We’re coming right off the heels of the A to Z Challenge. If you somehow managed to miss the entire month worth of posts, I had a theme for this challenge, and that theme was “Fictional Characters”. For each letter of the alphabet I wrote about a different favorite fictional character of mine, whether they were from books, comics, TV shows, movies, or video games.
Most of the characters that I chose are favorites of mine because of outstanding writing, emotional acting, relatable situations, or amusing quirks, all things that can be very difficult to establish when building a good character up from scratch. Writers of various forms of media will tell you that creating a good character can be a painstaking experience. You don’t want them to be too flawed, nor too perfect. You want the reader/consumer to like the characters they’re supposed to like and hate the characters they’re supposed to hate. You need to make your character’s plight easy to relate to (or else why do your readers/consumers care?) but it also has to be fantastic enough to be interesting. You need to make your characters interact naturally and believably. You need to be able to follow through with the personality of your characters (i.e. a complete craven isn’t likely to go rushing into battle without a second thought).
I could go on, but the point I’m trying to get across is that it’s difficult to create a good character because there are a million things to think about, and often you don’t think of them until you absolutely have to – I’ve read entire books where I was never told, for example, the color of the main character’s hair, because the author never stumbled across a reason to mention it.
Because characters can be so painful to create, I came up with an exercise that I’ve found actually helps quite a bit.
I came up with the idea for the exercise while at work in the control room of my previous job. We were having system issues that day and literally couldn’t do anything until the system admins figured out what the problem was, so my coworkers and I were literally just sitting at our desks, talking and waiting for something to do. It occurred to me that here was a broad variety of people…we had two Frenchmen who looked strikingly similar despite being related in no way, a young man with a big bushy beard and a feminine name, a young man with a perfectly masculine name who was otherwise very feminine in nature, a Russian with a very strong accent and a quirky sense of humor, a family man with an absolutely ridiculous smoking habit, a middle-aged operator who was constantly singing at the top of his lungs, a very serious engineering woman who thought a little too highly of herself, and so on and so on. A motley crew.
So I decided to start writing these details down. I gave a page or two in my notebook to each person, writing down their name, a description of their looks, and everything I knew about their background and personalities. For some people I couldn’t write a lot, but for some I wound up with a ton of information. And each person was very different, very real. Each person would make an excellent character in the right setting and the right story. Some of them would make great protagonists, and a couple of them would make excellent antagonists.
Afterward this became my favorite exercise for coming up with new characters. I can sit amongst coworkers, family members, groups of friends, or even a group of complete strangers, and write down every detail I can think of, and BAM! Characters! Of course, when it comes to actually using people as characters I will change some details, like their name, but it really gets the ball rolling in the proper direction.
Writer friends: how do you come up with your characters? Non-writer friends: what makes a character great for you? Please share!