Writing Characters

I realized recently that my creative process for characters varies a lot from other people. Maybe this is due in part to the fact that I’m mostly a pantser. I see all these character sheets online and they are absolutely useless to me. Eye color? Favorite color? Astrological sign? Who cares! How is that relevant to who the person is?

If you’re likewise frustrated, here’s a quick and dirty of how I create characters.

Start From What You Know

Medea is autistic, because I’m autistic, and her sensory issues are roughly the same as mine (though I crank up the sound sensitivity a bit). Dawn is biracial (white and Vietnamese) because so is my niece. She’s fiercely protective of her friends because she doesn’t have many, which makes them precious. It’s the same way I viewed friends growing up, and while I never clocked someone for it, I did get into trouble for defending them and Dawn takes that to the extreme. Harper just wants to do good and make people happy, because that’s what my spouse is like.

I’m not saying copy everything about people you know, but cherry pick aspects of them for your characters. It will make them more real.

Look at Characters you Love

What draws you to them? Is it because they’re honest and always do the right thing? Is it because they’re a wise-cracking smartass? There are plenty of character archetypes out there for you to use, but this goes deeper. One person’s version of the mentor is going to vary drastically from another. Uncle Iroh is not the same as Yoda or Dumbledore, though they all fall into the “wise old mentor” category.

As an exercise, take a character you love and tweak them until they become something new. Maybe keep their moral code, but give them a different backstory, look, and mannerisms.

Start From What Interests You

Psychopathy is fascinating to me, and I dug in deep researching when writing Nikolai. I also love villain characters, especially the charismatic, polite, manipulative kind. While Nikolai ended up being a bit more sociopathic, it made writing him extremely fun, because his reactions to situations were so far from what I would do.

Figure Out Where They’re Broken

This is my favorite method, and it’s absolutely terrible. Give your character TRAUMA. All my characters have varying degrees of Bad Shit in their past which influence how they perceive the world. Nikolai has odd quirks around food and appearance. Medea goes from 0 to 100 when triggered. Dawn just wants to be loved.

Pick a situation that has the potential to fuck up your character and stick it in their backstory. Did they grow up poor? They might suck at managing money, or they might be very frugal. Did they grow up with excess? They might have no concept of what things are worth. Were they abused? Bullied? (If so, why?) Were their parents there, but emotionally distant?

Once you have a concept, write a brief scene or just think about…

How They React

People can have wildly different responses to situations. Let’s pretend your character’s father has a chronic illness that’s going to kill them. Does your character take on the burden of caring for them? If so, are they resentful? Are they so empathetic that it wears them down? Or do they leave the care to another sibling? Do they place their parent in a care facility?

When the father dies, how do they grieve? Do they cry and take a week off work because they can’t function? Do they bottle things up and go about business as usual, but break down later in private? Do they get angry and take out their pain on the people around them? Do they emotionally withdraw? Or maybe they had a poor relationship with their father and don’t care at all.

How your character reacts to things tells you a lot more about who they are than random physical descriptions. Put them in hypothetical stressful situations and see what they do.

Physical description should be the last thing you touch, unless it is relevant to the story itself.

Copyright © 2019 Val Neil. All rights reserved.

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