Where does a writer begin? Well, a story doesn’t exist in a vacuum! For stories to exist, characters must exist. How does a writer begin to create characters? Well…that’s more complicated.
As I said in my previous post, character and plot for me are deeply intertwined, but a good way to create a character is by first imagining something like the start of the Sims game. (Did you ever play? It’s okay if you didn’t, I’ll explain what I mean.) The game opens in a room with a pop-up window that asks whether you want your character to be male or female, it then goes through age, physical appearance, clothing, and personality. This is exactly what a writer must do before the real writing can begin.
For me, the gender of my character is apparent from the get go, but if it isn’t, I might ask myself a simple question: Would my story be better told through a male perspective or a female perspective? Your answer might be that it doesn’t matter, so then it becomes the writer’s preference—give it some thought and, after considering what you already know about the plot of your story, you might come back with a more specific idea of who your character needs to be. I think it’s important to know the gender of your character first because everything will build off of that later. The gender of your character may have a significant consequence on the effectiveness of the story. Remember too that if you can’t decide, then you can always have multiple characters telling the story (AKA multiple point of views), two voices, one for each genders.
How old is my character? This also fits into plot in a significant way. A story with a seven-year-old as the MC (main character) is going to vastly differ from a story with a seventy-seven-year-old MC. What is my story really about and what age would best tell this story? For example, if you have a character that is trying to define their identity (what their dreams are, what kind of person they are, what their values/morals are, etc.), it would make more sense for the MC to be somewhere within the 13-20s age range than in their 70s because it fits more with what’s natural.
Everything is connected; don’t skip out on giving the age of your character some serious thought before going forward.
I’m a visual person, so when I create a character I like to see them—literally. Pictures act as a huge resource, helping to define what your character looks like. A great place to find inspiration is on Pinterest, since they have a plethora of searchable images, but also Instagram (check out portrait photographers).
Let’s say you’re writing a story that is a medieval fantasy, and you know that your MC is going to be a knight, but you don’t have a good image of what that knight looks like. Go to Pinterest and search “knight” and be amazed with the thousands of images you get as a result. You can redefine your search again and again as you get a better feel for what your character looks like. Try adding words like “illustration” or “portrait” to the search too.
Don’t forget to give your character clothes! Clothes tell us a lot about our characters, like their personality and socio-economic status and because of that, clothes can be a great tool to “show” instead of “tell” the reader those details.
Ask yourself: Why is this character dressed this way? What is the significance of the clothing the character wears? Are clothes even important? Write your answers down and refer back to them at critical moments later on. You don’t necessarily have to write the answers in the story itself, but knowing the answers will help you as the writer get to know the character more and thus be better able to write the story the way it needs to be told.
Character markers are specific details that set a character apart from the others. It’s important to have character markers when the list of characters in your story is lengthy and the reader may easily confuse them (particularly true for tertiary characters that may only appear in two or three scenes). Character markers can be physical (think scars or tattoos), wearing a particular outfit, having an accent, unique hair, etc.
Take the knight example again, his movement and his body are going to be dictated by the fact that he is a knight, which is to say he’s a trained soldier. This affects how he’ll react in different situations (i.e. whether he runs away, has a heart attack, or explodes with adrenaline).
May not be significant, but something to consider.
To everyone’s own discretion, right?
I don’t think we need to profusely describe our characters, and I like to leave some of what the character looks like to the imagination. I want my reader to have the ability to “see” this character in their own way, so I will define my character with a few descriptions, but I won’t over-saturate the page with the tiny details.
Don’t be tempted to describe your character as “pretty” or “handsome”; what might be pretty or handsome to me is not necessarily what you will find pretty or handsome! This is a lazy description. Also, does it really matter for the character to be seen as pretty or handsome? If yes, then the characters around the MC should be showing us that the MC is beautiful. (If it does matter for the character to be seen as pretty or handsome, then why? Maybe the character is a narcissist or maybe they have low self-esteem so making themselves up daily gives them a confidence boost. Give us a reason for why the character’s looks are vital to the story.)
Do you have a specific way of creating your characters? Is it similar to my “Sims” technique? I’d love to hear what you think and I hope this has helped you with your character creation!