Every story has characters. Whether they’re human, alien, talking animals, robots, etc., you’ve always got at least one in every tale. Today, I’ll be writing about my own style of character creation, as well as some tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way to find the best path forward for making a memorable character.
It all starts with a name
Everyone has their own process, but I can’t even start to think about a character until I’ve got a name for them. Sure, I know I want my protagonist to be male/female/robot/animal/whatever, but a name helps to shape what kind of person I write them to be.
I’m not saying that every name has a certain quality associated with it; far from it. I don’t think, “Ah, I need a brave character. What are some brave names I know? Definitely not Lance. That name has never been brave!” I think Lance is actually perfect for a brave character. Yet, it can also be perfect for a coward. The name is what you make of it.
With that in mind, I’m not going to name a character who’s living in 200B.C. ‘Zane’. Unless the character is a time-traveler, you have to make sure your names are time-period relevant. I recently ran into this while writing my latest series, “The Generational War.” Writing characters who were living in the Neolithic Period meant that I had limited options as to what names I could choose.
For me, having a name in place is my starting point. Let’s choose an example to use for the rest of this exercise. I’ll choose a human, male protagonist. I dub him: Harold. Let’s see what else we need to make Harold a living, breathing character I can use in future publications.
Get a little more personal
Alright, so we have a name. Harold. Harold the Hero. It sounds good. Just saying it out loud helps me to already start to formula what kind of person Harold is, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. First, I’m going to start with the three most visible aspects of a person in a story: eyes, hair, and build. After that, we can explore how they think and what they want.
Eyes are the windows to the soul, and hair is an expression of self, right? Well, if you want your character to be realistic, you gotta pick two colors right off the bat; iris and hair. Remember, if this is supposed to be an average character who blends into the background, he’s going to have average features. That means possible iris colors to choose from are brown, green, blue, or grey, or any combination of those colors if you want to go a little more special. I think I’ll give Harold dark brown irises with hints of golden flakes around the pupils; if someone stares closely enough at his eyes they’ll be able to see them. I’ve seen this color in real life, and as such am confident that it won’t be a stretch for the reader to believe.
Note: If you’re writing about an alien, half-breed, or anything else that makes the character special, that’s when you can get into different colors. Red, orange, pink, golden, etc., are all okay if your character is not fully human, or if they have some unique special quality about them. Just make sure that it explained why the color is unusual, and not just a, “she had light green eyes that changed to pink every twenty-three minutes, then back again. The doctors couldn’t explain it, but she knew it meant she was special,” explanation. Readers are quick to judge a writer for trying too hard to make their character special rather than believe the unbelievable.
Next is hair, using the same principal as above, of course. No one is going to believe a character has naturally bright green hair unless there’s a believable explanation behind it. For Harold, I’ll go with jet black.
It’s also here that you can decide on skin color if you like, though I personally try to keep such details ambiguous unless necessary. This is mainly so that the character can be connected with by anyone who shares other traits with them, such as bravery, intelligence, shyness, or whatever else the character displays. If skin tone is important, say it. If not, you don’t have to.
Next, the build. I personally always have my character’s size in mind even if I’m not writing it down on the paper. For instance, would Harold struggle to pick up a large bag of trash? Would he easily toss it over his shoulder without effort? I don’t have to write, “Harold, because he had little to no upper-body strength, struggled to pick up the bag, even though it weighed less than ten pounds.” The part about his strength is irrelevant. If I cut that out, the reader can still understand that Harold is weak without me spoon-feeding them, and will thus start to paint their own mental picture of Harold’s appearance.
This is a very important lesson in learning how to show, not tell, a reader what to imagine. Sometimes less is more.
Our next aspect of Harold to discover is how he thinks. This also ties into personality. Is Harold shy? Loud? Extroverted? Introverted? A mixture of different personalities? Maybe he’s shy at first, but loud the moment he’s comfortable. Maybe he’s loud to strangers, but quite and calm when around friends. It’s these things you have to keep in mind which will help when writing dialogue. If Harold is shy, he won’t ask someone, “What are you doing here? Who’s with you? What do you want?” That’s much to direct. He’d instead ask, “I’m sorry, excuse me, but I was wondering, um, why you’re here. Sorry to bother, it’s just that no one’s supposed to be here…” and then maybe he trails off because he starts mumbling to himself or loses his nerve mid-sentence.
I think I’ll stick with a shy, timid Harold who is no louder than a mouse to strangers. His friends find him to be funny and smart, but he needs a lot of time to get comfortable enough around someone to really open up to them.
On to the good part: What does Harold want? This, of course, will depend entirely on the story Harold is in. If the main storyline is ‘Boy has to break a curse to save his best friend in the world’, then Harold would want to save his friend. That part’s obvious. What isn’t obvious is any other wants or needs. Does he want his friend to respect him more? Cherish their friendship? Feel as strongly about him as he does about them? Does he want to prove his merits, not only to his friend, but to himself as well?
Every character needs a motivation; even supporting characters and villains. People do what they do for a reason. Make sure your characters have that reason.
Polishing off the final details
Here are some final tips and tricks to finishing off a character outline and ensuring you’ve got yourself a good, solid idea of who you’re writing about.
Don’t go too deep: Leave a little for the imagination. As mentioned above, show instead of tell the reader what’s going on. “He easily jumped over the ten-foot fence” translates into “he was either ridiculously tall or amazingly athletic.”
Know your character, but allow for change: It’s natural for people to grow and change as they experience things. If your character starts out bright-eyed and eager to experience the world, but sees death, despair, and destruction at every turn, they likely will change a bit. You’re not exactly the same person as you were when you were a child, right? Same goes for your character. We all grow and change; some more than others. Don’t be afraid to let your character do so as well.
Remain relatively consistent: Even with the advice above, characters don’t often do full 360’s in demeanor or personality unless a major event has occurred. If your character stubs their toe, they’re not going to suddenly turn evil and curse the world for letting such a cruel injustice befall them. Likewise, if your character watches their beloved father murdered before their very eyes, they’re not just going to shrug it off and go play with their friends immediately after. Characters change, but the changes need to be reasonable and explainable (unless your intention is to be comedic. Now that I’m typing this I realize it would be hilarious to read about a super-villain who started on their path of rage and destruction because they stubbed their toe one day. Outrageous).
Overall, making a character can seem like a daunting, challenging task. You have to create a whole person out of thin air, piecing together their personality as you see fit. There’s no wrong way to make a character, and if it works for your story you can make anyone as outrageous or normal as you want. The options are endless, and it’s up to the writer to decide who or what they put into their story.
Best of luck on creating your characters, and I hope you found some good resources for doing so here!