Out of all the ingredients writers must combine, within the chaotic mixing pot of their fiction, characters have got to be the element that carries the most weight. When formulating ideas of my own, I have yet to come across a time in which I have a premise for a novel or short story, without at least having some vague silhouette of my “character-to-be” alongside it. Don’t get me wrong, the characters I envision during the early stages of a brewing idea are nearly always underdeveloped, two-dimensional and blurry- but they are still imagined to some degree. Nearly all of the time my characters are fleshed out completely, before the ins and outs of the plot and setting are decided in full.
Frequently I hear the advice that characters have to be ‘relatable.’ While yes, this is true, characters have to be relatable to a reader, I also believe that a reader will find any character relatable to some extent as long as they are realistic. Consider this, the most memorable characters across all mediums of story telling (TV, film, books etc) are often not similar to us at all. Whether our favourite character be a wizard attending Hogwarts and fighting the Dark Lord, a 19th Century governess choosing between Mr Rochester and St. John. or a millionaire of the Roaring 20s throwing lavish parties and pining after Daisy Buchanan, I highly doubt you could argue your life is an uncanny parallel to any of them. What we can relate to, however, is the idea of a character on a journey, facing obstacles and struggles- a character facing the emotions of real life. The crucial factor here is that your characters must be on a journey of some sort and your readers must be allowed to experience this with them. The characters must be realistic enough that we believe, just for a moment, that their journey is real and so we care about the outcome.
So the question is this: how do we go from an initial, blurry, two-dimensional figure, to a realistic character that will be remembered by readers long after they have closed our books? Well, first of all, you must know them. Know them like you know yourself- you are their creator after all. You must know their daily schedule, their star sign, their eating habits, their past and background, what they want from their future and where they are in their present. You must know the character’s life path and all of the little details and personality traits they have obtained along the way. These details may not always seem relevant at the start, but they will become the foundations of your work. Often, some of these details will end up slipping into single lines of my stories or even developing into a major plot point.
As your character experiences the plot of your novel they will be both passive and active. They will be passive in the sense that they will be reactive to the rollercoaster plot, you, as the writer, have written them into- and you will have to know your character well enough to be able to understand how they would react to the situations you put them in. You will also have to ensure that your characters are actively making decisions within the narrative, in order to fulfil their wants/desires/goals. To do this, you need to know firstly, what your character wants, but secondly, how they are likely to go about attaining this. Do they play by the rules? Do they use their charm and wit to get what they want? Do they cheat, lie and scheme their way to their goals?
The list of details you must know about your character is endless, but below, I have outlined a few activities for writers to try, in order to help them when developing their characters.
This is probably the most basic but crucial step in creating a realistic character. In your notebook or preferably on a blank piece of paper (A3 works well), draw two boxes. In one box, note down all words that you would associate with your character (be it appearance, personality traits, activities they like doing, symbols they represent). In the second box, even if you cannot draw, do a little character sketch. The point of the sketch is not to create a beautiful depiction of what he/she looks like, but rather to get you thinking about the details of their appearance. Underneath your boxes, answer a list of questions about the character. The list of possible questions is endless, but here are a few to get you started:
Name? Age? Ethnicity? Gender? Sexuality? Family? Political view? Intelligence? Religion? Fashion style? Birthday and star sign? Physical and mental health? Eating habits/exercise habits?Relationship history? Occupation? Home? Social background and class? Likes/dislikes? Phobias/fears? Wants/desires? Appearance? (including scars, physical deformities, complexion, level of attractiveness etc). Mannerisms? (how they walk, move, sit, stand, posture etc). Voice and accent? (what would they say and how would they say it). Confidence/insecurities? Strengths/positive traits? Weaknesses/negative traits? Are they organised/scatty and forgetful? Optimist/pessimist/realist? Extrovert/introvert? Risk taker/plays its safe? Hobbies?
Draw a long line across a page (again A3 works well). From there fill out all of the important things and dates that have happened in your character’s life, up until the point we meet them in your story. This will help you to establish your character’s background, family and possibly any trauma/achievements that have caused them to be the way they are now. If you want to go further, underneath each date, make a note of how the event has affected your character. This will unveil a lot about your character’s psychology and mind set. Remember, in real life, people’s pasts are what make them who they are.
Imagine your character is carrying a bag around with them. What would they carry? (designer handbag? Brief Case? Rucksack? Plastic bag? Recycled canvas bag? etc) Then describe what they would have in that bag- think of things that would represent their personality. If they care about their appearance they may have a mirror. If they take lots of medication they may have this in their bag too. If they like to travel, they may have lots of train tickets that haven’t yet been discarded etc. If they have a wallet/purse, how much money do they carry? Is it wads of notes, lots of loose change or just a credit card? Do they have a gym membership inside their bag? Car keys? Lipstick? Chewing gum? A passport? A work laptop? If you want to take this activity further, rather than doing just a bag, try and describe your character’s bedroom.
Write out in detail what your character’s routine is when they wakeup. Do they rush out of bed last minute for work? Do they get up bright and early to do yoga or go to the gym? Do they lounge around because they have no job to get up for? How long does it take them to get ready? Do they do anything to their hair? How do they decide on an outfit? Do they speak to anybody? Turn on the TV? Finish some last minute work? Scroll through social media? Do they leave the house only to realise they have forgotten something and need to return two minutes later? Are they always late? Do they love or hate mornings? How do they get to work? But most importantly what do they have for breakfast- if anything at all.
Where are they now?
This is my last and favourite activity to help you visualise your characters. Look at the time and think about what day it is. Now, shut your eyes and think about exactly where your character would be at this point in time. Think about who they are with, what they are doing, what they are thinking about and how they feel. Identify what they are wearing, if they are tired, hungry, stressed, hot, cold. Now open your eyes and write every detail down. This activity can be done at different points throughout the day as obviously your character will be in different places at different times.
There have been many times in which I have used this activity in my writing, including it as the scene where I introduce my readers to the character.
I will be writing a post on how to create unusual characters or characters that are very different to ourselves soon, so keep an eye out on my website!
Last of all remember this: