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.