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Monday, December 18

8 Tips for Creating Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Characters make the story. No matter how intriguing the idea or exciting the plot, if there isn't a character there we care about (even if it's just curiosity or fascination) the rest of it falls flat.

There are all kinds of ways to develop characters. One of the more common ways is the character worksheet--long lists of questions you fill out that determine physical characteristics, likes, dislikes, history, etc. For many writers, this is a useful way to develop and create a character.

I'm not one of those writers.

These sheets have never worked for me. Making up details with no story context have never helped me get to know my characters, and sometimes those details even pigeonholed me into keeping a detail or trait I came up with because I needed to fill a particular slot. If these sheets help you, that's wonderful, but if not, I have a different option.

What I've found more useful, is to ask questions about my characters that pertain to their lives and how that works with the story. It helps focus my character creation to work with my story, not as a separate entity.

And if you can't answer everything, or only have vague ideas at first, that's okay. I usually only know a few key details about my newbie characters, but they develop as I write the story and watch my characters interact. For me, I learn about them during a first draft.

There's nothing wrong with starting a story with basic, underdeveloped characters if you need to write them to know them. Think of it as pantsing your characters, and part of the fun is discovering who these people are. Sometimes you don't know the type of person your character needs to be (or is) until you see how the story unfolds.

Here are some things to consider when creating a character:

1. What are the critical needs of the character?

Chances are these needs will be connected to the core conflict of the story. Knowing a few key needs are important because those needs are probably driving and influencing all of your character's decisions. Ideally, you want them to be the kind of needs that will help your plot unfold. For example, if your protagonist has a driving need to become a dancer, a story that has nothing to do with her becoming a dancer or using dance to solve her problems will probably feel disconnected.

2. What are the critical fears of the character?

Knowing what your character is afraid of helps you flesh out what your conflicts might be. You won't just pick random problems to throw in her path, you'll pick challenges that will affect her on a deeper level, thus creating a more emotionally layered scene. And seeing how your character reacts to what she fears helps you learn more about her so you can flesh her out even more.

3. Who are this character's friends?

They say you can tell a lot about a person by who they hang around with, so what types of people are in your character's lives? What are their key needs and fears? Do they have traits that your character finds appealing or soothing? Annoying or irritating? This will also help you create secondary and supporting characters for the story.

4. Who are this character's enemies?

Who your character avoids or can't stand says a lot about her, too. Why does she avoid these people? It's okay for her to have selfish or childish reasons; not everything your character thinks has to be noble. Beliefs that cause trouble is actually a lot more fun, especially if her beliefs are flat out wrong.

These are all things we're likely to know before we start a story, so let's look next at some things we might not know until we start writing that character.

Things to consider about a character during the first draft:

1. Which personality traits help this character? Which hurt her?

This is a different take on the old "strengths and weaknesses" question. I like to look at it as it pertains to the story at hand. What does your character do that usually gets her out of trouble or helps her find her way? What does she do that usually backfires, or gets her into trouble?

Once you've found these traits, ask yourself: "How did the character develop this trait or get this way?" This is a useful way to create some backstory. Odds are by now you'll know enough about your character and world to see where in that world your character would have learned (or not learned) these skills to survive. They might even connect to something else in the story you can use to create more conflict or raise the stakes.

2. What does this character think is fair? Unfair?

This explores her moral beliefs. What has she found in your story that really ticked her off and made her want to act to fix it? (it doesn't have to be your plot, but it's okay if it is). What has made her happy, or feel safe? Her sense of justice can be found in how she feels about the situations around her.

Once you know that: You'll have a better sense of what this character would be willing to do or not do when faced with these situations, and that'll tell you even more about her.

In fact, knowing how she views justice can even give you ideas on how to put her into situations where those ideas are tested. Forcing her to make tough choices gives you further opportunities for character development, and gives you some nifty scenes to boot.

3. What does this character like about her friends? Dislike about them?

Not everyone agrees all the time, especially friends. These spots will probably come up naturally as you write, because you're looking for places to add conflict or hash out different ideas to keep the tension up. What opinions have you given your characters without even realizing it? Use these to deepen emotions.

Once you know this:
You're often more willing to agree to something if you like that person or believe the same thing. Even if that something is "wrong" or goes against the norm. Just like you'll rebel against doing something you disagree with, even if it seems like the most logical way of handling a situation. You can use these feelings to show other sides of your characters, both good and bad, and exploit their flaws and virtues.

4. How does this character handle stress?

Some folks are calm under pressure, others fall apart. Since your characters are going to be in some stressful situation (I hope), knowing how they react and why can reveal more about them. Sometimes we naturally react one way, but other times it's because we've had experience or training in some way to handle things--good and bad. And we don't always handle them well.

Once you know this: You'll know the knee-jerk reactions your characters will have when faced with obstacles. That first reaction often determines what they'll do next, which drives your story. It might be tempting to give them reactions that help them and always put them on the right path, but giving them traits that cause them to falter can be way more interesting. And provide you with more fodder for the story.

Character development is all about throwing your characters into situations and seeing how they react. Sometimes you can decide that ahead of time, but a lot of times it shows up as you write. Don't worry if you don't know everything about a character when you start a story. Get to know them same as a reader would. One page at a time.

How do you like to create your characters? 

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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