Ever since I was little I have been fascinated with the process of creating characters – or characterization. Much like editing, creating characters is one of those necessary processes that every writer must do. However, unlike editing, characterization is a fluid process, one without many rules or restrictions to speak of. Your character can be a 10-inch tall donkey with pink wings who captains a ship shaped like a whale but as long as it’s relatable to the readers in some way, you’re golden. Plus, there’s no condensing of ideas when it comes to building a character, like many other aspects of writing, it’s actually better to know more about your character than any reader would. (Of course with a winged 10-inch donkey it might be best to have some back-story within the narration as well.)
As some of you know I’m currently working on two projects: 1) a novel, 2) a novella. The novel idea is completely fresh but, with the novella, I’m taking a character I loved from my first attempt at a “novel” – a 100 page piece that deals with green lava and too much bosom I wrote when I was 13 – and plopping her down in a newer world. Because of this I’m going through my older work to find traits I can use. As I’m sifting through, I find that the character I built within the piece when I was younger is quite similar to the character in my novel I’m writing about now, 10 years later. They have red hair, blue eyes, confident demeanors, a fiery/fighter attitude and are kind and complicated. So much for being a ‘completely fresh’ idea, right?
But why is that? How can both characters – one from my youth and one from my adulthood – be so similar?
Then it struck me. I have a one sibling – an older sister who has naturally strawberry red hair and ice blue eyes. We used to fight a ton when we were little – as siblings tend to do – and she confused the heck out of me. Yet she was always confident (a trait I admired) and kind to others. That’s where the inspiration came from! As writers we naturally draw inspiration from the world around us. I pulled elements and aspects that were interesting to me and incorporated them into my work.
I like creating characters because I can do just that, pull elements from the “real world” and then fiddle with them, change an attitude there, alter an eye color here (though, looking back, it’s interesting that I didn’t originally when writing my novel). It’s fun for me and quite easy too.
If you have trouble creating characters though, and some of the best writers tend to get stuck every now and then, here’s some things to think about when building a character (you can use one of those “personality charts” but I like my way better, ha!):
1) Name – First impressions are everything, if you don’t have a good name, or at least a lovable nickname, then readers will put the book down. (Sounds snobbish, but I know I have.) Chose something easy to pronounce or have a nickname, both first and last at least. If you’re stuck, go on various ‘What to Name my Baby’ websites, they have plenty of choices. I usually fall back on Irish names since they’re pretty and I’m half the green stuff.
2) Appearance – These are the everyday aspects of your character, the simple outward appearance that allows your readers to “see” the characters. Male/female, eye color, hair color and length, tall/short, body type (aka: ‘fit’, ‘overweight’, or somewhere in the middle), clothing usually worn. Be sure you have this one down, as a freelance editor I’m always shocked when the author mixes up blue and brown eyes on their main (or secondary) characters.
3) Personality –This where your character should start taking form. What does the character like/not like, is your character kind, caustic, depressed, overly sexual, does your character wave at people or stalk on by? does she like ice cream (the end all question, of course)? does he always roll his eyes? Does she twirl a ring? Play with her hair? Does his hand shake when he’s nervous? Personality traits unique to each character make the characters more believable.
4) Back-story/history – Essentially this solidifies the character, this is why your girl or guy (or animal, or spirit, or pinked-winged donkey) does the things he or she does. What does his home look like? Where did he grow up? What’s her family like? Did she have a pet? Where did he go to school? Why did she decide to go to that school, or take that job, or go off-planet? Think about yourself, what makes you… you? Your past, your choices, your life up until this moment and this exact moment defines who you are. So figure it out for your character too!
5) Items – This one is my personal favorite. If your character had one thing always in her/his pocket, what would it be and why would he/she carry it? These two questions come last, always, and they help me learn about my character. Not memories, not attitude, a solid item. It can be a slip of paper, a picture, a pin, anything! It sounds simple, but trust me, this will allow you to figure out who your character is, who your character was, and who they will become later on too.
Building characters can be fun, entertaining, exciting even. If you get stuck, look around you, there’s plenty of elements if your world waiting to be used. Remember to have your character relate to the readers and then, well, have at it! Make a 10-inch pink-winged donkey! It’s your character, create anyone you’d like.