CW: This post briefly mentions fictional suicide as I talk about backstory for a character I created for my story.
Who are you?
Write down a list of facts about yourself. Eye color, height, weight, hobbies, your favorite kind of tea, how do you eat your toast, are you a lefty or a righty…now take another look at this information. How well do you think someone could get to you know you based off of this information? Do you think they could judge if they should trust you or not?
Alternatively, write a scene in which you had an argument with a friend. Write about a time your beliefs were changed and what happened to those beliefs. What about a childhood fantasy – your “I wanna be an astronaut when I grow up” story? Can someone make judgements based on those?
We are not a collection of facts. We are our dreams, our beliefs, our desires, and our stories…and the same goes for our characters.
Characters are so much more than their appearance and favorite foods. They are more than if they are messy or organized. These are all superficial traits that can be changed at the drop of a hat with a little bit of description here, a line of dialogue there, and pow – your Mary Sue just went from liking apples to despising them. Don’t get me wrong, you need to know basic facts about your characters as well as things like their daily routine, but you shouldn’t stop there.
So what should I ask them?
After doing research on how other people create their characters, I have managed to combine their thoughts about personality traits, etc. into one succinct list of questions that I’m going to put into practice for this novel. It seems…odd I suppose, but just roll with it. So far it’s been helping immensely.
Who is your character?
I swear this isn’t the only question. That’d be some high-level trolling if it were.
Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius is more about how to construct a story, but it revolves around a character’s “third rail” or the emotional charge throughout the book. She believes that each character starts off with at least one desire and one belief that keeps them from obtaining this desire. This fact is what she builds her stories on, and is actually the reason I put this article before the setting and plot posts. Once you know what your character wants, you can figure out how they go about getting it.
For my NaNo novel, I have two main characters. One of them is named Pers, and they are the one I am going to use as an example of this process. Pers’s father committed suicide when they were young, and they would like nothing more than to learn how to help others dealing with mental illness. They also, however, believe that they cannot deal with emergency situations or would be strong enough to cope with the stresses of providing mental healthcare (or healthcare in general). They generally believe that they are weak and weak-willed, and this holds them back from their dream job.
They have a lot in their history that has sculpted their disposition at the beginning of the novel, mostly dealing with the fallout of that tragic event and the changes that took place in their mother as she went through the grieving process. I won’t outline them all here, but it’s something you can use to start to work on your own characters.
Why is your character?
Most of these questions aren’t exactly grammatically correct, but you’re just going to have to deal with it.
Is your character shy? Outspoken? Quick to anger? Are they messy, a go-getter, a cheat, a liar? Do they tell the truth even when it will hurt themselves or someone else? Knowing the answers to these questions is great, but knowing why these are the answers is even better.
For everything you arbitrarily assign your character, you should find out why they are like that. And don’t read too much into the word “arbitrarily.” We all will assign traits willy-nilly because that’s what we picked out of a hat or that’s what the plot needs. What makes these assignments meaningful is what we do with them.
Figure out why your character turned out an angry person, and you can start to build a much deeper backstory for them than just “they are mad all the time.”
Pers, for this example, is the type of person to not stand up for themself. In order to make this a more solid trait, I asked why – why aren’t they more assertive to get their needs met? After looking into their past I decided their mother fostered these feelings. They were already going to be living with their uncle (the other MC) at the beginning of the story because their mother kicked them out. So they had a father that committed suicide and a mother that was the type to abandon them later. This means that they would have attachment issues, making sure they don’t drive anyone away. Attachment issues easily translate into “I would say something but it might make them angry, so I’ll just stay quiet and deal with it.” Knowing reasons for their personality gives me some character development for their mother now, too.
How was your character…?
Sometimes, you can’t ask “why.” “Why does your character have red hair,” yes, could be explained by saying “it was the postal worker” if their parents both have blonde hair. However, asking “how was your character affected by this” helps in determining what their mindset is at the beginning of the story. This is the backwards version of the previous question. Look at each one of the basic facts about your character – their family size, their socioeconomic status, their race – and really delve into how that affected them growing up and how it affects them now in your story.
When developing this system, I thought this question was kind of a stretch (hindsight, okay?) but gave it a shot anyway. It actually got me through most of my creation process. I won’t go through every little item here, because there is a lot. Since they study psychology and their are from a family that has a history of poor mental health, they are prone to doing more self-care items: journaling, meditation, etc. but only when it is convenient and doesn’t get in anyone’s way (see lack of assertiveness/attachment issues above).
