Fiction Writing: Character Creation

In past Fiction Writing Series posts, we’ve discussed how to make people care about your character, why characters rule the story, and overcoming the fear of hurting your characters.

Now it’s time to build a character. Open the creative vaults and let your imagination run wild.

The Spark of Creation

Everyone has their own process for creating characters. In gaming, character sheets that use points or numbers to determine skill levels and abilities are common. In fiction writing, authors may build complex Black Books for each character. Others might just have a general idea of their character.

The character sheets used for gaming offer a good opportunity to finding the perfect middle ground between more than vague and less than complex. A basic character sheet goes a long way in helping you flesh out your character concept to create a living, breathing character you’ll want to play every day.

Inspiration is all around you – all you have to do is open yourself up to it. Here are some ways to begin building a character for your novel, your story or for our creative writing game:

Get a Good Name

Names often have very strong associations for people. I absolutely love some names because they remind me of people I’ve liked in the past. Some names invoke an emotion or a feeling.

Be careful though – Some names make you want to cringe. Some are just silly. Some… well. Put some thought into what your character’s name will be.

Listen to a Great Song

Song lyrics are very powerful. They evoke mood and emotion. They also help to set a scene in your mind. Maybe when you hear a certain song you think of a specific individual or can picture the kind of person that would have that song as a theme.

Watch a Movie; Read a Book

Actors and characters in books also give you ideas for your own characters. The way a person looks, acts or might behave in real life could start you on a concept.

Love Gladiator? What about a character with the same values? Love Julia Roberts? Maybe your character smiles the same way or laughs just as openly.

Who Are You?

Now that you have a general idea what your character looks like or how he or she behaves and moves, you have to decide who this person is. This is your character concept. It’s a teaser. It should be easy to state in one or two sentences.

For example, John Doe left his home in Montana to find his missing brother who mysteriously disappeared. John feels responsible for keeping the family together and will do anything to make that happen.

A couple of simple lines provides a wealth of information for building the rest of the character’s personality, strengths and weaknesses. It also leaves room for development and potential storylines.

The Character Sheet

Is your character a computer genius? What level of education has he completed? Is he good at fixing things? Can he drive? Does he have any vices? What are his personal strengths? Everyday things we take for granted go into your character – because one day, he may need to use those skills.

Some other aspects of a character to consider are:

  • Family and friends (names of parents, siblings, spouses, and close friends)
  • Occupation
  • Social status
  • Financial background
  • Pet peeves
  • Date and place of birth
  • Appearance
  • Greatest achievement/failure
  • Hopes and fears

The list is practically endless. Get as detailed as you want. Real people have many facets, and so should your character.

How Did I Get Here?

The next thing to decide is how your character arrived at where he is now. For example, our upcoming creative writing game is set in a fictional town called Reckon located in the Lake Tahoe area of Nevada.

People from all lifestyles pass through Lake Tahoe. Vacationers, con artists, the rich and famous, the poor and notorious… they arrive there for a reason, even if that reason is just wanderlust. How did your character get to where he is?

This is your prelude. Every character has a history. It’s up to you to fill in those details for a rich character with a full life story to share.

Introductions

Now it’s time for introductions. Characters don’t just stand up and say, “Here I am!” The author introduces them to readers in some way.

Character introductions tend come about in two ways: Through the author’s introduction to the reader by describing the scene that includes the character and his thoughts, or through meeting other characters.

Once the work is done, you get to start having fun – you may already be having fun by now. Personally, I find the process of creating characters to be the best part, and I take weeks to do it.

Exploring a new character is like meeting a new friend. Take your time. Enjoy it. As the saying goes, the fun is in the journey, not the destination.

Our new creative writing role-playing game is quickly approaching its launch – are you ready? The first thing you’ll need to be involved in a great game that uses your wits and writing skills is a character concept.

If you’re interested in submitting a character for our upcoming creative writing game, contact us. I’ll send you a character sheet and help you build your character.

Photo Credit: Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, The Sistine Chapel

Post by Agent X

Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

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  1. *Stretch*! Allison awoke to a sunny Saturday morning* and rolled out of bed. As she walked to the kitchen, she thought, “Today’s party at the Pen Mens’ sounds like it’s going to be a blast! I wonder who’s going to be there?” She opened the fridge and suddenly remembered – she was supposed to spend the day with her family. “Damn. Oh well, that should be fun too, but still…”

    With a sigh, Allison baked some muffins for breakfast. While they were baking, she ran around, getting ready to go. When the muffins were done, she grabbed one and was about to run out the door when she thought, “Maybe I should bring the rest of these over to the Pen Men. A banana chocolate chip muffin never hurt anyone**! I’ll bet they could use something to eat too… you can never trust single men to feed themselves properly!”

    She grabbed a platter and quickly filled it with muffins, then dashed across the hall to deliver them. *knock knock knock* No answer. *knock knock knock knock* Still nothing. “Damn it guys, on the one day when I’m in a hurry…”

    Then she saw a handsome man in weird shoes walking down the hall towards her. “Hey Brett! Could you give these to James and Harry? I made them for everyone, but no one’s answering the door and I’m kind of in a hurry.”

    To be continued…

    *Yeah, so it’s still early and dark here in California. Work with me people! ;)
    **Actually, a banana chocolate chip muffin *has* hurt someone, but that’s another story for another day.

    Aside: How do you guys create characters who have characteristics that are different than you? Every time I create a character, it is either way too similar to myself or is unrealistically flawless. I suppose I have trouble relating to characters with different characteristics or different lifestyles than I have? So do you guys do research for these things or am I just way too anti-social to know enough people well enough to model characters after? :P

    Allison’s last blog post..Taste and Create 7

  2. Brett Legree says:

    Good characters and a good story inspired me to start my blog. And I still use those characters to shape my writing, and in a lot of ways, my life.

    So in some strange way I write a fiction story in my head of how I want to shape my life.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..do what you love, and the underpants will follow.

  3. Funny, I was just reading some of Barry Eisler’s tips on writing this week. I am huge huge fan of John Rain books. He was underscoring just what Harry says here. Most novels are about who and what. If your readers don’t care about the who you’ve created, they’re not going to care about the what. Great character development is lit. Plot development is genre.
    How many of us read in series just because we like spending time with Elvis Cole , or Doc Ford? or Fill in your favorite ?
    Southern woman stretches, thinks, sips some tea…..time for breakfie by committee here today…at the Pancake House…some roasted pecan waffles she thinks, or damn you Harry, french toast and sausages….. winks, I shall return.

    Janice C Cartier’s last blog post..The Essence of Cakeness

  4. @Allison: I don’t consider myself the most social person in the world either, but I do like to people-watch. Creating characters different from yourself is all about observation. Try going to the mall or Starbuck’s sometime, sit there for an hour or two and just watch the people. It’s easy to make up quick concepts about them right off the top of your head with only a superficial first impression to go by.

    @Kelly: I did all that?

    @Janice: Good points, it is all about who or what. The what often shapes who the character becomes.

  5. Nicole rolls her eyes as Harry innocently bats his lashes at Kelly. “You’re so full of it.”

    @Allison Harry beat me to it, but he’s spot on. I’m defenitely not a social butterfly, but people-watching is one of my favorite things to do. When I lived in Florida I loved going to Disney or Busch Gardens and find some perfectly manicured spot of lawn near the water to watch people as they passed by. It got easy to tell the locals from the tourists. My favorites were the families with kids of any age. How they interacted, whether they were having fun or not, who was tired, who was about to bounce out of their skin in anticipation. I’d imagine their backgrounds, and before I knew it I was writing stories in my head without even trying!

    Nicole’s last blog post..All Things to All People

  6. Great post.

    The deeper you can go in giving these people — and that’s what they have to be — real lives readers the more readers will love them. And the more a writer knows about them also helps make them easier to write.

