When it comes to creating characters, most writers have their own tried and true methods to help guide them along this difficult, time-consuming process. No two writers will create their characters the same way, just as no two snowflakes look alike. However, when it comes to developing good, memorable characters, there are certain pieces of information it helps to keep in mind.
Anybody can create entertaining characters off the top of their heads. However, the charatcer that will move
readers – make them laugh, cry, fear and exult – spring from deep inside their creators. To make these kind of characters, it often helps to use a process referred to as writing from the “inside out”.
Writing from the inside out refers to making a conscious connection between your inner emotions, needs, and thoughts and doing the same in your characters. Character can’t live and breathe from now into eternity unless they feel, and feel deeply
. Be their responses ever so small, such as a raised eyebrow or a verbal “yeah, right,” to be believable, your characters must constantly show their HUMANITY. Emotion is what moves most readers to care, but readers have sophisticated bullshit meters and will recognize and reject inauthentic emotions. The real deal comes from the inside out, and you are the source of your characters reality.
To write from the inside out, you must know your characters “ultimate truth” about self, others, and the world. Their “ultimate truth” is a perception that changes very little – sort of a literary raison d'être
. This “ultimate truth” is usually constant for an entire novel, and acts as a sort of anchor to base the rest of your character around. Even if you have no idea what your story is going to be about, you need
to know what drives him or her. Your character needs a desire (for love/truth/happiness/justice/success/etc.) that will be the driving force in their decision making. We all have this quest and the various plots in our lives come and go, adding or detracting from it. The importance here is that the personal quest – the “ultimate truth” – is clear.
provides an excellent example. In the play, Hamlet is shown to be a character driven by revenge, but who is ultimately uncertain of himself and others, leading to his downfall. This aspect of Hamlet’s character never changes throughout the play, and acts as a basis for all of his actions. Little Red Riding Hood is a well-known fairy tale, and the Big Bad Wolf offers an example of a very effective, albeit simple, “ultimate truth”. The focal point of the Wolf’s personality is that he is sneaky, cunning, and willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. This doesn’t change throughout the course of the fairy tale – imagine how much more ineffective the story would have been if the Wolf had a change of heart halfway through.
Writing from the inside out is important, but won't develop your entire character. Traits such as personality, sociological and environmental factors, and physical appearance, to name a few, must be developed and taken into consideration when creating characters. However, your job as a writer is not merely selecting characteristics from a menu. Your job is to choose meaningful
traits that contribute to a character’s overall yearning and desire. Giving your protagonist blue hair and three arms just because it’s cool does not make it a unique character. You must think of your character as a real human being and select practical personality traits that make them both interesting and believable
Just as real people are not clichés, characters shouldn't be, either. Scientists are not always eccentric geniuses. Prostitutes don’t always have a heart of gold. Students are not always drunken layabouts. Soldiers are not always courageous. Real people don’t easily fall into categories; there is more going on for them than their participation in the plot. Real people have hobbies and interests, eccentricities and quirks, friends and enemies which have absolutely nothing to do with the plot. These need to be represented and taken into consideration to make him or her 3D.
It often helps, when developing your characters after determining their “ultimate truth”, to delve deep into their pasts and figure out the reasons why they behave the way they do. Asking questions about possible childhood traumas, their motivations growing up, and how they obtained their greatest fear helps in creating more realistic characters.
A writer should usually know more about their character than the reader ever will. Let’s say, for example, that you have determined that your female character has an irrational hatred of the colour pink. You may never include this particular piece of information in your novel or game, but it helps you, as a writer, learn more about this character. It shows that she rejects traditional gender stereotypes, and may even dislike overly-feminine women. Even if the reader is never aware of this fact, it helps you, as the writer, get to know your characters.
Below is a generic set of questions to ask your character that may help in fleshing them out. In the early stages of a character’s development, I always ask these questions and write detailed, descriptive answers, getting specific and making sure not to leave anything out. You can include as much or as little information as you like, but be certain that you feel it is enough.
What was most important to your character at age five, fifteen, nineteen, and at the age at which the story or novel begins?
What were your character’s deepest longings at various ages? Which singular longing has been with him or her since childhood?
- Positive Trait
What qualities in your character are he or she most proud of? What would friends say is your character’s most shining quality?
- Negative Trait
What is your character’s greatest weakness and worst personality trait? What would friends say is his or her biggest weakness?
What were your character’s nicknames? Why was he or she called them?
What words would be inscribed on your character’s headstone that best capture the way he or she would like to be remembered? Example: He was a friend to all.
What is your character’s greatest fear? When did he or she first feel it?
What was the most traumatic experience in your character’s life?
What disclosure about your character or his or her actions would your character do almost anything to keep from becoming public knowledge?
When the chips are down, what is your character’s greatest “weapon,” the ace up his or her sleeve?
What person(s) have most blocked your character’s success?
Who can your character count on during life’s highs and lows?
- Darkest Hour
What were the lowest points in your character’s childhood, teens, twenties, thirties, and so forth? Times when he or she thought they might not be able to go on living?
- Shining Moments
What were the high points of your character’s childhood, teens, twenties, thirties, and so forth? Times when he or she figured they had it made?
What message does your character want the world to hear? What would he or she like to leave behind as a gift to others?
When you answer these questions about your character, you should have a much more rounded and deeper view of who they are as people
. I’ll elaborate more on the specific types of characters and what their role is in a novel, but for now, focus on making your characters seem real to you.
If, at this point, you still don’t think you know your characters very well, try interviewing them. It sounds dumb, and in some ways it is, but you should at least attempt
conducting an imaginary interview with your character. Ask them questions, such as “What is your favourite food?”, “What political party do you support, and why?”, and “What were your parents like?”. Above all, make sure that you’re answering these questions as the character
, not as yourself. Try visualizing their little quirks and tics as you think; the distinct mannerisms and speaking behaviours that make them distinct.
Remember always that life is the richest source of characters we have. It may not be appropriate to kidnap a whole personality for your novel, but observing people at a deeper level will inform the choices you make. Quasimodo, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame
, is supposedly based on a deformed sculptor who worked on the Notre Dame when Victor Hugo wrote his novel. Bram Stoker based his infamous character Dracula off of Vlad III, the ruthless Prince of Wallachia in the 15th century. The possibilities are endless.
Simply developing and fleshing out a character is not enough. Knowing your character’s role in relation to the plot, setting and other characters is absolutely crucial when writing a novel or making a video game. Now that you’ve fleshed out your characters, it’s time to learn the different types and how to tie them in to your plot. We’ll start with the protagonist.