It’s time to create characters for your story. Characters bring your story to life. They are who the reader wants to read about. Pick up any newspaper – what catches your eye first? It’s usually a story about a person. Yes, there may be a fire or a flood or something else horrific happening, but it is the people the journalists write the story about. They focus on the people and how they are affected. This is what you need to do.
But how to make your characters come to life. Your reader needs to sympathize with your characters. They need to care about them – whether the emotion is love or hate, the reader needs to feel something for your characters. You have to do more than just give them a name and gender. In order to really understand your characters, and thus present them better on the page, you have to get to know the intimate details of your characters.
When you create a new character, you have the chance to make him or her however you want. What you want, though, is a well-rounded character, not a cardboard cutout. As children, most of us played with dolls. Whether they were GI Joe’s®, Barbie’s®, or even Cabbage Patch Kids®, each type had one thing in common – their size, shape and clothing. If you had a nurse’s outfit for your fashion doll and your best friend also got the nurse, you had identical outfits. The office outfit consisted of a dark suit, white blouse and briefcase. For GI Joe®, well, olive drab is still olive drab. Unless you were creative with a needle and thread, your doll looked the same as everyone else’s.
Is that the way your characters look? Do your heroine’s all have long, luxurious hair that falls in natural waves to their hips? Are the women all tall, athletic with enough curves to keep it interesting, fair skin and exotic eyes? What about your heroes? Are they all tall, dark and handsome?
I once judged a writing contest in which, of every one of the seven manuscripts I read, the heroine was tall with reddish hair and green eyes. Oh, there were subtle differences between the seven, but not enough to make them unique. After the third red-haired, green-eyed siren, I started looking for something – anything – that would make the character different. If this sounds like your characters, then you need to get out your needle and thread. It’s time to do some creating.
Stereotyping characters is something many writers do without even thinking about it. Not all people of oriental descent are small of stature with eyes that tilt up at the corners. Some of them are quite tall and have eyes that tilt downward. People of African descent aren’t just “black” or of basketball player size. The colors run the entire spectrum from palest coffee to deepest ebony and some of them are actually a bit on the short side. And not all Germans are Nazi madmen or jolly rotund women toting pots of coffee and serving strudel.
Even identical twins have something that allows their parents to tell one from the other. It may be a subtle mannerism such as the way one tilts her head a little further to the right than the other, or a physical attribute such as the number of freckles. The trick is to find the trait and identify the person with it.
The same is true for your characters. If you have an office worker, instead of putting her (or him) in the same dark suit/white blouse as all the other workers, why not give her a bit of flare? Give her a brightly patterned scarf to go with that suit or put him in a pink shirt. And give her a reason for this. If you’re going to break the pattern, you should have a good reason. If it’s a character quirk, it has to be consistent with the rest of her life. You can’t have her being conservative in all aspects of her life and then suddenly wearing that bright yellow scarf for no reason at all.
Instead of long flowing hair, why not a short, perky cut that stands on end when she runs her hand through it in frustration – as she often does. Or make one eye green and one eye brown. I actually know a young woman with eyes like this. I asked her one time why she didn’t wear contacts to even the colors out and she said it gives people an interesting way to start conversations. She was in sales and did quite well. She used her quirk to her advantage.
Make your hero somewhat on the short side. It gives him something to overcome and still come out the hero. While this won’t work for all fiction, it may work for some. If he has to be tall and muscular, what about making him blonde with gray eyes? Or even a redhead? In all my reading, I’ve never seen a redheaded hero. Granted, men with red hair are unusual – but it could work. Why not try something different?
So what makes a quirk and what is just an annoying mannerism? Go to any public place and sit down for a while with your notebook and watch the people. A mall is a good place to do this. Pick out a couple of people and watch them (without being obvious). How do they walk? Is her head up like she owns the world or down like she’s afraid to face anyone? Is his stride long and powerful or a short shuffle? How do they carry their packages? How do they move in relationship to other people? Does she make people move aside for her or does she move to the wall to get out of the way? Does anybody stand out in the crowd? Why?
Now, pick out one or two of the people that really got your attention and give them a background. Who are they? What do they do? Why are they acting the way they are? What are their other physical attributes? Do these add or detract from their personality? Take a good look at the people around you. No two people are alike and neither should your characters be.
