Dec 15, 2014

Who Am I Reading About? Character Building 101

So you’ve decided to write a story?  An admirable goal.  I like you already.  What’s that? You’ve already got your story world planned out?  That’s excellent.  You’re well on your way.  What now?  You know what the conflict will be?  Shoot, you’re almost there.  Just a quick question: who is the story about?  ...You don’t know?  Well, allow me to help you out with that one.

To start off, it’s helpful if you and your readers have a common way of referring to the character you’re describing to us.  Yeah, I’m talking about a name.  Now, this is a major operation, and you shouldn’t just pick names at random.  There are plenty of good reasons for this, the first being that your character deserves better.  your parents put a lot of time and careful consideration into the choosing of your name; why should you do any less?  

The first part of naming your character isn’t quite what most people think it would be.  You’ve got to look at your story world and decide how they would structure names.  Look at the real world, for example.  In America, you find plenty of people called ‘John’ or ‘Lucy.'  If you head over to China, odds are you’re going to meet more people called ‘Ting’ or ‘Fei.’  Your story world would be no different.  You aren’t going to have two brothers named Steve and Aragorn, because cultures just don’t work that way.  You’ve got to decide what kind of basic pattern the name will follow, and make sure all the names in that culture follow the same pattern.  A good way to do this is use a name generator site(especially for secondary or lower characters).  I recommend, because it has tons of different generators-- real names to fantasy names to anything else.  If your story is set in the real world, I would suggest trying which comes up with not only a name, but a whole lot of other helpful information that many authors don’t always include.

So now we get to pick the actual name, right?  Go for it.  But make sure it’s a good one.  Believe it or not, plenty of readers will decide whether they want to read a book based on the names of the characters.  Would you read a book about a guy named Dork who goes on a quest with a girl named Stupid?  Neither would I.  How about a guy named Conor going on a quest to save a girl named Greta?  that’s better, though maybe a bit plain.  But who knows? maybe that’s what you had in mind…

...Which leads me to my next point.  How do you want this character to appear to your reader?  Is it a bold hero, rising to the challenge of the conflict?  Or is it the  farm girl who happens to be in the right place at the right time?  I can’t help you make this decision except to say that whatever you do, do it for your readers.  Which will be more exciting?  Which will provide more conflict and material for you to write about?  Which would you, as the author, feel more of a connection to?  Only you can say.

All right, so we’ve got this far.  We’ve got our name.  We know how we want the reader to see our character.  But now how do we want the reader to picture our character?  You guessed it.  Now we decide how the character looks.  This might not seem important, but it is.  How is anyone supposed to picture your beloved creation if even you yourself can’t?  ...They’ll just work it out on their own?  Nonsense!  You can’t expect your reader to do your work for you.  Your job is to make it come alive to them, and if you can’t even share with them how someone looks, you’re doing it wrong.  All you  need is the basics-- hair, eyes, height, how they dress.  It’s useful, however, to give them something that makes them unique.  Perhaps he has a physical feature that stands out, like eyes of a strange color, or a scar from long ago.  There’s even a random generator out there for you if you don’t want to come up with all this yourself: 

Can you picture them now?  Awesome.  Moving on.

Next thing we need to know is how your character behaves.  The more you get to know who they are and why they do what they do, the more relatable, believable, and lovable your character will appear.  One awesome way to do this is take a meyers-briggs personality test as your character.  Really get inside their head and figure out who they are.  Take your character out to dinner.  Talk to it throughout the day.  The more you can tell your reader about them, the more they will grow to love- or at least relate to- your character.

So you know who they are.  You know what they’re like.  Now where do they come from?  It’s time for backstory.  What you include in your backstory depends on the rest of the story.  It helps shape your character and gives them the reasons they act the way they do.  Is your character mean and quick to lash out at others?  Maybe he had an abusive parent, or maybe she was ignored as a child and it’s her way of seeking attention.  Is your character afraid of the dark? there’s a good reason in his past.  The events you put before the story play just as much a role in defining your character as the ones you put in the story itself.

The backstory is also a good place to look for motive.  Why does your character care?  Why is he on this quest?  Why does she want this?  This is the final step to unlocking your character.  You could base the story off of your character reacting the way he does because it’s the right thing to do.  but tell me-- how often do we put ourselves in danger or trials just because we know it’s right?  No, there’s got to be something more.  Only you can decide what it will be, because only you know the circumstances surrounding the situation.

And there you have it!  There is someone who matters living in your world.  Now please keep in mind that there is no formula for creating the perfect character.  Everyone has their own skills and ideas to bring to the table.  What I’ve given you here are the basic tools to create a believable character.  Also keep in mind that nothing in your writing is set in stone.  If your backstory changes how your character behaves, go back and change how your character behaves.  If your motive comes from something best explained by the backstory, go and edit the backstory.  You’ve got the power to change everything, so don’t get stressed if the next step doesn’t line up with what you’ve got so far.

Now it’s your turn.  Create someone that will bring readers to the edge of their seats, the verge of tears, and the other side of midnight all in one sitting.  You’ve got this!

-Sam Kirst

*please note: In The Character’s Shadow is in no way affiliated with the sites linked to in this post. 

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