The process of creating a great, memorable character is usually a lengthy and difficult one. There's an incredible variety of possibilities when it comes to creating a character, and changing one detail could lead to a completely different person and outcome in a story.
The entire process can become overwhelming, seemingly impossible, or just downright frustrating, but it doesn't have to be.
In this guide I will go over various tips and tricks, which will hopefully help you with the creation process, and make it all a little easier and less overwhelming. But remember that creating a character takes time. It's a little like getting to know somebody in real life, you won't know everything about them straight away. But at least in the case of your own character you get to decide all the little pieces that define the character.
I won't really delve too much into creating a character's look however. This is something that is pretty much defined by both the personality and the story universe. A shallow person will likely wear expensive clothes and make sure they look the best they can, what those clothes look like and what 'the best' is will depend on the culture of the story universe. Somebody from the middle ages will look different than somebody from a futuristic Japan, and so on.
Before you begin to create a character you need to have a world for that character to live in. The more detailed the world the easier it'll be to create a character that fits within that world. But fitting in a world doesn't mean a character has to be an extension of that world, the exact opposite can be true and could lead to a more compelling character. In a world where everybody is lazy, works terrible jobs, and has no real prospect for a better future, a character who does everything in his or her power to try to have a better future anyway will be interesting to the reader.
The world you've created will also determine what your character will be seen as. You may want your character to be a rebel, but how far does your character have to go to be considered a rebel? In some worlds or societies it would merely take talking back to your elders and superiors, in others that same act would merely make you seem normal. Some worlds might even see murder as being normal, perhaps refusing to murder would make you a kind of rebel.
We're all shaped by the world we live in, it should be no different for your characters.
If you've ever seen a movie trailer, especially an older one, you will have likely heard a version of this phrase: "In a world of ordinary people one man..". The phrase itself has become a cliche, but there's a reason why that phrase was used so often, and that's because characters who are different are interesting. Nobody wants to read a story about an ordinary person who does ordinary things in an ordinary life, something has to happen.
I mentioned earlier that people who aren't an extension of the world they live in make for compelling characters, but they don't have to be the exact opposite of that world. A small, subtle change could be all it takes. A curious mind, a creative talent, or an adventurous spirit can be more than enough. An ordinary business man will become interesting with a strong drive for success, a normal school student will become more interesting with a rich imagination, and a parent of 4 will become more interesting with ingenious ways of taking care of those 4 rascals.
Of course extremes can be very interesting as well. An incredible intellect, a crippling disorder (like OCD), or a rebellious spirit can all make for a very intriguing character as well, so don't feel like you have to go one way or the other. Get to know your character, and see what works best for what you need from both your character and your story.
Whenever the word stereotype is mentioned in regards to a character, it's often seen as something negative. But stereotypes aren't all bad, and in a way all characters are at least somewhat stereotypical. Of course stereotypes can be taken too far, and in most cases doing so is terrible, but depending on your audience a true stereotype could work well. But is 'well' good enough? Since you're reading this guide the answer is probably no for you.
One thing stereotypes do offer is a great starting point to work from. You simply pick one of the many stereotypes, preferably the one that's closest to what you want your character to be, and then you start stripping pieces away, and adding different pieces to it. You can see it as being given a clay figure of your character that needs to be molded further by yourself to get the perfect result you want.
A comic relief sidekick character often has stereotypical traits, like being goofy, less intelligent than the main character, and similar traits. Now strip away the goofy part, add some witty intelligence, add aspirations to become a hero, and you have a far more interesting character. Perhaps the sidekick really wishes to be more than just the sidekick, this wish could lead to both internal and external struggles and voila, the silly sidekick only good for jokes has suddenly become a compelling character with feelings, desires, and issues like every person.
One mistake some people make is making their characters too perfect. Perfection generally makes for boring characters and stories as everything can become very predictable. Nobody is perfect in real life, so why would your fictional characters be? I've touched on flaws slightly when I talked about characters being different from the other people in the world they live in, but flaws go further than simply being different. Flaws can be crippling, flaws can be relatable, and flaws make a character feel more genuine.
Even (interesting) superheroes have flaws. Tony Stark (Ironman) has to deal with depression and self hatred, Bruce Wayne (Batman) is stubborn and obsessive, Logan (Wolverine) has anger issues, and so on.
At the same time villains can be too perfect at being a villain. While a villain who merely wishes to destroy everything and everybody can be great for story purposes and overall mayhem, an imperfect villain is usually far more interesting, especially if there are parts of the villain you can relate to.
A character who fights for a noble cause, but through the wrong means is far more interesting than somebody simply fighting for the sake of it. A villain with a soft spot for something or somebody in his or her heart becomes far more compelling than a villain who hates everything or feels nothing for anything or anybody.
Tying in with my previous point is contradictions within a character's personality. While not all characters need aspects in their personality that contradict each other, it does offer you a tool that can make a character stand out and thus potentially more interesting. An eternally patient zen master becomes very interesting when that patience suddenly runs out when a specific topic is addressed. A painfully shy person becomes more interesting when he or she decides to ask out a crush, and so on.
Of course, the contradictions don't have to be this extreme. It could be something subtle, like a person who doesn't care about expensive clothes wearing an expensive scarf. The reasons behind why your characters do these contradicting acts is what makes them interesting, at least if done well. Perhaps the scarf has some sentimental value, a gift from a lover perhaps, or a secret inhibition to become successful enough to afford expensive clothes after all.
Everybody wants something, so make your characters try to get what they want in a way that fits their personality. The journey to get what they want, and the reactions of that character on the way are intriguing. They make the reader want to continue reading, at least if your character is interesting enough.
This doesn't just apply to the main character, but to all characters, or at least all those with a good amount of 'screen time'. That sidekick who only makes jokes will get boring really fast if that's all he or she does.