For each scene, decide how you’re going to refer to your characters at the beginning of the scene and be consistent with it. If your character is Mary Doe, you can refer to her as Mary, Mary Doe, Ms/Miss/Mrs. Doe or some other name, but it must be consistent throughout the scene.
Let’s talk about names. Names are important. There are lots of places online where you can gather names for your characters, both first and last. What you need to remember when picking out names is: 1. Do not name multiple characters with similar sounding names or names that start with the same letter. 2. Pick names that are consistent with the era you are writing. 3. Pick names that are either appropriate for the character or, if you’re writing irony, something so different as to be a part of the character. To explain: Ethel and Walter were perfectly acceptable names in 1910. Today, not so much. Madison is a popular name for a girl today, but two hundred years ago? No. So if you are writing a historical, check the names for that era. Also, watch for stereotypes that cling to names. You can spend hours figuring out names for your characters and have fun with it.
If you’re having trouble with the names, maybe you need to visualize them and get to know more about your characters. Look at magazines and images online to get a picture of your character. Once you know what s/he looks like, you might be able to work better.
One way I like to find out about my characters is to “interview” them. Yes, you read that right. I “interview” them. To do this, I pull up a list of questions and answer them as my character would. You can also do this with a friend – having them pretend to be the character. This can be fun and give you different insights into the development of your character. The questions can be broken down into subsets: physical, emotional, history, ethics and so on. The following are some questions you can answer. As you go through them, you may come up with more. You don’t need to answer all of them, but the more you do, the better you will know your character. Remember, this doesn’t need to be done for all the characters, just the main one(s). Secondary characters should just have the basics.
Character’s Full Name:
Reason or meaning of name:
Nickname: Reason for nickname:
How old does s/he appear?
Glasses or contacts:
Natural or dyed:
Type of body/build:
Shape of face:
Is s/he healthy?
If not, why not:
Character’s favorite color:
Character’s least favorite color:
Least favorite Music:
Daredevil or cautious?
Same when alone?
Favorite clothing: Why?
Least favorite clothing: Why?
What does s/he like to wear in public?
Does s/he wear any jewelry? What kind?
Other clothing accessories:
Kind of Car(s):
Where does character live?
Where does character want to live?
Most prized possession: Why?
When and how much?
When and how much?
How does character spend a rainy day?
Spending habits (frugal, spendthrift, etc): Why?
What does s/he do too much of?
Too little of?
Type of childhood:
Most important childhood event that still affects him/her:
FAMILY AND FRIENDS:
Relationship with her:
Relationship with him:
How many? Birth order:
Relationship with each:
Children of siblings:
Close? Why or why not?
How does character relate to others?
How is s/he perceived by…
How does character view hero/heroine?
First impression: Why?
What happens to change this perception?
What do family/friends like most about character?
What do family/friends like least about character?
Most at ease when:
Ill at ease when:
How s/he feels about self:
Past failure s/he would be embarrassed to have people know about: Why?
If granted one wish, what would it be? Why?
Greatest source of strength in character’s personality (whether s/he sees it as such or not):
Greatest source of weakness in character’s personality (whether s/he sees it as such or not:
Character’s soft spot:
Is this soft spot obvious to others?
If not, how does character hide it?
Optimist or pessimist: Why?
Introvert or extrovert: Why?
Drives and motivations:
Extremely skilled at:
Extremely unskilled at:
Character’s darkest secret:
Does anyone else know?
If yes, did character tell them?
If no, how did they find out?
One word s/he would use to describe self:
One paragraph description of how s/he would describe self:
What does s/he consider best physical characteristic?
What does s/he consider worst physical characteristic?
Are these realistic assessments? If not, why not?
How s/he thinks others perceive him/her:
What four things would s/he most like to change about self? Why?
If change #1 was made, would character be as happy as s/he thinks? If not, why not?
Person character secretly admires: Why?
Person character was most influenced by: Why?
Most important person in character’s life before story starts: Why?
How does character spend the week before the story starts?
Long range goals:
How does character plan to accomplish these goals?
How will other characters be affected?
How does character react in a crisis:
How does character face problems:
Kinds of problems character usually runs into:
How character reacts to NEW problems:
How character reacts to change: