Writing advice: character creation. For the birds.

Make your characters bloom. Here's a little writing advice on creating characters that I wish I had in the beginning. Now you don't need to go through what I did to discover these easy techniques.  

Over the years, one of the most salient questions posed to us at conventions has been “How do you come up with characters and make them come to life/animated?”

Ready? Of course you are. You were smart enough to find this.  

1) Inspiration for characters can come from small observations to grand distillations of prevailing subject matter of the times. Perhaps you want to create a character who acts as an allegorical mechanism in the story. Take the subject matter you want to address and find the elements that define it and refine them down to the character level. For example, one might wish to comment on the struggles of single-mothers, so the character have a perspective that directs their behaviors, which reflected this condition. In reality, it is about finding a perspective and developing characteristics, which define behaviors. What they reflect depends on the theme of the story.

2) Let’s proceed more directly. Create a character chart. Write down what makes them who they are from diction to affliction. Figure out the details of their personality big and small. Sounds silly but it works. List the character’s likes, dislikes, the way they speak, tragedies in their lives, great triumphs, and self-perception. Seriously, the more you can generate, the more real the character becomes. Everything from favorite color to the secret they will never tell. You might not ever use this information, but what it does is lead to the next step.

I know #2 can seem like a chore but it is effective and can be fun. Make a game of it and put them in CRAZY adventures. Speaking of crazy adventure...

3) Get to know your character. This is where advice about character development from Edward Albee, the playwright, comes into play. I read long ago that he likes to create characters and then let them live in his mind. He wanted to know the character like he knew his own friends and family. Have conversations with them and let them evolve. In way, it’s like getting to know a new person in your life. When you meet them, you only get the physical details along with some ways the person interacts with others. You might discover some opinions through conversation, but nothing too deep. That’s were long term exposure and shared experiences allow you to get to know the person.

Get to know your character before you write them. For example, you know how your good friends will answer a phone call or how they will reply to text. We all use “go to” phrases. This is a behavior and having predictable (to the writer) behavior allows for a realism. All things flow from character.

And last, I know, finally.

4) Self-perception or the self-concept. Every human has a story of who they are as told to themselves by themselves. In a general sense, policemen think of themselves as protectors, doctors think of themselves as healers, and most people think of themselves as good people though actions might dictate otherwise. You must know how the character sees themselves and this will allow for the defining of goals and behaviors that follow. This comes to the cognitive or bias filters.

Every person has preoccupations and previous experiences that inform how they see the world. A doctor might see disease everywhere and a policeman see criminality everywhere. This preoccupation selects the information from the sensory world and feeds it into exists value systems and operative models of interpretation.

Apperception, the previous foundation of experiences and knowledge also exhibits traits and manifests in behaviors. The most simple example: A twenty dollar bill is on the ground. A person with a background of poverty sees it as a substantial amount of money. A rich person from an upper-class past sees it as almost inconsequential. So these two elements create a filter through which the character relates to the world they inhabit and they react accordingly to the event or stimulus.

Easy peasy.

Basically, create a background and get to know your characters before writing them. If you know someone, you can present a consistent sequence of behavior by knowing motive and backstory. This moves the plot. This also includes developing the flaw that does not let the character advance in personal or narrative growth. This can be a lot of work but when done for the protagonist and antagonist, it facilitates continuity. Also, look up Aristotelian hamartia, anagnorisis, and peripeteia. Too much to go into in this sort of piece.   

By the way, having idiosyncrasies or quirks really helps make a character seem authentic to a reader. Why? Everyone has them.


Joshua Lee Andrew Jones of Wayward Raven Media

Imbalance occurs. Balance is restored.  That is what a story is. How you get there is up to you with the when, where, what, who and why.