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Monday, October 26

6 Steps to Creating a Great Character

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Creating a compelling character doesn’t have to take a lot of time.

For some writers, characters pop into being fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. For others, creating a character is a bit more laborious, filled with uncertainty about where to start or what’s needed before they can start writing. Maybe the novel idea is more plot focused, or more about exploring an idea than a deep character journey, and those writers want to dive in and get started without hours of character development.

I've always been a pantsers when it came to characters, and I don't do a lot of work on them before I throw them into my novels (I figure out who they are as a I write them). So I'm always trying to come up with tricks to help me take a shortcut for that first draft.

And this is one of my favorites, because it's so easy, and also fun.

No matter where you fall on the depth-of-character-creation scale, here's a fun little game that's also quite useful to create a character's personality.

I've written before about the five major character personality traits, and how these are great first steps to creating a character. Today, we're going to use them. 

In case you need a refresher, those traits are:

Openness/Intellect: Levels of curiosity and creativity, imagination and independence, how one responds to new experiences.

Conscientiousness: Levels of organization and work ethic, self discipline and ambition, planning vs. spontaneity.

Extraversion: Levels of sociability and enthusiasm, assertiveness and talkativeness.

Agreeableness: Levels of friendliness and kindness, cooperative and trusting, how well-tempered someone is.

Neuroticism/Emotional Stability: Levels of calmness and tranquility, confidence and sensitivity.

And for this activity, let’s add a #6: Desire/Need: The type of goal they’re after.

How to Play The Pick Six Character-Creation Game


What you’ll need: A six-sided die or a random number generator, something to write down answers, your imagination.

The Rules (and I use the term loosely):

Each trait has six “levels,” and each level has three options. You can mix and match the ones that work best together. For example, in the “Openness/Intellectual” trait, one level is: “Loves new and varied experiences" or "Very curious" or "Very independent.” So you might choose “very curious” for that one if it best fits the character you want to make or the story you're developing.

Roll a six-sided die or generate a number for each trait. Write those traits down from the list below (there’s one for all six personality traits). I’d suggest rolling three times per trait for a well-rounded character. 

Adapt those traits to fit each other and your story.

Create your character.

You might roll traits that contradict each other, but treat those as opportunities to create an interesting character. The character who loves people but hates large groups has a reason for those two traits to co-exist, and that could make for some very interesting backstory and behavior.

The Traits and Options


Openness/Intellect: Levels of curiosity and creativity, imagination and independence, how one responds to new experiences.

1. Loves new and varied experiences or Very curious or Very independent

2. Open to new experiences in general or Fairly curious or Fairly independent

3. Open to new experiences that are familiar or Somewhat curious or Somewhat independent

4. Hesitant about new experiences or A little curious or Somewhat dependent

5. Prefers not to have new experiences or Not very curious or Rather dependent

6. Hates new experiences or Never curious or Very co-dependent

Example: I rolled a 2, 5, and 3 and got a character who is open to new experiences in general, but not very curious, who is also somewhat independent. So maybe they like to do their own thing, but if a friend drags them to try something new they’ll usually go along with it.

Conscientiousness: Levels of organization and work ethic, self discipline and ambition, planning vs. spontaneity.


1. Control freak or Stoic or Personally driven

2. Very organized or Very disciplined or Very ambitious

3. Rather organized or Fairly disciplined or Has ambition

4. Likes to plan or Spontaneous or Content with the status quo

5. Rather unorganized or Tough to motivate or Rather lazy

6. Very unorganized or Very undisciplined or Not ambitious

Example: I rolled a 4, 5, 6 and got a character who likes to plan, is tough to motivate, and isn’t very ambitious. So maybe they like to figure things out ahead of time and have no desire to change those plans once they’re made.

Extraversion: Levels of sociability and enthusiasm, assertiveness and talkativeness.


1. Loves being around people or Fanatic or Overbearing

2. Enjoys people or Intense or Decisive

3. Comfortable with people or Eager or Confident

4. A little shy or Calm or A little hesitant

5. Prefers to be in small groups or Reserved or Fears confrontation

6. Prefers to be alone or Never gets emotional or Meek

Example: I rolled a 1, 5, 5 and got a character who loves being around people, but is reserved and a little meek. So maybe they like being with people (or are scared to be alone?) but prefer to watch rather than join in.

