Fiction Writing: How to Create a Character

Fiction Writing: How to Create a Character

If you’re one of those people who writes articles, ebooks or website copy for a living in order to make enough money to do the other kind of writing – yes, we mean fiction writing – then this post is for you.

You see, we know that many of you who read this blog are closet fiction writers. (We’re fiction writers ourselves.) You may do business writing as a job, but you might also write short stories, participate in NaNaWriMo every year, or have a novel that you’d like to polish into a publishable manuscript.

That’s fantastic. Being a professional writer doesn’t mean you can’t be an amazing fiction writer.

Some great writers have done the very same. John Scalzi (Old Man’s War, Zoe’s Tale), Don Delillo (Underworld, White Noise), Augusten Burroughs (Dry, Running with Scissors), and Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses) all worked as copywriters until their fiction writing careers took off enough to support them.

We hope you become famous enough that you’ll be listed alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dashiell Hammett (yeah, they did this too) as former copywriters who became great fiction writers.

Creating a Character

It’s a habit of many a lifelong fiction lover to sit down and create a world before creating even a single concept of a character who’s going to live within that world.

The reason is that mostly, creating a world is more a matter of logistics than reality. If you can make it work logically, then you can have anything you want in your fiction world. You can have dragons, or flying spaceships, or (in more traditional fiction) a tiny town in the middle of Arkansas where no town currently exists on the map.

Oh, but characters. Ahh. Characters are fickle. They won’t do what you tell them to do. They have strange personality quirks. They don’t seem real enough until they’re a little inconsistent, and if they’re too inconsistent, then they’re not real either.

Characters are difficult to contain and control, which is often why you notice some of the more mediocre fiction having an amazing setting and truly unbelievable characters.

These authors have made a classic mistake. They’ve tried to shoehorn their character into the setting, instead of creating a real person and asking themselves what the world around this person looks like.

Without at least one character, you simply don’t have a story. J.R.R. Tolkien created one of the most extensive fantasy worlds ever known – but you don’t give a damn about Middle-Earth if there is no Bilbo Baggins, no Gandalf, no Aragorn, no Tom Bombadil.

Your characters are the souls of your stories. So how do you go about creating a character for yours?

Start With Clichés

When you first start creating your character, your impulse might be to create a person unlike any other out person out there. A completely unique individual, with a background that’s new and different, or a person with a weird way of looking at the world, an unconventional mind.

You’ll fail.

At our core, every human being – and that includes each one of us – is a cliché. You’ll have a very hard time creating a character who meets absolutely none of the standard tropes, whether you’re writing conventional literature or fantasy or a mystery novel. As the saying goes, every story has been told a thousand times before.

So has every character.

Pretending your character is somehow going to transcend every single fictional trope that ever existed is absurd. Heck, YOU, a real live breathing walking talking reading blogging human being, fit into at least half a dozen standard tropes.

The housewife who aspires to be a writer. The quiet but strong man who lives alone by choice. The stressed-out college student who just wants to get away from everything.

They’re tropes because they come up again and again in real life. Don’t try to work against the grain on that one.

So go ahead. Create your character and let this person fit into a cliché. Give him or her a background and a basic outline for the person’s life. She’s a middle-aged woman struggling to balance her work and her family, and she has issues with her mother.

It’s okay. She’s not going to stay a cliché for long.

Imbuing a Personality

Once you have your character’s basic circumstances sorted out, you need to give her a personality (your character may very well be a he, but we began with a female example so we’re going to stick with it).

Imbuing a personality is much, much harder than it might seem.

Think about your best friend, someone that you know very well. Think about whether she fits any clichés. She probably does; she probably fits half a dozen clichés. But until we asked you that question, you probably have never thought of your friend as a cliché. She could be the most stereotyped person in the world, she could have shown up in literature since the dawn of the written word, but you would never have thought of your best friend as a cliché.

Why? Well, because she’s your best friend. She’s not a cliché. There’s a reason for where she is in her life and why she feels that way.

And she’s, well, her. She’s your friend. She makes you laugh and she has a funny way of sticking her finger out from her coffee mug as though she’s always having tea with the queen. She remembers you like daffodils, but she can’t be relied upon to remember a birthday. You like the way she thinks, the things she says, and the way she sits next to you at a movie.

Her circumstances, the clichéd part of her, are secondary, tertiary, even farther back. They are not who she is; they are simply what has happened to her. Who she is, is the person who reacts to those circumstances in a particular way.

To know how to create a character with personality, you need to figure out what sort of person your character is. You need to give that person a handful of quirks that are hers and hers alone. It’s rather like creating a recipe – many dishes require flour or eggs or cinnamon, but in differing amounts and in combination with different other ingredients, they’ll result in different final dishes.

So it goes with personality creation. Your character won’t have any personality quirks that don’t show up in other people – impossible. What your character will have are those qualities in different amounts and in unique combinations.

A Little Character Creation Exercise For You

Write out a full conversation between yourself and this character. Pretend you’re stuck in an elevator together and have nothing else to talk about but one another.

See what kind of humor develops, how quickly this person trusts you with new information, the way her mind works in a time of minor stress, what she’s worried about, who she’s concerned about knowing.

Don’t assume that all people react the same way, and don’t assume your character spills everything about herself at the drop of a hat. The point isn’t to get the entire character history on paper; the point is to see what other people see when they meet this person on the page.

