Characters: the drivers of the plot and the people we get attached to. You can’t have a story without them, so how do you actually create a good believable character from nothing?
I’m going to approach this particular post from a fiction novel-writing stance, though I have to admit that a lot of my process comes from my experience with Dungeons and Dragons. Not all of it, I’ve been writing my whole life and only playing D&D since I was 16, but a lot of my tricks have been improved by my roleplaying skills. Perhaps one day, I’ll do a whole thing Mythcreants-style on adapting fiction techniques to roleplay and vice versa.
Good or Bad?
The first thing to get out of the way: when I talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, I’m referring to the quality of the writing, not their ‘alignment’ or moral code. A villain can be good and a hero can be sooo bad. I won’t call anyone out by name because we’re all in this together, writing is hard, and readers have differing tastes, and this is according to my taste. So if you were hoping for a roast of badly written characters, you’re going to have to read between the lines or form your own opinions 😉
A ‘good’ character, by my definition, has:
- agency–the decisions they make affect the story. Stuff doesn’t just happen to them, their actions have consequences, good or bad
- layers–like an onion or a parfait. They’re not just ‘pretty, funny, and smart.’ They might be great with people, but rubbish at puzzles; they could be awesome at comic book trivia, but could burn water; they can be average-looking (*shocked gasp*) yet still be attractive because of their wisdom or pure and generous heart.
- an internal life–they have thoughts, opinions, memories, feelings, etc that comes across on the page to imply that something is going on inside their heads.
- dreams and fears–every character has something they’re running toward and something they’re running from, and that is informed by their history and informs their actions.
- quirks–a touchstone of personality. Sulat purses her lips when she’s annoyed, Alois runs his hands through his hair when he’s stressed. I crack my knuckles one at a time when I’m thinking. Little ticks that they do that is unique to them. (Obviously, I’m not the only person in the world who cracks their knuckles, but if I were writing myself as a character, I would mention it a few times and not mention it for other people. That’s how you build a signature).
Every character, however minor, needs a backstory. How did they get where they are, and where are they going next? This is literally how Magic Beans came to be–everyone is focusing on Jack, but what about the man selling the beans, the man who is a footnote in the story but the story couldn’t happen without him? Who is he? How did he get the beans? Why was he willing to sell them in exchange for an old sick cow?
Physical appearance–do you need it?
This is a different one, in that I can’t offer you one piece of advice, but rather, a few options.
One is: go for broke. Describe every little detail. One of my favourite descriptions in literature is the opening lines of The Maltese Falcon, by Dasciell Hammett:
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
Get more noir than that, I dare you. The reason I like this is because you can clearly see Sam Spade being painted before your eyes and that impish collection of v’s holds perfectly consistent throughout the book and suits his personality. In the original 1931 pre-Hays Code film version, he is played by Ricardo Cortes, who I believe captures his essence better than Humphrey Bogart.
The other of end of the spectrum is closer to Stephen King, who famously advises against heavy character description. A lot of modern writers favour this because a lot of us fantasise about our books being made into movies, and having an ambiguous character description leaves room for the casting directors to do their stuff. Imagine trying to find an actor with all those v’s.
The middle road is therefore the most attractive, but has its own complications. Harry Potter has bright green eyes, messy black hair, and a lightning bolt-shaped scar (yet they still managed to find a blue-eyed actor, so casting directors will still do what they want). Giving few details leaves the door open for finding a suitable screen representation while still making the character recognisable to readers. But how do you choose what details to emphasise? That depends on what makes the character special, as well as the characters around them. The lightning bolt scar is something that makes Harry famous in the wizarding world, and his hair and eye colour are connections to his dead parents.
But one thing I would almost argue as more important is personal style. How does your character portray themself? In the real world, we don’t have any control over how we look when we are born, so we work hard to represent ourselves accurately in other ways. And it’s easier to make a close-enough actor embody the essence and look of a character, rather than to find one who looks exactly like it says on the page. All of those v’s are going to be hard to find on a real living person, and I think I speak for a decent percentage of the generation when I say that Daniel Radcliffe did a damn fine job, even with his blue eyes. So then what do you include? This also goes back to the nuances of a ‘good’ character. Katniss Everdeen is a strong, loyal, athletic character (traditionally masculine traits, though, the times, thankfully, they are a-changin), but she likes makeup. In The Rook, Myfanwy’s style changes after she loses her memory and effectively becomes a different person, which is a whole subplot in itself. You’d probably have an easier time describing what Jack Sparrow wears, rather than the details of his face (minus the teeth and eyeliner, which I would still count as his costume).
Also, keep in mind that fandoms come with cosplayers now, so throw them a bone. They do a lot of hard work.
Personal style says a lot about a character. Alois still wears part of his military uniform, partially because it’s still practical, and partially because he can’t afford a new set of clothes. Sulat dresses like a man, both for protection on the road, and for freedom of movement. Johanne wears fine clothes but in muted colours because her self confidence isn’t great.
