Creating characters is the thing I struggle with the most in my writing.
I’ve spent hours mulling over setting and time and point of view. I’ve worried about which genre my story would fall into. I’ve gone to the book store and found the spot on the shelf where my books would one day reside. Half an idea would come to me and I’d curse myself for not being a good enough writer to sort out what’s missing.
Every idea I’ve had or world I’ve created never made it out of the idea stage. And each time it happens, I struggle to figure out why. Then it hits me: you don’t have a good character.
For some reason this is one of those things I forget about and rediscover. It’s happened over and over throughout my writing career (I use the term loosely).
Stories aren’t about places or things. Their genre doesn’t matter or their placement on the shelf at Barnes & Noble.
Stories are about people and how life changes them. How events and circumstances and other people shape them and change them.
If I wrote a story about a far off magical world with talking animals and cursed objects, would you want to read it? Maybe? You aren’t sure, are you? Because that’s pretty damn vague.
Okay so what if I told you the story is actually about a boy who’s from this magical world and doesn’t know it? He grew up thinking mom and dad had abandoned him only to discover they never wanted to give him up. They had no choice. And guess what. They’re still alive and being held captive and he’s the only one that can save them. Problem is the door to this world has been lost. No one knows how to get there. So first he’s got to sort through that and then journey across this beautiful but treacherous world to find them.
Now are you interested? Are you asking yourself what could force parents into giving up their only son? How will he find this door? Is it a literal door or a portal? What’s the magical world like? Narnia? Fillory maybe? What’s it like to spend your life thinking you’ve been abandoned only to discover it was a forced separation?
Characters separate the good stories from the bad. You can create the most beautiful, magical, scary world ever and your story will fall flat if you don’t have a good set of characters at its heart.
Now we come to the part I struggle with: How do you create good characters?
I can definitely tell you what not to do because these are things I’ve tried.
- Force it. The more you try to make your character different the weirder things get and your readers can tell it’s forced. He’s got a peg leg and a third eye and a weird habit of collecting his spit in a jar that’s guarded by his pet squirrel. Yeah, that’s different and…who the hell wants to spend 300 pages with this guy?
- Those character questionnaires you see floating around the internet aren’t helpful. Honestly, I think they do more harm than good. Do you really need to know the first time your character skinned his knee? Or used the big boy potty? No. Well, unless those things are somehow absolutely pertinent to your story.
- Your character shouldn’t be a bad copy of you. And by that I mean a version of you that’s been wiped clean of all imperfection.
- Even if your character isn’t your carbon copy, he or she shouldn’t be perfect. Perfection is boring.
The “do” section is a bit harder because I’m still working on that. I’ll share with you what I’ve discovered so far.
- Create a character that has good and bad qualities. We all do. There’s no point denying it. We all have annoying habits and have done things we aren’t proud of. But you’ll notice we’re more interested in people who have screwed up and lived to tell the tale. That’s why gossip is so fun.
- People watch. It’s hard to get inspiration for a magical world in the one we live in. It requires a little more imagination. Not so with characters. Go to the grocery store, a coffee shop, work, or, if you really want to have some fun, a bar. There are tons of live models walking around waiting for you to observe them. Think of yourself as a naturalist studying wild animals in their natural habitat.
- Take note of people that interest you. Why do you find them interesting? What is it about them that makes you want to hear their story?
- Take note of characters in books that interest you. Why are they your favorite? What makes them feel real to you?
- Ask the most important question a writer can ask: What if? What if my parents had abandoned me? What if I woke up and everyone I knew was gone? What if I had to choose between my life and my sibling’s? Etc.
I put off writing this post for a long time. I kept telling myself that I’d write about creating characters once I figured out the right steps for it. But then I realized the other day that that would never happen. If there was a formula for it or an instruction manual, Google would have unearthed those for me years ago.
There’s no dark secret or magic to it. You just have to sit down and do it.
We tend to think that if we do things differently than others or our lives look different than others, we must be doing something wrong. But that’s not true. The truth is there’s no right or wrong way to create a character.
It’s not even a question of right or wrong, it’s a matter of being human and being different.
After all, we struggle with creating characters because we want to create a person that feels real and is unique. So why do we shy away from individuality so much in real life?
All you need to do is get up every day and write and see what happens. Your writing or writing process won’t look like anyone else’s. But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad or that you won’t be successful. So don’t let anyone make you feel bad about how you do things or your choices. Do what’s right for you and write what’s right for you.