep most of my character documents as a WIP. So let’s begin; Firstly, you need to know what role your characters will take. Are they your MC/protagonist? A support character? The antagonist? A scapegoat? Love interest? What relationships will they have with other characters? I’ve read somewhere that you need twenty characters to begin a story. See if you can find your twenty!
So, my character Alexa, is one of my main characters in an ongoing story that’s being written collaboratively. She is a teenage girl who has recently moved to America to attend a private academy, little does she and her parents know that the school houses some shady characters.
Secondly, it’s important to know your characters on a deep, personal level. Ideally you’d need to know everything about them, what makes them happy, what colour is their hair or their eyes, skintone, what makes them sad, why they refuse to get out of bed on a sunday, what music they love, what car they want, why they failed their geography exam, what keeps them up at night; EVERYTHING. This is the reason why my important story characters all have extensive biographies, even if it’s not relevant to the story, add it to their file anyway. If it helps create a pinterest board for your specific characters. Once you’ve identified their roles, you can sit and interview them, to get to know them a lot better.
In the case of my character Alexa, here are a few examples of her Pinterest board:
Note: It’s best to try to avoid cliches, that hyper masculine dude who all the ladies fall for, or that girl who's, “not like other girls”, has been done far too many times to count. Try to remember, ‘labels are for jars, you are not a jar’ (and neither are your characters, for that matter, unless you’re writing an alternate version of beauty and the beast…) A tip if you’ve found that your character is cliched/stereotyped; give them something, like a trait/job/hobby that breaks that cliche. Have a typical macho, jock guy? Make him like classical music and poetry. Blonde and beautiful female character with blue eyes? Make her a computer hacker or programmer.
Here’s part of a quick character profile I have made for her using Jenna Moreci’s Template: (http://jennamoreci.tumblr.com/post/144219244447/character-profile-tobias)
CATEGORY#1: BASIC STATS
Race, ethnicity, culture: She is of mixed ethnicities. (British/white, Native American, South American, Polynesian/French Polynesian.)
Body type: Slender, athletic, due to metabolism and the fact that she’s a competitive figure skater, dancer, volleyball and ice hockey player.
Appearance: Long dark hair, brown eyes, with a tanned olivey complexion. When she’s not dressed in sports clothes, or school uniform, she dresses ‘hipster-ish’, lives in skinny jeans and frequently wears band logo t-shirts.
CATEGORY #5: PERSONALITY & CHARACTER
Introvert or extrovert? Introvert, until shes on the ice or on stage.
Right-brained or left-brained? Lefty, she’s a creative soul
Strengths: determined, strong willed, fiercely loyal to her friends, honest, artistic,
Weaknesses: Shy, nervous, can be oblivious to things around her because she’s a daydreamer. Has an undiagnosed health condition called Rheumatoid Arthritis (aka RA, which is a condition where the body’s immune system attacks bone joints and can cause swelling and bone deformation over time.)
There are hundreds of character templates out there and the ones with more detail, in my opinion are the best ones. The ones that really make you sit and think about what your character would do or react really help you to create believable characters. “But this is so much work” - so is writing, to be frank… but the more effort you put into creating a character who feels alive, the better the overall story will be.
TIP: Giving your character’s flaws is an easy way to make them believable.
For example, Alexa is a daydreamer so she could get distracted if she isn’t focused enough. Her one major flaw is an undiagnosed health condition which could possibly affect her future as a competitive sports player, especially if it deteriorates rapidly.
I would argue that this next point should be done simultaneously with the first two and this is research. Research your genre, research your character’s job, their town, their culture etc. You should research as much as possible for anything you do not have direct experience with. Even if it is a topic you know a lot about, you should still try to research and fact-check just to make sure you have accurate information.
Let’s say you are writing a novel where your main character is a cardiologist at a busy hospital. Not only would you need to research some basic information on cardiology as a profession, but you would need to make sure you are aware of medical customs and laws where the hospital is located.
So my research for Alexa would be into figure skating, volleyball and autoimmune diseases like RA; as well as schools in America and private academies. (And things teenagers are into these days as it’s wildly different to what it was back when I was still at school!) However, try not to get too distracted with research, I’m guilty of this too and could easily spend hours upon hours collecting information, simply because I like learning things. If it’s distracting you from writing, then it’s probably best to step away from the internet.