Birthing a Character

Today, I’m going to spend some time talking about the process I go through to create a character.  Maybe this will work for you, maybe it won’t.  That’s the funny thing about stuff like this.  What works for one person may not work for someone else.  So, take what you will from it.  Hopefully, there will be something here that will help you refine or improve your own process.

Before we get started, I want to point out a basic principle that you should use when you create a character: don’t overdo it.  I know, I know.  I just told you last time not to underdo it.  The truth is that you need to flesh out the things that matter to the story, but only those things.  For example, Andy Meyers is the lead character in The Timekeeper’s Son and I haven’t the foggiest idea what he looks like.  Ok, that’s not completely true.  I know he’s a little taller than four feet and he weighs in at about sixty-five pounds.  And he doesn’t wear glasses.  Oh, and he looks like a kid.

Beyond that, I have no clue.  I don’t know because it would be weird for a first person character to describe himself.  Plus, it doesn’t really matter to the story.  Now, I’ll admit that Andy is a bit of an extreme example because I do throw in some descriptive frosting for some characters, but I’m just trying to make a point.

And another thing: people don’t care whether your character won a spelling bee in the third grade.  Unless, of course, the kid he beat has secretly wanted to kill him ever since and that somehow plays into your story.  Or maybe it was the first victory in a series that ultimately turned him into a narcisistic jackwagon.  Or it’s the only thing he feels like he’s succeeded at in his whole life and he believes he’s a capital L loser.  The point is to exert energy only where you need to.  They only have to be real in the context you put them in.

Now, the way I go about creating my characters might seem a little disorganized to you.  I like to call it organic.  You aren’t going to see any charts or questionnaires.  You won’t see a standard list of questions because I don’t have one.  Ok, I do, but I’d rather chew off my own arm than actually use it.  Every story and every character is unique.  Different aspects are going to be important for different characters in different situations.  So, the first rule is that there are no rules.

Also, I only build out the characters I need and I only do it at the time I need them.  In other words, I don’t build out a character now if he doesn’t show up in the story until later.  As with anything, there may be exceptions – like if a character impacts the story even though he hasn’t shown up yet.

There are a few reasons I wait.  First, I don’t know enough about the story to know what characters I need.  Plus, I will almost certainly change them if I create them too early, so why waste effort?  I also don’t want to inundate myself with characters.  There are between twelve and fifteen characters in The Timekeeper’s Son who actually speak.  Can you imagine creating all of them at once?  Even if you were super industrious, I’ll bet you a dollar that they would come out too much alike and that’s never good.  You need some diversity in your characters or they’ll be boring even if they are real.

Are you guys noticing a trend yet?  Writing is hard.  Let’s not make it harder than it already is by doing unnecessary work.  Anyway, enough about that.  Let’s actually talk about creating sombody, shall we?

Building one or two, maybe three characters is one of the very first things I do.  I’ve got my story seed, but it isn’t really developed yet.  Maybe there’s a little sprout sticking out of the dirt, but that’s it.  I need characters to help develop the story.  You don’t expect me to write a whole novel by myself, do you?  I’m not nearly creative enough for that.

Anyway, let’s say it’s a story about a serial killer that is trying to capture a girl.  That means we need a female protagonist.  Now, I’ve envisioned a scene where the bad guy is tracking her with GPS as she moves across the country, so that means she needs to travel.  And the story seed says she’s supposed to be independent.  So, maybe she’s a freelance photographer.  That’s about all I know at this point.  Oh, except that her name is Jordan.  Maybe I’ll change it Alison or Lulu next week, but Jordan is ok for now. 

Maybe we’ll give her a boyfriend too.  He may not be in the opening scene, but she’s going to think about him early on, so he needs to exist.  That means I need to create a simple profile for him as well.

What you have at this point are a couple of thumbnail sketches.  They are very basic, but that’s ok.  We’re not done.  I just need enough to go back and think about the story a little more.  I need people to put into the situation so that I can start to envision how I want them to react.  That will help grow that seed of a story a little so that I can flesh Jordan out some more.  This is a very iterative process in the beginning, going from story to character back to story and so on.