Both them and their uncle have issues with abandonment, for some overlapping reasons, but their uncle has a tendency to hold everyone at arm’s length. Pers tends to take this personally, and so this makes them feel very self conscious about themself and how much space they take up in the house/their uncle’s list of concerns.
When is your character?
“When” in their life are they? Technically this is a where question, but just go along with it. Are they full matured and at the end of their natural life? Are they fresh-faced and ready to party? Think about this while keeping in mind that your character should have a lot of room to grow. The exception is if they are a static character like Sherlock Holmes in the original series. Another consideration is where you want them at the end of the story. What’s the progression you want them to make?
Pers is primed and ready to become a functioning adult, but is too damn afraid to make that leap. There’s lots of room for growth for them: they need to develop the ability to stand up for themselves, they need to get rid of their fear of the unknown, and they need to learn how to trust both themself and others.
What is your character?
This is more about how they fit into the story mechanics. Are they the main character or the antagonist? Are they a love interest anywhere? Are they necessary? Some people create a truckload of characters when they should combine most of them into just a couple of people.
Pers is one of two point of view (POV) characters. This means they are a main character whose story will be told through their eyes. They are very necessary to the plot and are the ones that will provide a lot of context for what’s happening through what they discover in the course of the novel.
Other things to consider
Stereotypes are traits or entire characters that embody an individual in a specific group. This can be based on race, gender, body type or any number of categories. They are not only offensive, but also make for boring, lazy writing.
There are a lot of resources out there to help you avoid problems when writing diverse characters. A book I’m currently reading and cannot recommend enough is How to Write Black Characters: An Incomplete Guide. Obviously there are far more categories out there, and Salt and Sage Books is developing an entire series. The other one I saw is How to Write Asexual Characters, so it seems like they will be hitting quite the spectrum of diversity.
If you aren’t in a specific group, it doesn’t matter how many books you read or movies you watch, you will still never fully understand what it’s like being a part of that group. That’s okay so long as you try in earnest and make sure you get some sensitivity readers. Not to mention, y’know, actually including all types of people in your social/professional circles…
Depending on the world you are creating and the particular scene you’re building, you may need a lot of background characters. I consider background characters more a part of setting/worldbuilding than actual characters. They vaguely represent the world your story takes place in and do not have “speaking roles” unless a snippet is overheard here or there. However, when your main characters interact with an individual, you start to get into side characters.
These are the characters who appear several times throughout the story but only serve a tiny part in the plot. They speak, they have personality, they might even have a home, but they aren’t necessarily as deep as your main characters. Even if you create them to be as deep as your main characters, you won’t be putting all of that on the page.
This is where I quote someone much more experienced than I, Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
If they have a speaking role of any kind, make sure they have a purpose and a desire. Otherwise it will seem oddly hollow. You don’t have to completely spell it out, but make sure you know what it is. Maybe the clerk really does want to help check your MC’s bags. Maybe the barista would like to be anywhere but in that particular coffee shop. It doesn’t have to be life-altering, just something to make them seem more human instead of a prop for your scene.
Motivation and Stakes
This is another bit of advice from Cron (seriously, you need this book). The idea is to think about not only the “why” of your character, but “why is the why a thing?” You need to keep asking why until you have something super specific so you understand their exact state of mind, and what they feel is at stake in the story. This helps to build empathy. There’s a difference between “they want to save the world because if it blows up there’s no world any more” and “they need to save the world because if they don’t, their abusive step mother would be right about how worthless they are, and they will disappoint their little sister who admires them yet again.”
I can’t relate to needing to save the world, but I sure as hell know what it’s like to let someone down or prove an asshole right.
This is NaNoWriMo – you are writing the absolute first draft, a.k.a. a pile of literary poo. Your characters might not be perfect from the start. Hell, your characters might be completely different by the time the month is over, and I don’t mean because they learned lots of life lessons. You will change your mind, get rid of characters, combine characters, add characters, and possibly fall in love with one that doesn’t really fit but you’re going to try to jam them into the plot anyway because you can’t bear to part with them (remember, you can use that character in another story one day so try not to do this last one, yeah?).
The important part, in this series at least, is to have something – anything – to start with come November 1st.
What about you? Who are your characters? Do you have any insights from the way you created yours?