Friday, July 10, 2015

Under Development: 8 Ways to Create Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Developing characters is one of those things where everyone has their own method, and it often takes time to find out what works for you. There's no right or wrong way to do it.

Some folks interview their characters, others make lists of key traits, some fill out pre-designed forms with a variety 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 friend 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 a novel, but it's usually a few background facts and some general emotional or personality traits. I like to know generally who they are and what they want, since this drives all their actions, but I really learn about who they are during a first draft. I put them into trouble and see how they respond when their beliefs and morals are tested.

For example: for my character, Nya, I knew she had a magical ability that allowed her to shift pain between people, 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.

Everyone is different, but knowing too much about a character before I write stifles my creativity. I end up trying to make plot fit the character sheet and not letting the character develop organically to the story. I have learned that knowing the emotional aspects works far better for me than knowing the physical, as does knowing some critical moments in their past that have shaped who that character is.

If you're not sure how to create a character, or you're looking for a new way to develop them, try asking a few questions. Start with these, and add (or delete) questions until you find the right balance for your writing process. 

1. List five traits for this character. 

What are the things that come to mind when you picture this character? Are they physical or emotional? Bits of history or skills? Maybe it's their goal or character flaw? The things that come to mind first are often the core elements of that character, and you can build from there. 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.

2. Pick five details that show: their family status, their economic status, their morality, their personality, and their fears.

No matter where your story is set or what genre it is (present day mystery or created-world fantasy), these are elements every character will have. Identifying them will tell you not only about the character, but a little about the world they live in as well.  

3. Pick three emotions this character regularly feels.

This can tell you just as much about the story you're creating as the character, as choosing fear, grief, and sadness tells a very different tale than love, hope, and desire. It can also show where you might need to balance a character. If there are no happy (or sad) emotions at all, that could indicate a story that is too one-sided emotionally. It's the emotional ups and down that help characters grow (and draw readers in). 

4. Pick the most common way(s) this character reacts to a problem.

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. Personality plays a big role in how someone responds to problems. The impulsive character will dive in and act without thinking, while the cautious one will wait, watch, and plan their next move.

Is this character a fighter or a diplomat? A team player or a lone wolf? Would they ask for help or struggle on their own, even if it means failing?

5. Pick three weakness or flaws this character possesses. 

Perfect characters are boring, so be sure to give them a few flaws. Not only does it make them feel more real, mistakes are a great way to cause trouble and conflict in the plot. These flaws are also where the character arc typically falls, and overcoming those weaknesses are part of the character's overall growth.

6. Pick three things this character would never do.

It's helpful to know what lines a character won't cross, or where they'd put their foot down and refuse to move forward. Personal morality typically influences this, as does the ethics of the world. It's also a good thing to consider in case you want to make the poor character cross that line at some point in the story.

7. Pick three ways in which this character won't act like themselves. 

On the flip side, it's good to consider the contradictions of a character. Everyone has them, but it helps identify the areas where a character is being forced out of their comfort zone, just being quirky,  or if the character is being forced to fit plot. Really look at why the character might go against who they are.

8. Pick three ways in which this character will change over the course of the story.

In most novels, characters will change and grow as the story unfolds. Sometimes these changes are huge and the point of the entire book, other times they're small steps with a few minor lessons learned. This can be a good test to see how character driven your story is--large growth can indicate a lot of character development, while little to no growth typically shows a more plot-driven novel.

Now that you've answered the above, try asking/summarizing:

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 and write, or identify where you want to develop further. One word of warning though--creating a rich backstory can be both a benefit and a curse. You might discover a lot of interesting 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.

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 that information became pertinent. History was revealed naturally because I wasn't trying to find spots to tuck in already created backstory, I finalized it as I needed it. It freed me up to write what felt right based on what I knew about Nya and her world.

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 wonderful backstory and discover none of it works on the grand scale--or worse--contradicts itself.

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 total 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?

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great post! Something that has worked for me is to actually write their history out in a short story. I like starting from the beginning. No one may ever see it but me and it does take time, but by the time I start writing out the book, I know the character pretty darn well. :)

  2. Thank you. I needed this today. I've been having some "issues" with my characters. :) Now I have a good place to start working it out.

  3. Sometimes I've seriously felt GUILTY that I don't know every tiny detail about my character because SO MANY people advise you to know EVERYTHING (even if it's not on the page). I just don't operate that way!

    Your key elements of a character are much more manageable and leave room for flexibility, and like you said, sometimes I discover the answers to those bigger questions as I write. Plots don't jump fully-formed on the page. How can characters? As I write them, I get to know them better... that's what revision's for!

    And as a side note: Any time I randomly write a character detail into the novel -- a favorite movie or something similarly specific -- I add it to a separate list of characteristics, just so I don't contradict myself later in the novel!

  4. Nisa, that's a great idea, too. I have a friend who does that as well. Donna, I have my "story bible" where I keep track of all that stuff. It's come in so handy, especially while writing book two. I totally forgot what color Jeatar's eyes were!

  5. I have an Excel sheet where I've stored info on my characters and i go there when I'm not sure about a character's eye colour or height or something like that. But you're right about writing yourself into a corner; that's the one thing I've fought hard to avoid and I'm glad to say so far I haven't fallen into that trap

  6. I actually write myself into corners all the time, but for me it's part of my process. I find it forces me to think up more interesting ways out of stuff. At least most of the time! Sometimes I just bang my head on the keyboard and wonder why I did it, lol.

  7. Thanks for the super helpful post. It was my question and I appreciate your in depth answer, especially the key characteristics/wants to consider. You are right that when you make a character perfect that they are cardboard. Mine were in one of my earlier versions. When I made them have flaws and not have everything come so easily, the characters became so much more developed, at least I hope so.

  8. Fantastic post. Going to re-examine my WIP characters right now! Thank you for always providing snippets of wisdom and inspiration.

  9. I'm just at this point for my first novel now. Your approach makes a lot of sense to me. I can see spending too much time detailing a character and then having to throw parts of that away. Better to focus on key traits that I can see are essential for major plot points (e.g. a weakness that causes a problem, a strength that will resolve a problem), then flesh it out as I go.

  10. Although I do the interviews etc. for my characters, I don't really discover who they are until the editing stage begins. It's funny, I've been thinking, I do all the outlines and such, but I usually throw them out along the way as the characters just seems to grow inside the shell.

  11. Xan, most welcome. Good luck with those characters!

    R.E. Hunter, a bare bones character works for me, but try different things and see which one works for you. I'm a firm believer of trying everything until you find what works best for your style.

    Traci, maybe that's your way of brainstorming on paper, then whatever sticks with you is what you use. What matters stays.

  12. Hey Janice, I started reading your book. I love the way you write everything is beautifully written. I am just starting to write and I have a question about POV. If the story is in Third person, and POV is one of the characters who is not the protaganist, how do you handle scenes that POV person is not in? If the POV character is not in the scene how can he narrate it?

    1. Aw, thanks so much. You just pick another character to be the POV character in that scene. You can have more than one POV character in a book, even if the story follows one protagonist. Different characters narrate different parts of it.

  13. Thank you, Janice, I needed this. My characters needed this. Sharing.

  14. Great post! I'm teaching an on-line character class for teen writers through the Loft Literary Center and just posted this for them!

  15. I've been using a form for my character profiles that I got from another writing site. However, I think I can come up with a better form using your questions in this post as the base. Thank you.