Friday, March 16, 2012
Under Development: Ways to Create Characters
Some folks interview their characters and learn things about them. Others make lists, fill out pre-designed forms with all kinds of details, maybe even find photos online of what they look like. One friend of mine creates collages that represent that character, letting her mind find images that feel right to her, then thinks about the kind of person who'd create that collage. Another dives deep into the emotional states of the characters and needs to understand how they tick before she can do much with them.
I'm pretty footloose and fancy free when it comes to my characters. I know a few key things about them as I start writing, but it's usually just background facts and some general emotional or personality traits. I like to know generally who they are and what they want, since this pretty much drives all their actions, but I really learn about who they are during a first draft. For my character, Nya, I knew she was an orphan, had a little sister she looked after and would do anything to keep safe, that she struggled every day to survive, was smart, and a good person at heart. She was also practical, impulsive, and had faith that things would get better. I discovered the rest as I wrote her.
Name five traits your character has. Now pick five details that show: their family status, their economic status, their morality, their personality, and their fears.
Everyone is different, but knowing too much about a character stifles my creativity. I end up trying to make plot fit the character sheet and not let the character develop organically to the story. I have learned that knowing the emotional stuff works far better that knowing the physical, as does knowing some critical moments in their past that have shaped who that character is.
Pick three emotions your character regularly feels.
Who they are and what they want are important for me to know early on, and I think this defines the character. Their morality, their goals, their dreams. Nya being practical and impulsive told me how she'd react to things. Her being a good person let me understand what lines she wouldn't cross, or what would have to be at stake for her to cross them.
Pick the most common way your character reacts to a problem.
It's also helpful to know their weakness and flaws, so you can let that character develop some depth. Perfect characters are boring. The mistakes characters make are typically critical to the plot. This is also a good thing to know so you can see where your character can grow over the course of the novel. What they can try to overcome on an emotional level and not just a plot level. Making mistakes is how we learn, and if a character never makes mistakes, or those mistakes don't cost them something on some level, then nothing matters. What matters to the character is how they become real to the reader.
Pick three weakness or flaws your character possesses.
As you write them, think about what they'd do in the situations you put them in, not just what needs to happen for plot. Just acting out plot is a good way to wind up with flat characters and a predictable story. If your characters behave in ways contrary to plot or what might be the best solution, you can deepen a character and keep the story unpredictable. In general, people tend to take the easiest path to get what they want. No one wants to work harder than they have to, especially if they're in trouble. But what's easy for you isn't always what's easy for the character.
Pick three things your character would never do.
I don't think it's possible to really know your characters until they've been through your story. You have a good idea of who they are, but it isn't until you put them under pressure that they truly emerge. So I never worry too much about my characters on the first draft. I've had plenty of them change as I wrote, because I found out more about them and the later stuff contradicted the original stuff. (And the later was far better). If this happens to you, don't be afraid to let them change, just fix them on the next draft so they are solidly the person they've turned into.
Pick three ways in which your character will change over the course of the story.
Just pay attention to when they do something that isn't them. Sometimes this is good, because they're being forced out of their comfort zone, but other times it's the character being forced to fit plot. Really look at why the character is going against who they are. If they have no choice (like poor Nya) then take the opportunity to show another layer or that character in how they deal with doing something they morally oppose.
Pick three ways in which your character won't act like themselves.
So, to break it down some, ask yourself...
1. What kind of person is this?
2. What are their strengths?
3. What are their weaknesses?
4. What are their flaws?
5. What do they want out of life?
6. What do they fear?
7. What are the key defining moments in their past, both good and bad?
This should give you enough background to either jump in, or start developing further. One word of warning though--creating a rich backstory can be both a benefit and a curse. You might discover a lot of great things about your characters, but you can also lock yourself into people you won't want to change later. Plus, you might find yourself trying hard to get all that cool stuff into the story and bogging it down. A few key elements can be enough to guide you and let the rest come out naturally in the story.
For example, I knew Nya's parents died in the war, but no more than that until I got to places in the story where more info became pertinent. History was revealed naturally because I wasn't trying to find spots to tuck in already created backstory. It freed me up to write what felt right, and then I could figure out how it all went together later.
Of course, you can write yourself into a corner this way, so also be wary of being too free if that's not your nature. You don't want to make up a bunch of stuff and then discover none of it works on the grand scale.
Whatever you do, remember that characters are people. They're not 100% anything, and have all the contradictions a real person has. They're wrong sometimes, believe things they shouldn't and can be jerks. But they also have great strengths when needed, good qualities that surprise people, and unplumbed depths.
How do you create your characters? Do they start fully formed or as empty shells?