Agreeableness: Levels of friendliness and kindness, cooperative and trusting, how well-tempered someone is.


1. Puts others first or Team player or Trusts everyone

2. Cares about people or Works well with others or Trusts most people

3. Is nice to everyone or Likes to help or Trusts those they know

4. Is polite to everyone or Does their part or Unsure of strangers

5. A bit standoffish or Not good in groups or Suspicious

6. Mean or Total loner or Paranoid

Example: I rolled a 3, 4, 5 and got a character who is nice to everyone, does their part to help out in groups, but is suspicious of those around them. So maybe they’ve been burned a lot in the past, and while they’re still willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, they’re expecting others to pull something or let them down and aren’t going to risk themselves.

Neuroticism/Emotional Stability: Levels of calmness and tranquility, confidence and sensitivity.


1. Always calm under pressure or Very confident or Overly Sensitive

2. Hard to ruffle or Believes in themselves or Empathetic

3. Cool in most situations or Trusts their decisions or Compassionate

4. Gets nervous when things are bad or Has occasional doubts or Self interested

5. Overreacts or Second-guesses things or Apathetic

6. Panics at the first sign of trouble or Can’t make a decision or Insensitive

Example: I rolled a 5, 1, 5 and got a character who overreacts, but is very sure that they’re right, and doesn’t care about what others think. So maybe this is someone who firmly believes things and can’t be talked out of them and doesn’t even want to hear what others might think about it.

Desire/Need: The type of goal they’re after.


This one is a tad different since it isn’t a personality trait, but when creating a character, it’s helpful to know what they want. Roll once on this chart.

1. To escape something

2. To achieve something

3. To reach something

4. To prevent something

5. To find something

6. To change something

Example: I rolled a 2 and got a character who is trying to achieve something. So maybe they want a job, or a promotion, or to become the lead wizard or captain of the next starship.

When I combine all these traits, I get...


A character who is open to new experiences in general, but not very curious, who is also somewhat independent. They like to plan, are tough to motivate, and aren’t very ambitious. They love being around people, but are reserved and a little meek. They’re nice to everyone, do their part to help out in groups, but are suspicious of those around them. They overreact, but are very sure that they’re right, and don’t care about what others think. Their goal is to achieve something.

Different writers will interpret these traits in different ways, but I see someone who…

Has a small, tight group of friends they trust and enjoy being with, and they have little desire to expand that circle or change the way things are.

Once they get an idea in their head it’s hard to change their mind, and that can sometimes cause problems.

Since the goal is to achieve something, maybe their problem is they need to break out of this safe environment for the first time and they don’t know how to do that. Or maybe, the group is changing and they can’t deal with that and want things to remain the same.

If I wanted to put this character into an existing novel I’d have more specific details to work with, but you should be able to see a character who can probably be dropped into any story and adapted to fit that novel.

Naturally, add your own traits or change the levels on any of these to suit your story world or personal tastes better. You might even create a basic character template as a baseline for any new characters in the future, or to flesh out existing characters.

(For more ways to create characters, try these articles) 

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Try creating a character now and see what you come up with.

*Originally published on Pub(lishing) Crawl, October 2014.

Did you create any characters you think you’ll use? How do you like to create characters?

Find out more about characters, internalization, 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 ShifterBlue 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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6 comments:

  1. Great idea to formulate traits.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! Glad you liked it. It's a lot of fun. I made a bunch just to have pre-made characters when I needed one.

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  2. Good article, Janice. I will try this one. 'Toss of the dice' seems appropriate to the fantasy genre.Thanks.
    Thanks,
    Paul

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    Replies
    1. Totally :) And if you're a gamer, you have them handy. Thanks!

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  3. Yum. I love anything that will help me "randomly" generate a character. I'm going to figure out a way to add this to my tables. You wouldn't happen to know if there are any real world statistics about demographics on these, would you. I'm doing a "computer chair dance." Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry, no. I doubt there are since there are so many options and combinations.

      Glad you enjoyed it!

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