How I Create Characters
This is a continuation of a new series of blog posts I'm doing to explore different parts of my writing process and show how I put a story together from start to finish. If you want to see earlier topics, you can find them in the writing section of my blog.
Today I'm talking about how I create characters. Now, this is a huge and very complex topic that people have written entire books about because, like ogres and onions, good characters have many, many layers. Here I'm just going to touch on some of the things that have worked best for me as part of my personal writing process. If you want to know more, you can always seek that information out in more detail online, at the library, through podcasts, etc. Let's jump in.
1. The Initial Idea
Some writers get the idea for a character first and then start putting together a story for them. Others come up with the story first and then have to create characters to fill that story. For me, it really just depends, and I haven't found one way or the other to be particularly more effective. I don't think it matters, and whatever happens for you, I say take that idea and run with it.
Once you've got a character and at least the beginnings of a story you'll be putting them in, take some time to get to know them. I've written a whole blog post on this already, so I'm just going to direct you there if you want to find out more about how I get to know my characters. But this can include things like figuring out their physical appearance & personality, identifying their role in the story, and looking at their motives. And speaking of motives...
2. Want vs. Need
There are a lot of really great resources available about character want vs. character need, but this is something that kind of took me a long time to figure out and be more intentional about. It's also something I think has made a big difference in improving my storytelling, so I feel it's worth mentioning briefly here. Often, what a character wants (or thinks he wants) at the beginning of the story is not the same thing as what he actually needs, which is something he'll discover along the way. And that need will often be a core part of his character arc, so I've found it helpful to identify wants and needs early on when I'm still planning out a story.
In Secrets of PEACE, Zira wants to do well and succeed in her job as an assassin because she wants to prove that she belongs in that position. What she needs, however, is to understand what her role and the role of the PEACE Project really means in the larger world around her, and to decide whether that's something she can accept or not. Jared wants to continue to assert himself as a skilled and dependable operative so that he can one day step into a leadership role in the Project, but what he needs is to build meaningful connections and relationships with others and to then figure out what, if anything, he's willing to sacrifice for those relationships.
Even minor characters have wants and needs. Depending on that character's specific role in the story, those may or may not get woven into the plot or become part of the character's arc the way they do for main characters. But wants and needs for minor characters can sometimes be a good source of conflict and subplots that add to the richness of your story, so it's worth at least looking at them.
Relationships are also a great source of conflict and tension in a story. Backstabbing betrayals! Decades-old family feuds! That personal grudge your antagonist has harbored for years against the neighbor kid who stole their plastic garden flamingo! Or, if you'd prefer to be a little more optimistic about it, relationships are beautiful things that can get your characters through the hardest parts of a story and put them back on the path toward accomplishing their goals.
Every time I create a new character of any significance in the story, I like to look at what their relationships are to the other people they'll be interacting with. Who do they mistrust, and why? Who would they take a bullet for? Who would they shove off a cliff at the first opportunity? For me, the best stories are always the ones with character relationships that are as complex, genuine, and nuanced as real-life relationships are, so that's something I'm constantly striving for in my stories.
4. Character flaws
This is another one of those topics that have been covered extensively by other writers, but that's mostly just because it's such an important part of creating characters. I've actually written a blog post on this before as well, so I'll link that here if you want my thoughts on the subject in more detail. But basically, when I'm looking at what flaws I want to give my characters, I'm looking for personal faults that are going to make a difference, because those are the things that have the potential to add conflict and make a story more interesting. I don't care about the superficial stuff that doesn't actually mean anything for the story. I want flaws that really trip my characters up, that cause them to make mistakes and force them to learn (or not) from the consequences. I want flaws that raise the stakes and play a major part in my characters' growth. I want flaws that matter.
5. Write the story
This is something that I talked about in one of those earlier posts I linked above, but I'm going to mention it here because it's something I've struggled with a lot. Often it can seem like other writers have their characters really solidly nailed down and All Figured Out before they even begin drafting a story. They know exactly how Character X is going to react in Situation B, they know exactly what her inner voice should sound like, and they know exactly what she's going to say when her best friend stabs her in the back. Sometimes, it feels like you absolutely have to know your character inside and out before you can start writing.
For me, it's never worked that way. It's only by actually writing the story that I really start getting to know my characters. I don't know how they're going to act in a certain situation until I actually put them there, and I'm not sure what their voice is supposed to sound like until I've written lines upon lines upon lines of dialogue for them already. It's not until I get to the end of that first draft that I really start to feel like I understand them, which means that a lot of my work in revisions is rewriting my characters to feel more consistent and act more in-character, especially in those earlier chapters. It
My point is, it's okay if you don't know everything when you get started. Write the story anyway, and you can figure it out along the way. Don't let the not knowing hold you back. A first draft is just a first draft, and you can make whatever adjustments you need to later. Just write the story. Get to know the people you've put in it by going on that journey with them.
What are your best tips for creating memorable characters? I'd love to hear from you in the comments down below!