    Rob in Denver’s last blog post..Memo to myself…

  7. @ Allison – It’s only skin deep at first. Picture how someone looks. It’s all about looks at first (at least for me). Find photos of people that you’d like to model your character after. Describe them down to a T. Think of hair color, the flecks in their eyes, freckles, the breadth of their shoulders… do they have a scar? How did they get that?

    What makes them smile? How do they smile – does one corner of the mouth twitch up or is it a full grin? What about walking… how do they walk? How does their body move? And when they dip their head shyly, what does that look like? And an expression of anger or fear?

    And slowly, you’ll subconsciously start building a personality for that person. Flawless? Of course not. But if you can’t find a flaw, then you haven’t dug deep enough. Does the character like looking good? Ah, vain, perhaps? How fast can he run? Oh, not athletic? What makes him mad? That’s a flaw right there… how does he handle someone strange? Someone crazy? Someone angry? An empty bar? A full house?

    Swap genders. Choose a man if you’re a woman. Choose a woman if you’re a man. They can’t be *exactly* like you ;)

    @ Rob – exactly, and I think everything I just wrote above helps demonstrate how rich characters could be.

    @ Kelly – Actually, Harry had two very large blunt hints. When I edited, I removed them and replaced them with subtle teasers. So… sorry to burst your bubble, but I’m the tease around here :)

    @ Nicole – This made me smile: writing stories in my head.

    @ Brett – and then you took that one step further. Very cool.

  8. It’s true, when it comes to dropping teasers, I’m awfully heavy-handed. My hints drop with all the grace of an ACME anvil. The thing that amuses me most is, in real life, I’m the exact opposite and so is James.

  9. Brett Legree says:

    @James,

    It is easy with people like you & Harry and everyone here to inspire. You know, this fiction writing series has me thinking that even though I’ve got about 200 irons in the fire, I need to write some fiction short stories. Just a little something different, to expand my brain.

    Actually, that gives me an idea… (*runs back to his notebooks*)

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..do what you love, and the underpants will follow.

  10. Manictastic says:

    Dunno whether or not you need to put in so much effort to create your characters, I never do. Maybe I should :s Well, I usually just start writing on a feeling, on a mood and this will be the main sentiment of my protagonist and the rest fills itself in while i go along. But, yea, if you have many different characters in your stories it can be helpful to have a clear outline who is who.

    The best thing to do with characters -I think I read it here somewhere, dunno, forgot- is to take a stereotypical figure and give him a few flaws and internal struggles and voila, a new interesting character appears. But yea, I’m not really a history-explaining writer, I’m more like an emotions guy. If that makes some sense.

    Manictastic’s last blog post..Outrageous

  11. @Manic: I usually don’t go into all the detail myself. I create a lot of characters on the fly. The backgrounds start as a simple one or two line concept and the rest I flesh out as I go along. Once I start to get enough stuff going on, I’ll write up a character sheet (CS) just to keep track of certain details.

    Some people need more than a concept to keep them going and when you’re leading a game, you need to see that the player has a clear direction with their character. That direction might change over time, and that’s okay.

    I’ve seen many players try to develop a character on the fly and not everyone can do it right.

  12. Ah, James, I suppose I should have seen your slow hand here. Fine editing is a real craft.

    I like how he batted his eyes until you stopped in, though. Cute.

    In real life, Harry, James has the anvil and you have the feathers? Hmm. Two ends and the middle of a fine fellow between you. Sometimes an anvil is nice, sometimes a fan-dance…

    ;)

    Later,

    Kelly

    P.S. If you’ve read the comments on my Naomi piece—umm, it was a different James and Harry.

    Kelly’s last blog post..Tip of the Week: The Simplest Way to Avoid Naming Disasters

  13. Back. Yummy breakfast, good company too. Love this focus on character. Note to self: bug author friends for notes on character development too.

    Question: Does method differ according to purpose or the writing format, gaming, novel, or short story for example?

    Janice C Cartier’s last blog post..The Essence of Cakeness

  14. Harry, this series has been like having a personal writing coach, thank you. The one aspect of character development I struggle with is the name. I also suck at headlines, could there be a connection. Any advice? I would love to improve this and I’m so bad at it, it’s becoming my signature! Sucky headllines, awful character names. Help!

