Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Create Characters in 60 Seconds

how do I create a character
By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton  

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)

JH: Stories need characters, but we don't always have time to spend all day on them. Here's a fantastic way to build a character on the fly.

When you create great characters, they walk onto the page and make your story unforgettable. They can bring every scene to life. But creating characters takes tons of time and effort, doesn’t it?

Not necessarily.

I’m here to show you how you can create an impressively good character in 60 seconds or less. Sound impossible? Here's the secret.

You don't need to write ten pages of backstory to make a great character. All you need is four short sentences.

Sentence #1: Name & Appearance

What is this character’s name?

how do I create a character
Who is this guy?
If you don’t have a name in mind yet, use a placeholder name. (More on names in a moment.) Next question:

How would you describe this character’s appearance, in a single word, or as few words as possible?

Don’t limit yourself to just hair, clothes, or general physical description. Get creative. Come up with any noticeable outward feature that sounds good, and jot it down.

Take your answers to these two simple questions and use them to write a quick sentence or two, like this urban fantasy example:

He’s a muscle-bound black guy with huge tattooed biceps and a wolf mask. His name is Feral.

Sentence #2: Personality & Job

How would you describe this character’s personality or temperament?

Again, this should be just one or two words.

(Tip: If you’re feeling stumped, pick up a copy of The Positive Trait Thesaurus or The Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. Super handy.)

What does this character do for a living?

Again, use your answers in a sentence. For example:

He’s a bold, aggressive shapeshifter who is always on the make.

Sentence #3: Location

Where are we when we meet this character?

Does this character belong here in this location (i.e. is this where they live, work, or hang out)?

If so, how does the location reflect on this character?

If the character doesn’t belong here, what makes them stick out in this location?

Again, jot down a quick sentence to put the character in context, like this:

At the masquerade, Feral towers over the other sorcerers, but he isn’t interested in blending into the crowd.

Sentence #4: Motivation

What does this character want or need right now, right here in this scene?

how do I create a character
There's always time for a walk-on!
You don't need to delve into what they want out of life in general. You can worry about that later, if this character ever reappears in your story. For right now, stay in the moment. What is this character trying to get, avoid, do, or accomplish in this particular scene?

It could tie in to the main plot of your story, or it could be totally unrelated. Either way is fine.

Again, write your answer as a single sentence. For example:

Feral is here to dance with any pretty ladies he meets.

See What You Just Did There?

Too often, when I read an unpublished manuscript, I find incidental characters who seem like they were frozen in place before the story began. It's like they were just standing there, killing time, waiting for the hero to show up.

When you have a flat character like that in your story, people can tell. It feels cheap. It feels uninspired. It doesn't draw people into your story.

But with this technique, in just a few sentences, you have created a complete character. You know who they are, what they’re like, how they fit into your world, and what they’re after.

It may not seem like much information, but it is plenty enough for you to get into this character's head and bring them to life on the page.

Most importantly, you can do all of this character work on an as-needed basis, without breaking your writing flow. That helps you keep your story moving forward, so you can finish your novel faster.

The 60-Second Character in Action

This method may seem too simple to work, but it does.

In the second book of my Dru Jasper series, A Kiss Before Doomsday, I had a scene where the heroines all dress up in outrageous costumes and go crash a sorcerers’ masquerade ball being held in an abandoned underground nuclear bunker.

(Wacky, I know, but that's the sort of book I write.)

Anyway, there’s a huge over-the-top dance party, where strange new sorcerers start dancing with our heroines. When I got to this part of the story, I realized I hadn't figured out who these other random sorcerers were. So I had to create them very quickly.

Like this guy, for example, who should by now seem very familiar:

Feral is a muscle-bound black guy with huge tattooed biceps and a wolf mask. He’s a bold, aggressive shapeshifter who is always on the make. At the masquerade, Feral towers over the other sorcerers, but he isn’t interested in blending into the crowd. He’s here to dance with any pretty ladies he meets.

That’s barely 50 words, but it’s enough. The moment this guy walks up to our heroines, you have a pretty good idea of what he’s going to do and why. Instant story.

In fact, Feral ended up being such an interesting character that I brought him back in every subsequent book. By the fourth book in the series, he had his own storyline. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t taken a minute—literally sixty seconds of my time—to brainstorm some ideas and create a quick but memorable character.

Bonus Tip: Prepare a Name List

Don’t get hung up on names, by the way. If you’re like me, you can spend hours agonizing over choosing exactly the right name for a character.

Luckily for me, my lovely wife is a character-naming genius. But if you don’t have someone like that on call, do yourself a favor and find a good random name generator online, or use a baby name book (I recommend The Baby Name Wizard).

Then, make a list of letters from A to Z, and spend a little time filling it in with a dozen or two names you like. (Making an A to Z list like this prevents you from accidentally using two names that begin with the same letter.)

Keep this name list handy. Whenever you need to create a new character, just pick a name and scratch it off the list. I do this with every book, and it has saved me unbelievable amounts of name anguish.

So: name list. Make one now. You'll thank me later.

Can You Make 5 Characters in 5 Minutes?

Remember, the emphasis here is on speed, not depth. You’re not trying to create elaborate back stories for these characters. You just want to whip up something to serve as a springboard for your imagination. That way, you can introduce a character on the page and keep on writing without breaking a sweat.

Are you up for a writing challenge? Set a timer for five minutes, and use this 60-Second Character technique to create as many characters as you possibly can, as fast as you can. When the bell rings, look back over your notes. How did you do? Did you sketch out five characters? (Or more?)

Leave me a comment and let me know, or contact me on my author website .

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About No Sleep till Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 3)

An inexperienced sorceress must retrieve a priceless artifact from the enchantress who stole it, break the curse on her half-demon boyfriend, and stop her friends from turning on each other before the enchantress calls down doomsday.

When a wicked enchantress steals a cursed doomsday amulet, crystal sorceress Dru Jasper has only twenty-four hours to get it back before the world will come to a fiery end. With this supernatural amulet in hand, the enchantress intends to break the sixth seal of the apocalypse scroll--making the seas boil, the stars fall from the sky, and the earth itself split apart. Overall,  bad news.

Dru must hit the road to get the amulet back. But she suspects her half-demon boyfriend, Greyson, and his demon-possessed muscle car, Hellbringer, are hiding a dark secret. Can she trust them to help her stop doomsday? Worse, tracking down the enchantress runs Dru smack up against a pack of killer  shape-shifters, the grim mystery of a radioactive ghost town, and a dangerous speed demon even more powerful than Hellbringer.

As the clock runs out, Dru is locked in a high-speed chase with the enchantress, fighting a fierce, magical duel she can never win alone. Can Dru and her sorcerer friends unravel Hellbringer's secrets, outwit the shape-shifters, and retrieve the stolen amulet before the dawn of doomsday?

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound Kobo


  1. It's that fourth sentence that makes all the difference.

  2. I don't think I'd use this method for main characters but I'm sure it would be the way to go for minor characters.

  3. Great tips that could also be used after you've created characters -- do they answer all the questions?

    Thanks, Laurence, for an idea that could also be customized to any genre.

  4. I suppose this method could be used for both major and minor characters and fourth sentence is quite valuable and handy.
    Especially like the list of names part as I have a torrid time with character names.

  5. Great tips! I especially like it because I would rather a character be created naturally and the character sheets don't do that.