Creating a character is probably one of the most challenging things to do when writing a story, but also one of the most satisfying. Why is it so difficult to come up with new characters when you have so many options? What makes it so hard? Before we go into it, we’re going to look at wrapping our minds around the problem, and then we’ll work on the solution.
To Be Human
When we read stories, and a character stands out to us, we feel connected to them, or we downright hate them. But if there is one thing that we all hate, it’s vanilla characters who have no personality, and overly villainous villains who revel in villainy who are so bad at being bad, it’s a crime. Why is it we dislike these characters so much? The answer: they lack complexity. In other words, they’re not human.
Your characters are people. Treat them as such.
S. D. had a character who is very complex, had an air of mystery, and had hidden motives that no one knew about. Oddly enough, this character didn’t start that way. The character started as an overpowered human who seemed to be able to control the world around him with ease. Then, quite by accident, S. D. revealed a more human side of him by killing off another character that he cared for and was trying to protect. Suddenly, he was not this super-powered hero, but a vengeful friend; his emotions became more human, and his character was much more complicated as a result.
Emotionally relatable characters will draw readers into your story and cause them to invest in your character, be they a hero or villain.
Where do we start writing a character that is emotionally engaging and human? Seems like a tall order, right?
If you were expecting us to follow that up and tell you it’s super easy and we have ten hacks that will help you do it in half the time, here is where you will find yourself very disappointed. It’s hard to do and takes practice. Good thing that’s what this post is all about!
First, you are going to focus on the emotions you want your character to feel throughout the story. Don’t write down their name, what they look like, or what weapons or gadgets they’ll be using; focus solely on the emotions that you want them to feel. There are no right or wrong emotions. In fact, they should be varied, layered, and complex. They should, at times, be a detriment to the character, be they hero or villain. Go a bit further, and you have emotions that directly contradict the character’s motivations due to circumstances.
Heroes and Villains
Once you’ve got some emotions, you need to figure out what kind of character you are writing. Write out what you think a hero and villain feel. Again, there are no right or wrong answers.
The worksheet this post is based on has several exercises to help you really flesh out the emotions for each character, so we highly recommend you check it out (it’s free).
As with anything writing related, these ideas are not hard and fast. There is nothing wrong with having a paragon of good and an evil villain as long as they are interesting (i.e., an interesting story or plot.) Remember, not all heroes are entirely good, and not all villains are wholly evil. The world is rarely so black and white.
Take a look at what traits you want your character to have. Similar to what we did up above. Traits are “a distinguishing quality (as of personal character)” as defined by Merriam-Webster. Attributes (another word for traits) are things such as honesty, integrity, loyalty, responsibility, etc.
If you’re not sure if something is a trait, a quick Google search should clear it up. Unlike emotions, traits vary a little more based on the type of character you’re writing. A villain will not have a lot of good characteristics, and vice versa for a hero, but each should have a healthy (or interesting) mix. Don’t forget to consider what you picked for the emotions. Just because we’re building a character a piece at a time doesn’t mean we forget to look at the overall picture.
To quote the Reedsy blog:
“A character flaw is a negative quality in a character that affects them or others in a detrimental way.”
Character flaws will fall under three categories:
- Minor flaw — This one will have little to no impact on the main character or other characters around them. This could look like a quirk or something they say that annoys someone.
- Major flaw — This will carry more weight in the characters’ life and of those around them. This could look like an anger problem, or perhaps they drink too heavily, or they live a rebellious life.
- Fatal flaw — This is… well, fatal. Granted, it doesn’t mean it will end in their death (though it could). It might be the end of a relationship, a giving up of a strongly held belief. Or it could lead to the physical death of a friend or loved one.
In this case, you might find that one of your traits from the previous exercise fits perfectly into one of these three categories, but if not, consider adding one Minor Flaw and one Major/Fatal Flaw to your character and see how it changes how they interact with the world and characters around them.
We recommend creating characters who have flaws that rub another character the wrong way. Why? Because it’s a natural way of creating tension.
Name and Backstory
By looking at the core emotions, traits, and flaws, we’ve set ourselves up for figuring out the best name because we can look for names that fit with the personality.
It’s important to note that not all names have to have a meaning behind them, but it can be a really fun easter egg for readers when you talk about how you came up with it. If you’re on the fence about it, this can help you determine if you want to keep the current name or change it. Before you start, go to behindthename.com’s home page so that way you’re ready to go.
So we have the beginnings of our character, and now we need a backstory. A backstory is hard to nail, and most of it, the reader will never even know, anyway! Why bother doing it at all? Because, like us, our past influences our present. So it is with our characters. The reason they are the way they are is because of what happened to them in the past. Thankfully, we’re no longer working with a blank canvas! We know who they are based on their core emotions, traits, and flaws. All we have to do is work backward from there.
You may have noticed we did things in reverse order than authors typically do. They will think of the character’s looks first and then build off that, but when we start with what makes a character feel more human, it creates something much more dynamic.
We know you will have more characters in your story, and hopefully, this will allow you to continue to flesh them out when you hit roadblocks or when you need inspiration.
If you want to do the exercises and learn how to build a character, check out the free worksheet by clicking here.