As a student and teacher of writing and a writer of over six novels, I can say I have been through the gauntlet of character creation. It’s not easy creating believable characters who are quirky enough to keep a reader interested.
I’ve spent over 20 years in college, as a teaching professional, and as a writer studying characterization and after some thoughtful consideration I have decided to boil down all that experience into a working template that I use when creating characters for my current projects. I find this template easy to follow, a way to touch all the bases of character creation, and something that can be used for heroes, villains and everyone in between.
Some of you might see this template as something you’ve seen before, but it helps to put everything in one place.
Note: Before creating characters, you should probably work from the germ of a story. Your story should have a beginning, middle, and end. If you have this much, you can create characters with great motivation. If not, you can work with creating colorful and quirky characters that then inform the germ of the story based on their background and goals.
Step 1: Create a Skeleton, But Be Ready to Break Some Bones
- Purpose: What is the general purpose of your character? Are they the hero, the villain, or are they someone in between? What is their overall goal? What would be their greatest dream? Do they have a job? What is their destiny?
- Name: Based on their purpose, peruse baby name books or online baby naming sites. I use Scrivener, which includes a handy name generator, but I will often do a great deal of research to find the right character name.
- Physical Description: It is important to start with a base character type and then change it to suit your character’s particular background. Marginalized character appearances are much more interesting than white-bread American. Think about someone you know who has an interesting look and describe them. The physical description can be anything, but it must be unique.
- Personality: Give your character personality traits that fit their purpose but which might be opposite of your physical description (at least the trope usually associated with that physicality).
Step 2: Do Some Surgery (Time for some quirks!)
- Shift in Purpose: Look at the purpose you gave your character? What one event could derail that purpose completely? Think of a minimum of two events which could significantly derail or side-track the character from reaching their goal or achieving their destiny and record those. For example, in my novel , I made my main character’s purpose to be the first human to serve in an alien police force and to avenge the death of his wife. I changed that destiny by wiping out all of the other humans on the alien planet where humans had found a new home. The shift in purpose can create instant conflict and plot twists that are unexpected.
- What’s In A Name?: Examine the meaning of the character’s name. For example, my name “Roger Colby” means “famous spearman” “from the dark village”. Think of a story that surrounds the meaning of your character’s name. How could the name’s meaning become ironic or an antonym for the character’s destiny or personality? Does their name sound like the name of another character in the story, which would then cause confusion, and thereby more conflict?
- Blemishes: Go back to your character’s physical description. Does your character have a body type, something typical about their physical makeup that could be turned over? What would be something your character can do that would cause others to see your character differently than the way they look? In my first sequel to The Terminarch Plot, I created a character named Mitsuki who seemed by physical appearances to be a malnourished teen girl, but because she had lived as an orphan in the jungle she was a formidable opponent when armed with her metal spear. In “The Big Lebowski”, The Dude is by all physical images a lazy bum, but he’s quite articulate and crafty, able to survive the crazy situations caused by a misunderstanding to emerge unscathed.
- Quirks: Look again at the personality you gave your character. What would be an opposite trait or a trait that runs opposed to that base set of traits? For example, even though Guillermo, in The Terminarch Plot is the last human in existence, you would think that he would exhibit all the positive traits of the human race. However, he is selfish, would rather run from a fight than defend himself, and is generally the worst of what the human race has to offer. This creates some interesting chances for him to redeem himself (and thereby us all) when he is placed in situations where he has to make moral choices. To use another Coen brothers reference, H.I. McDunnah from “Raising Arizona” is a multiple-time felon who kidnaps a baby, but we cheer when we find out in the end that he ends up having a family of his own. McDunnah’s quirks are what make us love him and in the end are what make him more believable, even if the circumstances of the film are so absurd.
I hope that this template will be of help to you as you work on your WIP. At least, I hope that it makes you think a little bit deeper about character creation. This is, in no way, all the rules or tips for making characters, but I hope that I have helped you a bit in moving further or at least helped you break through the writer’s block.
Originally published at https://www.rogerdcolby.com on February 21, 2021.