One thing I would advise, though, is that you clearly and objectively describe racial characteristics. I can’t tell you how many people, despite my best efforts, still didn’t realise Sulat was black until the second book. We, as a community of artists from all walks of life, need to break the Default White paradigm of characters, especially in fantasy, but across all forms of literature. Literature is for everyone, and it needs to reflect that. We can do better.
Strength and Weaknesses (Skills, Feats, and Flaws)
This is where a knowledge of roleplaying games comes in really handy (but if you don’t play, fear not, I have another tip for you later). In a lot of roleplaying games, your character sheet will have a section for Skills and Feats. Skills are usually practical gameplay things like ‘Pick Lock’ or ‘Climb,’ but they can also be subtler things like ‘Handle Animal’ and ‘Gather Information.’ Yes, I absolutely do have character sheets for all of my characters, I roll to see if Sulat successfully picks a lock or is Alois successfully charms someone, and the fights are turn-based. I find that to be the best way to avoid things coming too easily to my characters, even if they technically have the skill to pull it off.
Feats refer more to extraordinary abilities, the things heroes are made of. It could be extra hit points, extra skill points, of the ability to fire multiple arrows for additional damage. And some systems give you flaws, feats in reverse, if you will. Flaws deduct points under various circumstances. For instance, Sulat’s trauma makes it difficult to empathise with people, so her interpersonal skills are spotty; she is also small which helps with fitting into tight spaces, but makes her weaker in a fight. Alois is highly emotional, which helps him connect with people, but it also makes him impetuous and vulnerable to self-destructive habits like drinking and gambling. Johanne is rich, which seems like an asset in most ways, but it seriously hampers what freedoms she has because of the expectations put on her by society.
Likes and dislikes
This is one of the funnest things to work out when you’re building a character, and one of the easiest to fill out in the character questionnaire I’m going to talk about in a minute. This is literally a long list of likes and dislikes you can pepper throughout to add interest. Johanne hates coffee, Sulat has a real thing for shoes, Alois has some strong cultural prejudices, the Spider Queen loves plums.
How does your character feel about dancing? Do they have a favourite colour? What is their favourite animal?
Relationships and prioritising
Another great way to get information across is through relationships and what they value. Who is their closest relationship, and why? Who do they not get along with, and why? What is the most important thing in their life? If they had to choose between two things, what would win, and why?
MBTI, love languages, and character questionnaires
I love the Myers-Briggs Type Index (proud INFJ-A, here). These aren’t strictly necessary if you have a handle on all of the above, but they can help a lot. And they’re fun.
The MBTI is an index of 16 personality types, and while it’s not the be-all and end-all of everything, if can give you a solid foundation on which to give your character some life. For instance, Alois is a textbook ENFP (outgoing, charming, warm, creative, and flexible; yet hot-headed, impetuous, clingy, and occasionally immature). But Sulat (an ISTJ) and Johanne (an ESFJ) are not textbook, because they have other factors at play, namely trauma and societal pressure. But sometimes, when they are free of those restraints, their true selves come forward, and that is part of their arc.
Love languages are fun to play with because they relate to relationships, but also have character building potential. How does your character show affection, and how do they respond? I am Words of Affirmation, Alois is Physical Touch, Sulat is Acts of Devotion, and Johanne is equal parts Physical Touch and Quality Time. It’s also a great way to build tension if two people have different love languages–how do they work around that, or do they? Is that a point of conflict in the relationship?
Character questionnaires are a staple in roleplaying character creation. Usually ranging from 20-100 questions (or more!), they run the gamut from, ‘what is your character’s favourite colour?’ to ‘what song plays when your character enters the room?’ to ‘what childhood trauma most deeply affects them?’ and on and on. It’s a random and sometimes silly assortment of questions that you can use to find out all kinds of information. And remember, you don’t have to include everything. It’s better to know more about your character than will ever come out, than to know nothing and have to scramble and risk continuity errors. Because the eagle-eyed readers will notice.
Also, peppering in references to things that maybe were never explicitly said, gives everything an illusion of real-life depth, which is cool.
But perhaps the most important thing a character needs is an arc. You can have as ‘bad’ a character as you want at the beginning (assuming they’re ‘good’ enough to hook the reader), as long as they change and evolve by the end. No one likes a stagnant character. In its purest form, plot is a series of obstacles designed to keep the hero from what he wants, and he has to change to overcome them. A character who gets what they want without changing is a character who just coasts, and that’s bad. And change has to be uncomfortable; there should be loss, there should be pain, there should be genuine struggle. Transformation is not easy, but it’s what makes complexity.
Going back to The Alchemist for a second, the boy begins his journey as a shepherd and ends as a fully-formed magician. He loses his flock, gains a fortune, loses the fortune, gets a job and builds back his fortune, goes on the road, gets kidnapped, has his fortune stolen again. Again and again, this cycle of getting on his feet, only to be knocked over. But each time, he learns something and applies that lesson to the next challenge, and that’s what makes him an interesting character.
This post was a lot longer than I intended, and there’s so much more I can go into. So maybe I should do a class on it, too, with worsksheets and references and all that lovely stuff. Next month, we’re going to look at plot, and I think that’s going to be a lot of fun. Let me know if that’s something you’d be interested in!