To be honest, in the past I’d never given much thought to how to create a character. They just kind of… happened, based on what my story needed at that time. At first, they’d come out of the oven a bit doughy and ill-formed, but over time I’d hone them into something a bit more substantial. Then I’d be able to go back to my earlier chapters and reshape that gooey mess to the distinct character they became farther in.
For the sake of this blog post, I actually made an effort to track the steps as I created character and realized that really, it boiled down to asking a lot of questions. Questions about who they are, what they want, how they fit into everything that’s going on.
Granted, this example character is someone I’m adding in during book 2 of a series, so I already have an established cast and plot to fit my character into. The process might be different if you’re creating some brand new characters for a brand new story.
In general, the technique is highly variable between writers, so don’t take anything as a rule book. This is my way of creating new characters, as much as I can track it. I play with these characters and questions in my head for about a week before I commit them to paper.
Which leads to the only catch-all advice about how to create a character. The only advice that I think will apply to everyone: don’t rush it. Don’t rapid fire off a list of labels or adjectives to describe your character and jump into writing them. You need to get to know them first.
1. What are their identifiers?
For me, creating a character starts off with a role. At this point, nothing is set in stone. I’m just feeling the waters and getting a feel of what my story needs.
Consider a series of questions:
- At its most basic plot level, what is the character’s identifier? This might be “main character”, or something like “love interest”, “friend”, “villain”, “mentor”, “comic relief”, etc. There are more identifiers to choose from, and a character can be more than one.
- Can you label them with a profession or a role in society? An assassin, a teacher, a retiree, a student?
For my most recent character, it was a process that took about two weeks before I found my character’s voice. I was originally interested in introducing a modern day witch hunter, because it’d add a new dynamic to how the modern world responds to fantastical events. In my story, witch hunters have existed in the past, and since witches and ghosts are real, likely they still exist in the modern time frame too.
That’s all I knew about this character to start. Witch hunter, possible love interest for main character Alice because I could easily make him a foil to her current love interest, Kent.
2. What is their plot-related purpose?
Sometimes it seems like there are characters in a book that simply don’t matter. They have a great personality, so that’s probably why the writer couldn’t bear to cut them out. But really, it’s important to make sure each character is grounded in a plot-related purpose.
Later we’ll get into details about their personal motivations (swoons and wounds, as I call them) and all that, but for now, make sure you NEED this person in order to progress the plot.
- Whose “side” are they on? (protagonist’s, antagonist’s, neither?)
- What is their plot-related goal?
- Is it their goal, or someone else’s, like a job or an order enforced on them? (this is the difference between “I want to protect you” and “I’m your bodyguard, so I’m paid to protect you.”)
- What power do they have to impact events? (this can mean their skillset, their social standing, the organization they’re part of, etc—anything that gives them power)
Since I was playing the idea of this witch hunter being a love interest for Alice, that would they’re on the same side, since they both want to stop the witch. But is he there from the start?
Well, it’d add more drama if he wasn’t. After all, he doesn’t know the situation as well as she does. He might see the friendly spirits and assume they’re evil, especially since he’s been trained in this. Who trained him? Is he part of a group of witch hunters? Are there others he can go to for support? I imagine witch hunting doesn’t pay, so who supports this lifestyle?
Now we’re getting into his motives, although still mostly on a plot-relevant level.
Question your character like you’re part of an interrogation. The focus should be on the questions, not necessarily the answers. Maybe an idea of what the answer could be, but don’t expect to have the best or right answer right away.
Let your mind wander. Pick an idea and follow it (mentally) to see where it will end up. There should be a lot of possibilities, but don’t freak out. You’re not choosing anything yet. It’s crazy how the subconscious mind works. Bring up a lot of ideas and possibilities, and even when you don’t know you’re working on a solution, you’re working on it. Your subconscious mind is piecing things together every time you raise new questions.
