How to Create Characters
For all kinds of fiction
Let’s say you want to write a story. It could be for a class, fun, or because there are so many outlets to publish now that a little extra money would be nice. Whatever reason you want to write a story or a novel, if you’re writing fiction, you need characters.
There are a lot of details to characters and it’s very easy to miss important ones, which will leave you with a paper doll, not a character. Characters are very much like people, at least if you want the reader to believe in them enough to stay with the story. They have a physical presence, mental quirks, history, and connections to the world. All of that is important. Wherever they are in the story, they came from somewhere and that somewhere left a mark.
So let’s start with a boy next door character. The basics of his physical appearance is usually pretty easy. He’s 5’5”, a basic haircut from some chain store on his brown hair, with hazel eyes, and an average build that could maybe stand to lose a couple pounds, but not much. Let’s dress him in jeans, sneakers, and a tee-shirt with the logo of a popular soft drink. For me, this character is an algorithm in my head and he’s already complaining that he’s boring. “This sucks! I look like I walked out of a cheap call center!”
Let’s call him Brad.
Brad: “Let’s not. My name is Finn.”
Now where did he get all this attitude? I expect subconsciously I didn’t like making such a bland character so that subconsciously flowed into who he was.
So how did he get into a situation where his ID says he’s Brad, but he knows he’s Finn? So how old is he? I missed a very important detail! He’s 17. His father is, er, was a gangster. The whole family is in witness protection and ‘Brad’ is going to be going to high school in a new city, much cheaper clothes, can’t have his Mustang anymore, and he misses his girlfriend.
Now what does a kid like that do? He runs away and tries to go home. Of course the people after his father are all over him and there’s lots of adventure. The federal government has auctioned off his Mustang. His girlfriend is dating someone new, and now people are trying to kill him. We’ve got the set up for an interesting story.
What if we had started with the world though, instead of the character’s physical appearance? Let’s imagine a new world. I’m tempted to go with elves, but instead let’s go with crow shapeshifters living in Seattle, in 2020. There’s like five of them, same species, but not closely related, living in a one bedroom apartment in Capital Hill. There used to be a lot more of them, but for some reason the city isn’t good for them, but they’ve been living here for thousands of years and well, this home.
Our main character (MC) is going to Jason. He’s got jet black hair that reaches to his shoulders, blue eyes so dark they look black, black nail polish on his finger nails and bell bottom blue jeans he’s been wearing since the 70’s. He’s got a newer black hoodie though that is decorated with Gundam Wing stuff, from like 1985. He’s not poor. He’s got money, under various names and in various countries. He doesn’t age, but he’s not overly interested in human affairs, usually. Every time he shifts form, his body and clothes all return to their optimal state. I can feel his emotions and body language with that much known about him. He’s gangly and seemingly disinterested in most things, like he could stand in his human form on a street corner and stare at people for hours and be quite happy.
He has a job though. He’s a gig worker, making deliveries, which he’s really pretty good at. He’s got a black backpack that is very, very hard to see, so he picks up the order and if it’s easier, he just shifts into crow form, flies to the address, shifts back, delivers, and meanders away. He hasn’t figured out how to use a smartphone yet, but he’s got a young human friend who’s family is very short of money that manages that part and sends Jason all the information via a bluetooth ear piece. He likes doing this job. His human friend gives him random shiny things for doing it. It’s very nice. He’s been paying the kid’s rent without knowing it for months. Nice tips too, because the food is always the perfect temperature and the perfect order when he shifts back to human form.
I hope these examples that I made up just now show how the character and the story intertwine. They are inseparable. If I made Jason only a hundred years old, rather than thousands, the character and the story would change beyond recognition. All the details matter when creating characters, but they have to be created in the context of the world they live in.
Next time, I’ll talk about character bibles - how to build one and why you want to.
About the author
I write a lot of lgbt+ stuff, lots of sci fi. My big story right now is The Moon's Permission.
I've been writing all my life. Every time I think I should do something else, I come back to words.