'What if my character just wants to do nothing but watch tv all day, and sleep all night?'. This may seem like a very dull character, and in many cases it probably is, but it could make for a far more interesting story than it may appear to be at first glance. What if that character is far from home with no (fast) way to get home? The journey to get home, and finally find the peace and quiet the character so desperately wants can become an epic tale of adventure, danger, and surprises.
It's a silly example, but the same applies to everything a character may want. Things will usually stand in the way of getting what you want, sometimes other characters will stand in the way. Think about how a character will react to each situation and each character standing in his or her way.
Simply wanting something isn't enough. We need to know why your character wants it. The reason behind it all is another aspect that makes a character seem alive and intriguing. It's what drives that character to do what he or she does and, in combination with other personality aspects, is what determines how a character reacts to events in your story.
I mentioned a sidekick who wants to be more than a sidekick earlier. The reason this sidekick might wish to be more than a sidekick could be because of the attention the main character gets, or because being a sidekick feels like an unrewarding position for all the work he or she puts into helping the main character. Maybe the sidekick is jealous, or maybe the sidekick wants to prove him or herself to the main character, perhaps for more romantic reasons.
The 'why I want it' in combination with 'what I want' and 'how I'll get it' opens up a whole range of possibilities for different characters. You can add to it further by asking 'when do I want it?' and 'where do I want it?', though these last 2 questions don't always apply all that much. The answer to those 2 is often 'right here, right now'. You want to save your loved ones as soon as possible, you want to become a couple right now, you want success right away.
So you have a good idea of where you want your story to go, and you have a good idea of how you want your character to be, that's great. But make sure they don't compromise (too much) to fit each other. Your character still has to act like himself or herself whenever a new situation arises.
To give you a silly example: There's a fork in the road in a forest, one leads to a dark, creepy part of the forest, the other to a tranquil looking part. A coward would never take the creepy path by choice, so don't make that character choose that path. It's far better to make the character choose the tranquil path, and then write a way for the character to still end up on the creepy path if that's what you need from the story. This way you don't have to compromise on the character or on the plot itself, all you need is a slight detour. It's a silly example, but this applies to everything your characters do.
To help with everything we've covered so far you could write a short origin story about your character. It doesn't have to be much more than a few paragraphs, and it mostly serves to help you make your character respond to situations in your story in a way that would fit. The origin story doesn't even need to be told to the reader, but having something to fall back on can be of great help when you're stuck.
It's also a great way to get to know your character better, and explore different takes on what makes the character who they are. If you ever need to explain why your character is a certain way, perhaps to a different character, you pretty much have that covered, and won't have to make something up and worry about continuity or similar mistakes.
I've already mentioned characters need to act, they need to do something. This same principle can be applied to show their personality in more subtle ways by using habits, quirks, and other behavior. We all act in certain ways whenever we feel strong emotions, we may bite our nails when we're nervous, dance when we're ecstatic, or put on headphones and play music loudly to shut ourselves out from the world when we're angry or sad.
Using habits can be a great way to let the reader know what the character is going through without having to directly say it. You may have to explain a certain habit the first time your character does it, like chewing gum at a specific time while that character usually never chews gum, but once the habit is established you merely have to mention your character is chewing gum again, and the reader will know how your character is feeling. But it's not just the reader who will know, other characters will know as well, especially those who know each other well. This way you can also show how strong a relationship is between 2 characters by merely making one character notice a habit of the other.
It's often easier to write a character that's similar to yourself, but avoid creating all your characters in a way that resembles you. People are diverse, and while some are similar to each other, some are nothing alike. Even within a group of friends you may find people who are complete opposites, but that could be the very reason why they're friends.
At the same time don't feel like you can't put any part of you in a character that's supposed to be an opposite of who you are. If you're shy and you're creating an outgoing character, there might still be some aspects you share, like insecurities or enjoying being alone for example. A sickeningly evil character may seem like the exact opposite of who you are, but you might still share a love for your own family or a strong sense of duty, honor, or loyalty.
Some of you may have used a type of questionnaire to create a character, a questionnaire which basically makes you fill in countless details about the character, like character traits, how many siblings he or she has, favorite food, favorite color, greatest wish in life, and so on. While they're great to get a general idea of who your character is, I personally think they're kind of useless in the long run, especially when dealing with multiple characters. The biggest problem is simply that the answers are meaningless without context, which is why I think an interview is a far greater tool to really create and get to know your character.
For this to work well you'll pretty much have to role play as your character, which can be done simply in your head, or you could act it out with or without a friend, it's all up to you. But the point is to answer all questions as your character. Let's take the simple (and kind of silly) question of 'what is your favorite color?', you may get answers like this:
- Red. It's the color of love after all.
- Favorite color? That's a stupid question. What are you going to ask me next, what my favorite day of the year is?
- Black, like my soul.
- Blue. No green, dark green. No, blue, definitely blue. Can we skip this question?
Each of the answers above shows a different personality, something you'd never get from merely writing down a color. The same applies to pretty much any question you ask. Which questions you ask will depend on what you want to know about your character, but, as the favorite color question proved, even seemingly pointless questions can be revealing.
Never consider your character to be finished. People change and they change a lot. You aren't the same person you were a month ago, you may not even be the same person you were yesterday. What we experience will change us, for better or worse, but the experiences don't have to be huge for them to have a big impact. While a death of a loved one, an accomplishment of a long term goal, or finding love will obviously change you, so too can having a rough week, a bad night, or receiving a compliment from a stranger.
Being around specific people will also change your behavior. You likely act differently around friends than around your parents or stranger.
Obviously some changes will be temporary, but that doesn't mean they should be ignored. Making your character respond to experiences and changes is what makes sure your character will feel alive.