Also, this process could cause other characters to be born.  As you start to envision the story, there will start to be some people-shaped holes.  If that happens, you just add them in as you go, following the same steps.

One thing I want to point out is that I’m not writing yet.  Definitely not.  I’m planning.  If I did try to write at this point, it wouldn’t work out very well at all.  Jordan wouldn’t have anything to say or do.  She would just sit there, mocking me with all that white on the screen.  And if I did get her to speak, it would be all robotic.  She wouldn’t have any life.  She is like a fuzzy, transparent creature with no form.  She doesn’t really exist in this plane yet.

One technique I’ll use to bring her to life is free writing.  I’ll write everything I know about her.  I’ll repeat most of what I came up with before, but now I’m adding more detail and I’m making more decisions.  Basically, I’m crafting a story about Jordan.  Not the story, mind you, but her story.  Who is she?  Where does she come from?  What major events have happened to her?  What kind of person is she?  What does she like to do?  Is she athletic?  So on and so forth.  The types of questions you ask are going to be different based on your story and based on what you already know about her.

Now, that thumbnail sketch is becoming more and more complete.  I keep bouncing from story to character and back again until that fuzzy form starts to look like a real person.  But we’re still not there yet.  We’re almost there, but I don’t really know her yet.  I know about her, but I don’t know her.  There’s a big difference.

The reason I don’t know her is because I still haven’t talked with her.  Like I said earlier, there are limits to my creativity.  I can’t make up her voice.  I’m not that smart.  She has to tell me who she is.

Seriously, having a fictional conversation with your character has a way of focusing all your attention on her.  I do it on paper, but I’ve talked to folks who like to do it aloud.  Either way, it allows her voice to emerge.  It allows her to become real.  Sometimes, this transformation happens quickly and other times it doesn’t.  But, eventually, something just pops.  And you’ll know it when it does.  She suddenly has a voice and you can start predicting how she’ll respond to different things. 

Now, maybe you’re asking what you talk about.  Anything, really.  Ask her where she grew up.  Ask her how she feels about her father.  Does she lie to you when she answers?  Ask her what the craziest thing she ever did was.  Ask her what her favorite restaurant is.  Ask her anything that makes her talk.

Oh, and don’t just listen to what she says.  Listen to how she says it.  Is she meek or is she assertive?  Is she humble?  Is she confident or is she cocky?  If you insult her, does she cry or does she rip out your spleen and do a little dance on it?  All of these things give Jordan a pulse and they invite your readers to love her or to love to hate her.

Once you’ve done this, you can start asking her what she thinks about the story.  What does she know?  What is she trying to understand?  How does she feel?  Is she scared?  Angry?  Confused?  What does she think she should do next?  I will actually repeat this step over and over again throughout the course of the story.  It helps me make sure the characters are reacting naturally and it helps create the storyline.

One final thing I should mention is the notion of personality types.  There are several approaches out there from Myers-Briggs (MBTI) to the Path Elements Profile (PEP).  The value I think they bring is that they can help create consistent and varied characters.  Plus, they can add a layer of believability because your characters can remind people of folks they know.  The trick is to find the right balance.  Don’t go overboard with it.  That’s why I prefer the PEP for writing.  In real life, I like the MBTI, but it is a lot more granular and it has a big learning curve.  The PEP is great for writing because there are only four types.

I should also point out that I do NOT do all this work for every single character.  It really depends on the situation.  For characters who only show up in a single scene, I may create them as I go.  Characters who show up in a few scenes may get the whole process, just way faster.  It’s the main characters who get the full treatment.  I can spend several hours to several days thinking about them.

So, that’s it, at a high level, anyway.  Sorry about the length, but I wanted to give enough information to be useful.  Next, I plan to talk about how to get these people into your story.  Please, don’t be shy about leaving comments below.  If there’s something you like or don’t like or maybe want me to expand on, let me know.

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