  15. @Allison, I have the same problem. A lot of my characters feel too much like me and I want to try to break out of that mold, but how? Once, I had to write a short story from the perspective of someone not like me. I decided to write a first person story from a man’s perspective. Oddly, it was one of my better works, so it can be done.

    And hey, we’re Cali neighbors!

    @MwP, I have been to Lake Tahoe many times. In fact, I was just there last year! This is going to be fun ;)

    !!! I just had an idea for my character. Oh yeah baby.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Briefs are Not Just Underwear

  16. I do several things when I’m looking for a good name. First I’ll hit a site that lists names from all over the world and see if anything appeals to me. Second, I ask myself if I want the name to mean anything. For example, if I had a character that liked to do rock climbing I might name him Arryn, which is old English for “high mountain”. I think about what his nickname might be. Ryn? Yeah, I like that. Reminds me of my friend Keryn from New Orleans.

    I also think of celebrities, street names, cities and just about anything else.

    And the phone book is good too.

    @Melissa: maybe you’re trying too hard. just let the character speak and it’ll come. And Tahoe is excellent. I’ve been there too and look forward to going back.

  17. @Harry, brilliant! This is something I can actually do, wow thanks! Now about those headlines…

  18. Where did Philip K. Dick come up with a name like Ragle Gumm, anyway?

    Mark Dykeman’s last blog post..7 unusual things about the author

  19. @ Everyone – Thanks for the tips! I suppose because I haven’t had much practice writing fiction, I have trouble getting inside the head of a character that I can’t completely relate with. Perhaps practice will make perfect?

    @Melissa – Woohoo! You’re in NorCal? I’m in SoCal. :)

    Allison’s last blog post..Taste and Create 7

  20. @Harry, Or, I’m not trying hard enough. Sometimes I sort of expect it to just come to me (the muse).

    @Allison, Yep, I’m north ;) where it’s cold.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Briefs are Not Just Underwear

  21. @ Melissa – Lucky. Very hot down here right now. 90 degrees today! Supposed to be hotter tomorrow! :P

    Allison’s last blog post..Taste and Create 7

  22. Okay, all this is great, but I always want to get to the STORY. I am so very much a story-based (fiction) writer rather than a character-driven one. I want to know about my characters, but worrying about what their favorite ice cream flavor is, or what they wanted to be when they grew up (unless it’s relevant “now”) just doesn’t interest me as much as seeing what they’re going to do in the story. Does it help to know their background, character traits, hidden motives? Absolutely–essential, even. To a degree. Except that a person can behave in a particular way under normal circumstances because they wanted to be a ballerina when they grew up and love the color orange, but when they find themselves in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, is that really THAT relevant?

    And–with trepidation because I really can’t afford another time-suck in my life–still, I’d be interested in at least trying this fiction game you’re cooking up….

    –Deb’s last blog post..MM: Jargon

  23. @ Deb – Yes, story counts, but you’re forgetting something essential: without characters, you simply have no story.

  24. I’m not forgetting that at ALL. I’m just saying that I don’t feel the need to get so involved about my characters’ deep-history. Knowing what makes them tick, what morals they have, their motivations… all good and absolutely necessary things. Knowing the name of the dog they had when they were 12? Not really relevant unless they still ARE 12….

    –Deb’s last blog post..MM: Jargon

  25. Oh, and today, here, it’s in the mid 50′s and raining. Blah!

    –Deb’s last blog post..MM: Jargon

  26. Deb- Wrong. Especially about the dog. :) Read Willie Morris, John Steinbeck, Randy Wayne White. If you want a paper doll character fine. If you want a character any one gives a damn about, create depth. Backstory. Hmmm, somehow a name comes to mind…Rosebud….a little boy’s sled. One of the most famous lines of film history. Sometimes items, particulars, become visual touchstones that tell a story very clearly and quickly. People identify and it moves the what along.
    A character’s dreams of being a ballerina, could come in handy if the character has to scale a tight ledge, leap a stream…
    Good luck with your work.

