Time after time do I see people sit down and create bullshit characters that no one gives a fuck about, are completely cliche and offer nothing unique, original, or don’t even bring fresh perspective to already established archetypes. I’m going to put a stop to that. Here’s what you NEED to know to create characters worth a damn.
1. DON’T create characters before you’ve decided on what your story is. DO create characters that serve your narrative.
Characters, like props, are objects. Every character that you write in a story is disposable. Stop forming attachments to them and remember that their ultimate goal is to help you tell your narrative. A character should only exist so far as they do to serve the story. If they no longer serve the narrative in a meaningful way, axe them. Characters are vehicles for story.
2. DON’T make pointless character sheets to ‘discover’ your character. DO ask the REAL questions.
Time after time I see people telling you to fill out a questionnaire on your character to try and discover them; but it’s never relevant shit. It’s always some crap like “What’s their favorite food” and “What is their favorite flower” and other such tripe. Cut that shit out. It’s not making you ask the REAL questions that you need to know about your character. It’s dancing around the subject, the most important question of all:
Who the FUCK is this person?
You can’t discover who a person is just by knowing what their favorite X is; you knowing what my favorite book is isn’t going to tell you whether I’m an asshole or not. That’s not really relevant information. My reading habits, when I read them, how I read them, that stuff IS going to tell you something about me.
The number one easiest way to discover who your character is is to find out what’s WRONG with them. And I don’t just mean who they’re beefing with in their community or what not. I mean, what the hell is wrong with this person? Do they suffer any health afflictions? Psychological problems? I can write you a better character right now in the next paragraph than most people do in dozens of pages of character development. Observe:
Allen had always been an insomniac since he could remember. He consistently had trouble sleeping at night, and when he did manage to get a few moments of shut eye, it was troubled by restless dreams. Although he was tired all the time, he discovered early on the benefits of it. Because he was awake more often than other people, it gave him plenty of time to think alone when the rest of the world was quieted, tucked away in their beds in their collective unconsciousness. It provided him time to pursue quiet hobbies as well, and he’d taken up an interest in model plane building.
Boom, there you go. Do you see the affliction there? The guy can’t sleep, and it AFFECTS THE REST OF HIS LIFE. Cause and effect. We’ll get into that right now, actually.
3. DON’T do whatever the hell you want to protect your character. DO give them realistic consequences for their actions. Cause and effect.
Our example character in point #2 suffers from insomnia, and this thing branched out into other aspects of his life. Because of this condition, he also has problems with concentration due to exhaustion, which is a known side effect of insomnia. What are some complications of poor concentration for Allen?
a) Allen could be involved in a work place accident (or make a severe error on paperwork).
b) If Allen operates any machinery (and a car would be a very common one), he could be involved in a severe accident, causing even greater injury to himself or others.
Points A and B are very serious, VERY REAL potential consequences for Allen. If some kind of potential negative outcome doesn’t happen to him, it would make his insomnia POINTLESS. It has to effect his life in some way, shape, or form. A character should never suffer something arbitrarily; it should SERVE THE NARRATIVE.
4. DON’T write characters that are detached from your world. DO make them react to it.
Your unique characters don’t exist in a bubble; they are living, THRIVING members of an ecosystem of human beings. The actions that others take in a narrative can and should have an effect on your primary characters. Here’s a question that you should ask yourself, for sake of easy example:
What were you doing the morning of September 11th, 2001? A lot of people who were affected by the Twin Towers weren’t in those buildings, and most didn’t even live in New York at all; a lot of people had friends, family members, business associates there. Business deals were delayed, rescheduled, or all out canceled. There were people who didn’t come home for dinner that night, flights that were cancelled. Many schools closed that day, throwing many peoples lives into temporary chaos due to schedules running completely amok. I could go on and on. Just because you weren’t there for the event, doesn’t mean your life wasn’t impacted. Your characters should also be effected by large events occurring within your narrative world.
5. DON’T give your character a unique and/or exotic name without justification. DO name them according to cultural and societal norms for your work.
Someone who is named L’Carpetron Dookmarriot in a sea of people named Bill, Betty, Frank, and Joseph is going to stick out like a sore fucking thumb. You don’t just pick random-ass names because you like the way it looks. Sure, we all see names we like and want to incorporate them, but just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.
When you create a character, think about the world that they’re ABOUT to inhabit. Are you writing a period piece set within the 50’s? Are you writing a futuristic novel where naming conventions have changed, such as no one has surnames anymore? Are you writing a sci-fi piece where people have made contact with other lifeforms? It should be pretty obvious that if you write a story that is set in France, your characters will PROBABLY have french names. If they don’t, you need to explain why. Are they a foreigner? Maybe they have dual citizenship with another parent coming from a separate country and is named from their naming convention?
The point is that you don’t pick this shit willy nilly based on how you FEEL. Your feelings as a storyteller can be the maker or breaker of your work. Don’t let that shit get in your way. An architect doesn’t FEEL about his designs. He creates with an exact goal and purpose in mind, and your job is no different.
6. DON’T write characters based on how you view the world. DO write characters based on how OTHER people view the world.
One of your greatest fuck-ups is going to be creating a gaggle of characters that all side flat or dull, or all agree with each other. One of the greatest causes of human conflict is the fact that we don’t view the world in the same way. We see information or interpret facts differently, which causes disagreement. If you spend all your time writing a bunch of characters that all think and act like YOU do, you’re not going to get anywhere.
When you sit down to create these people, THINK for a fucking change about all the different people you have SEEN and dealt with in your life. Think about the people you’ve hated or disliked. You don’t have to agree with them; you have to agree that they EXIST. When you’re building characters, be sure to stop and take the time to think about how their personalities might not mesh together and what situations might arise from their different view points. This is the bread and butter of character interaction, the meat and potatoes.
Disagreeableness and drama go hand in hand. If there is no drama, there is nothing exciting happening in your tale. Which means your audience is going to be very bored. To prove a point, think about your own extended family. A whole lot of them don’t get along, and actively fight each other. How many movies, books, etc can you think of that JUST deals with inter-family dramatization? Should they be getting along as a family? Of course. DO they get along? Of course not. Why? Because they’re still PEOPLE, and people fight. It’s a fact of life.
Learn to see conflict for what it is, and then embrace it. It’s your tool for success.
Follow these rules, and you WILL create more compelling, interesting to know characters. I’m not going to sit here and blow smoke up your ass and tell you, “If you just do X you’ll be rolling in dough!” No, I told you that you are going to make FANTASTIC characters. The kind that people remember, and will talk about long after your work has been done and you’re onto the next thing. If you’re lucky, you might even make a few bucks while you’re doing it.