What sort of person is this? How would you describe your character to a friend later on, when you’ve gotten out of this elevator? What would you remember?

Want to learn exactly how to create a character that fiction readers fall in love with? We wrote the book on it: Check out our ultimate guide to creating characters that breathe, live and leap off the page in How to Create Believable Characters.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. My biggest fiction-writing breakthrough happened when I participated in NaNoWriMo – I realized fiction writing doesn’t have to be that solitary. Joining NaNoWriMo put me in touch with dozens of like-minded writers, including a few in my home town that I ended up meeting. NaNoWriMo rocks.

  2. Nightsong says:

    Gotta say, I’m looking forward to this week now.

    But I agree wholeheartedly with “starting with a cliche”. I don’t think I’ve ever written a character that could not, at initial idea, be summed up in five or less words. But from there you discover how they vary from that cliche, what of them is not the stereotypes. And that’s when you start to get a full fledged character.

    Though, I still end up learning more about my characters by writing them than I ever could by planning. Because so much of it is what “feels” right for that character, which, depending on how they develop, may be miles away from what you “think”.

    And now, to go try the exercise. *runs off gleefully*

  3. Awesome, it’s almost like a game… you throw the pieces on one at a time, tweaking different attributes and coming up with something that’s all your own, yet still something that fits the norm (hence, sticking to cliches)

    For those that have a little trouble with fiction (maybe it’s just me) model every piece of the advice on this article in real life.

    go and FIND the struggling middle aged MILF, er… woman. Or maybe you already know one. Get to know their personality, go have conversations with this person (in an elevator if possible, thats key!) and see how it goes then model it to your fictional needs.

    I duno… it doesn’t get any more real and believable than that, while still managing to be fictional.
    .-= FitJerks Fitness Blog´s last blog ..Life Is Like A Game And Its Time To Play – For Real! =-.

  4. Mary E. Ulrich says:

    Your post helped me make a connection. “Building a world” for a fictional story, is really the same as “building a dream plan” for your real life. Only difference is in real life, I am the character.

  5. Thanks for throwing out the elevator exercise. Usually writing instructors say “imagine two people talking, and craft their dialogue” – but this doesn’t bring it quite home to me. It’s harder to think up the dialogue for 2 people than 1. When I put myself in the dialogue, and only need to focus on figuring out what 1 person might say, then it’s much easier and much more fluid to create.

    .-= Lori´s last blog ..Cartography That Inspires Art =-.

  6. Thanks for saying it’s ok to make your character start from a clich&ecute;. I’m NaNoWriMoing and I’ve been a bit worried about that. I’ll do my best to make my main character her own, interesting person, without worrying about whether some things are clichéd or not. 🙂
    .-= Mrs. Micah´s last blog ..November – Donating, Noveling, Applying to Grad School =-.

  7. Robert Powers says:

    I like this cliche approach. I’m on my third manuscript and using this cliche approach will be fun and more precise. I normally write in my novel notes some basic information for my characters (personality, vague physical looks, interests, perhaps some history, etc. and now a cliche). I do this more for myself rather than the reader. It helps me in understanding and getting to know the character and story progression.

    Being a writer and watching your characters develop from this foundation almost as if automosly from your input is very rewarding. When I sit and write, I love to read over my session and see what my characters have written… I know how that sounds, but I feel like they do the writting and I’m just blessed to be their instrument for expressing thier story.

    Just remember – don’t force your characters into your idea of what they should be! Otherwise, they will revote and you will walk away with a disjointed story with paper-depth characters! The Book is the Boss, a cliche all writers should subscribe to.

  8. Ah! A perfect post to start the first week of NaNoWriMo! This is the first year that I’m working with completely original characters and in an entirely new genre (science fiction instead of fantasy). It’s fun, but kind of scary stepping out of my comfort zone like that.

    I think I’ll be trying this exercise on my lunch break. 🙂 Character conversations are fun!

    How many others are doing NaNo this year? And what genre are you tackling?

  9. @ Yacine – There’s nothing like writing alongside people who are doing the same as you, supporting you and loving it the way you too, too. S’an awesome feeling!

    @ Nightsong – I always say to people not to force a character to stick to that original idea. Eventually, the more we write them, characters take on a life and breath of their own. If I look back on characters I have now, and what they were like when they first began their life… wildly different sometimes.

    @ FitJerk – Yes! Finding that REAL person and sitting down with them can be revealing in many ways. Want a biker? Have a beer with one and see what that person is really like!

    @ Mary – I like to think that my life is a story and I’m writing it each and every day. And in my story, I can be whoever I want to be. 🙂

    @ Lori – Bingo. Cut the task right in half and bring it home to make it personal.

    @ Mrs. Micah – I’d say ALL my characters began as a cliché – and I also have to say that even now, fully developed as they are, they *still* fit in a cliché… only they’re way better. 😉

    @ Robert – I do things a little differently – I never write anything down, but visualize the character in my mind. Then I get to know that person through writing. S’interesting, definitely.

    And, yeah – NEVER force a character into your definition if that character wants to break free!

    @ Michelle – Ahh, you’re getting the NaNo discussion flowing, good job!

  10. This may be one of the best articles I’ve ever read. I started to work on my novel about a month ago and I’ve been thinking about the characters. I’ve found it difficult to give people a personality but this article has given me a flood of new ideas! Thanks a bunch James!

  11. This was so helpful – thank you! Will use the tip about the conversation in the elevator 🙂


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