3. Where do they fit in with the other characters?
Once you have some of the plot-related character logistics laid out, it’s easier to set up their standing among the other characters you have. Remember, think “possibilities.” What could be.
- What relationships are possible between your new character and your existing ones?
- Do they have compatible personalities? Whether or not they actually become friends, could they be friends? Could they be love interests?
- Does your new character have a history with any existing characters?
Again, we’re just raising questions, even though this sorta thing is maybe not so far out there. Most of the times yes, they could be friends. But best friends, casual friends, friends as far as reaching a common goal…? For a romance option, are they compatible as far as each side’s sexual orientation?
This can also be a point of some sub-plot drama. If two characters are on the same “side,” but they really don’t get along personality-wise, then you’ve got some drama. Similarly, if two characters are opponents but they really get along and can make each other laugh, then it gets so much harder to work against each other in the plot.
At some point during this consideration, I decided I didn’t want Alice in a love triangle. One love interest is enough, and really it would be better for the plot if she was only interested in the one guy. So, maybe a back step as far as focusing my character, because he’s no longer necessarily a “he” (as in a straight male).
But I do know that this character is new to everyone. No one else knows him/her before they’re introduced. So, I would like to attach them in multiple relationships throughout the course of their partnership with the main characters. Since I’ve crossed off love interest for Alice, this witch hunter can become her friend because Alice needs some friends, poor girl. If I make this witch hunter a girl, maybe I’ve got a love interest for Vince. I’ve also decided I prefer the idea of a single witch hunter as opposed to her being part of a group, simply because it’s more interesting to me. Especially if she and Alice become friends, since they’re both loners.
4. What do they want?
We’ve already established this as a plot-relevant character, so now we’re free to flesh out their personality. After figuring out potential relationships, you might already have a feel for personality. After all, I know my character Alice, and I know the kind of people she would or wouldn’t get along with. That gives me an idea of what this new character will be like if I want them to be friends.
- Are they happy with their position in life?
- What do they want, and is that in line with what others expect from them?
- What are they afraid of? Are they running or hiding from something or someone?
This is the fun part!!
I’ve decided on the name Sam for my witch hunter. Let’s make some assumptions. Hunting the supernatural for a living isn’t quite the fast track to the popular, happy life (see Supernatural). So no, she’s not exactly stoked about what she does. Since she’s still alive, she’s probably great at her job, at least.
Since I’ve been exploring the idea of her being a loner, she probably works alone on purpose to avoid people. Ain’t much social interaction in witch hunting. I’m sensing parallels between her and Alice, so I’ll make a few more connections. Similarities between the two won’t make them the same person. As a form of protection against both emotional and physical pain, she’s not touchy-feely, and she’s got a heck of a poker face.
Finally, we’re touching on some personality. I bet a lot of writers do this completely backwards from what I’m laying out…
Really, find what works for you. But it’s good to try new methods too. You won’t know if it works until you try it.
5. Work out the details.
Really, the rest is just rinse and repeat. Keep asking questions, keep exploring. Play with ideas, and ask more questions about the ideas that interest you. This is where I’ll sort out physical appearance and fine-tune personality flaws, quirks, etc.
In exploring possibilities for Sam, I’ve added on a few details: she’s American, trans, white, and a natural brunette with hair dyed that reddish-brownish color. She’s more girly than Alice even though she can’t afford to wear nice clothes on the job, a sharpshooter with a pistol (she’s from Texas, after all), and even though she doesn’t love what she does, being innovation and resourceful in a fight is her favorite part. Mostly she’s self-taught as far as tactics. The group she works for is far from its past glory in the days when superstition was more rampant, so really, she doesn’t do it for the money.
So yeah. Details like appearance I really save for last, since deeper things like motivations are far more important. You also want to consider their role from a plot standpoint, too. It’ll keep your characters necessary and away from the dreaded “throwaway” label.
Don’t rush it, and be open to changes! How do you go about creating your own characters?