    Janice C Cartier’s last blog post..For Audubon’s Birds And The Kids Of The Gulf Coast

  27. “It’s not supposed to be like this. I wanted to be a ballerina and dance in the Russian Ballet.” The girl bit her lower lip to keep from crying. She missed her dog. How could she not? She had Rosco since she was twelve. She was thirsty and hungry, and the heat made her wish she had gone back for that ice cream at the ship’s buffet instead of sticking to her diet.

    Now her whole world existed in the confines of the rubber lifeboat. All her hopes and dreams literally sunk in a few terrifying hours….

    Yup, a ballerina cast adrift in a lifeboat could work. ;)

  28. Ahhh, instant empathy for Le Petit Danseuse ….:)

    Janice C Cartier’s last blog post..For Audubon’s Birds And The Kids Of The Gulf Coast

  29. La Petite Danseuse. oops Mon Dieu.

    Janice C Cartier’s last blog post..For Audubon’s Birds And The Kids Of The Gulf Coast

  30. Ice cream? Did someone say ice cream? ;-) Seriously, I love what you did with this character. It’s funny I was thinking of Deb’s comments and in my version the poor dog had run away when she was 9 scarring her for life. Yours is much better. :-)

  31. Hey, I never said character depth wasn’t a GOOD idea. Just that I’m too impatient to go into that much background. I want to get to the STORY. It’s just like all the prep work to get, say, a fleece ready to spin into yarn. I love spinning, and I love knitting, but taking the time to scour the fleec clean, then divide it, and card all of it–not to mention dyeing it–before spinning? Tedious. (And there’s a reason I buy my wool in ready-to-spin strips of roving.) If I absolutely had to start from scratch, I could, and knowing the qualities of this type of wool compared to some other type is important, but I don’t NEED to know the sheep’s name to get good yarn.

    –Deb’s last blog post..MM: Jargon

  32. @ Deb – Oh, well every good book needs a good *story*, yes.

  33. The five elements of characterization. Omit one or more at your own risk:

    1. backstory — the life of the character up until the story begins that created the programming which inspires and drives the decisions and behaviors of the main characters in the story. We don’t need to read about it, we only need a peek at it. Apply the iceberg theory to backstory: we only see ten percent, but we don’t question the 90 percent below the surface.

    2. character arc — your hero better learn something and grow over the course of the story, and apply that learning to the proactive behavior (heroism) that results in the satisfactory conclusion of the tale.

    3. Personality is not character — decisions based on a moral compass, or lack thereof. Traits like courage, sensitivity, generosity, confidence, and others like them, define your characters. Doesn’t matter if they stutter or not.

    4. inner demons — arising from backstory, and defining the very thing they must conquer (arc) as they grow through the story to conquer the outer demons facing them.

    5. proactive heroism — your protagonist cannot be rescued, and they can be an observer in the solving of the central problem or challenge of the story; rather, they need to be the driving force behind it.

    And oh yeah, we don’t have to like them. That’s an old myth. We do, however, need to root for them. That’s holy writ.

    Basic stuff. And much more essential than a checklist of facts and traits, like knowing how they dress, what they like to eat, the movies they enjoy and other useless daily minutiae of living. That’s all personality… which is window dressing for the sake of interest, but don’t mistake it for true characterization.

  34. Dude! Did you look into my mind? I actually listen to specific songs for each of my characters to help me get into their minds. I have a husband who is a big D&D fan so getting specific isn’t so difficult. I have it down to height and species. Their tendancies to be good or evil and personalities due to tragic pasts and family.
    .-= J.Morgan´s last blog ..Kakashi Vs. Bleach =-.

Trackbacks

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  6. [...] Character introductions tend come about in two ways: Through the author’s introduction to the reader by describing the scene that includes the character and his thoughts, or through meeting other characters. Once the work is done, you get to start having fun – you may already be having fun by now. Character Creation: Creating Characters That Readers Love [...]

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