Almost every work of fiction, non-fiction, and every story anyone ever tells will contain one or more characters. Characters don’t necessarily have to be human, or even living, to be characters. Maybe someone wants to write a short story about a rock that sits at the bottom of the ocean and watches as the water levels rise and then sink, that erodes away with the movement of the water and then builds back up when a nearby volcano erupts. In this case, the rock would be the main character, even if it doesn’t have any thoughts or feelings.
Sometimes, characters just sort of show up either fully or partially formed in the writer’s mind, ready to be worked on. Other times, the plot requires a certain kind of character present, and so the author sets out to make one up. Both these types of characters are made of a mish-mash of details we see in the real world around us: they have characteristics we see in our friends, our enemies, celebrities, strangers, or ourselves.
Most of the time, they’re not based on real people. Just because your character has the same brand of stubborn determination as your best friend doesn’t mean that character has to be based on your best friend. As long as you don’t start with a real person and only change a few superficial details, you should be okay.
And generally, it’s a good idea to not base your characters on real-life people. Sometimes, anyone who recognizes themselves in your writing will get angry about it—believe it or not, not everyone wants to be a character in a book, even if they’re the hero or nothing bad happens to them. Which is another problem: characters almost always need to be put into situations that test them, hurt them, make them upset, or change them. If you’re restricting your character’s trials or growth because you want to keep them as close to their real-life counterpart as possible, it will limit the plot and your readers’ interest in your character.
So, where do you start? If I need to create a character and I don’t already have the beginnings of one in my head, I usually start with a name. This is a good place to go if you need a name. Another good place to find names, if you’re writing something set in the real world, is to look up lists of the most common names in whatever country your story is set in.
They also need a personality. If I’m doing side characters or need a starting point because I have no idea how this character is supposed to act, I find them a generic personality type and build on it from there. I use the Enneagram a lot for these, but you can also use Jung. I prefer the Enneagram for character building because I think it’s a little easier to understand on the surface., and the categories are a little more clear-cut.
If you’re creating a minor character or side character who never really gets to be the center of attention, you’re done. If you’re creating a main character or someone more important to a main character or to the storyline, you might need to know a bit more. If you want, you can just start writing and let the details come to you as you go, or you can be a little more thorough from the outset.
Here are some ideas for more involved character building:
- Use a worksheet (I tried a bunch of these, but wasn’t ever satisfied with what I found, so I made my own: here’s a link for it if you want to use it)
- Write about an important event in the character’s life from their point of view
- Have the character tell their backstory in their own voice (use first person: I, me, we, etc.)
- Write out your other characters’ thoughts about this character
- Look at a list of character traits, pick some at random, and decide whether they fit your character and to what extent they do or don’t
I think that’s enough for today: next week, I’ll talk about strengths, flaws, and what makes characters likable, unlikable, or interesting.