After spending last column talking about characters in continuity, in world building, it’s time to talk about creating characters themselves.
I held this off until talking about the role characters play because of all aspects of world building, Character creation is the one that can (and in my opinion, should) be the most complex. As noted, a character is in a way the summary of the setting, and in turn, extremely complicated. Because they’re complicated, a sense of where they fit is important.
Characters are your setting come to visible, relatable life. Or at least should be.
The problem in discussing “how to create” characters is the process itself is also unpredictable, personal, and unique for everyone – just as characters are unique. So I can’t give you a system or even a list of questions that’ll “do it for you.” In fact, I shouldn’t because we all do this differently.
What I can do is give a list of techniques i’ve used, I’ve encountered, and I’ve coached on to help you create characters. Some you’re doing. Some you aren’t. Some will work. Some won’t – but would work for someone else.
But you can find what works for you.
After all I said it wasn’t simple. People never are – and that’s what you’re creating.
Character Creation: A Long List of Techniques
So let’s get to what can help you with conjuring forth a cast.
The List: Some people have ideas for characters they jot down and use later. Sure the characters are a quick summary, but there’s something to use later. Try keeping a list of character ideas and then tapping it as needed.
Also remember characters and settings interact. Adding a character from your list may alter your setting – in some delightful ways.
Cautions: The characters should then be “rebuilt” in your continuity to risk the flaws of just shoving them in to whatever world you’re building. Sometimes an idea is so far along they don’t fit and you have to start over.
The Intersect: When you build a world, there’s many times you ask “hey who did this?” Why invented FTL? Who runs this fantasy tavern with a disturbing level of fights? Who was this character’s lost parent? When you are making a world there’s many blank spots that should be filled with people – filling them in fleshes out the world and fleshes out your cast, and you have a bit of a start as you kind of know who they are in general (even if it’s “weird inventor” or “put-upon bar owner.”).
Working with The Intersect method is not only a good way to flesh out characters – even if its more background characters – but to understand setting/character relations.
Cautions: Avoid creating characters that are basically there to wear a hat that designates their profession. Sure that may be fine for a background character, but in the case of anyone critical or potential critical, make sure they become real characters, even shallow ones.
The Spirit: Almost inevitably when we start writing we already have character ideas – it’s a bit like The List method above, but more specific to the setting. In many cases the characters and setting evolve alongside each other as one makes you think of the others and more details emerge as questions are asked. When you start world building or conceiving a story it might help to keep a specific list of characters you’re thinking of.
Cautions: You can create a character a bit too much and they have them drive the setting – which I warned about earlier. Be sure to revisit and revise them as needed until they’re properly “real.”
The Character Sheet: A personal favorite of mine. Keep a sheet of essential character traits, a bit like a profile or an RPG sheet, and fill it out for characters you create. You may even modify the sheet for different settings. It makes you think, makes you ask questions, and gives you a nice record of character information to refer back to. Re-reading them can be very stimulating – and I find that when I can fill out a detailed character sheet for a character I usually “get” them.
If you do have to modify the sheet for different settings, that’s actually helpful as a writer. It makes you ask about the world and what you need to know – which just helps you know the world better.
Cautions: If a character doesn’t “come to life” before – or after – doing a sheet then you don’t “get” them. Keep modifying the sheets over time to incorporate new, inspiring/informative categories that help you write – they shouldn’t be static.
The Questions: Very similar to the Character Sheet method, asking questions about characters until they spring to life is a popular technique – and one useful just for fleshing them out. What is their hobby? What is their favorite food? Over time you can develop a list of questions for the characters you create to help you out – and there are plenty out there on the internet.
Individual settings may, in turn, have individual questions. Fleshing these out, just like the Character Sheet method, helps you know the world better.
Cautions: Good questions shock and surprise you, though some may (fortunately) become habit, others may just be ones you fill in to get out of the way. Shake up or randomize your character questions to keep it fresh.
The Talk: Imagine you’re having a conversation with one of your characters – you may even want to write it down. Try that technique, in the form of a dialogue, to see what you learn about them. It can also help you develop the proper “voice.”
I usually find this method works when you have a good sense of character (even if its unconscious) and the setting. If you don’t, it might not be as productive.
Cautions: I find not everyone is up for this method or can use it. It can feel a might weird to do this, after all.
The Multimedia: Try to get to know a character better by imagining them – or putting them – in another media form. Draw them. What actor would you cast to play them? Who would voice them? If they’re a comic book character what literary style would fit them? Try remapping the character in other media to see if it triggers any ideas.
Cautions: This method can be useful, but can also be distracting- and risks you limiting the character based around the media you use. You can end up visualizing a character just like the actor that should play them, or get stuck on visual queues not character ones.
The System: Similar to the Multimedia, but imagine what your character would be in a game system – such as an RPG or other class/character-based game. This makes you think of how they’re interpreted, makes you ask questions, and helps you think about them with a defined ruleset. I even met one person who’s way to design characters was to ask what Pokemon™ they’d be.
(This also makes you think deeply about how game systems work and can be revealing if you’re a gamer).
Cautions: I find this is best as a stimulating exercise – if you take it to far your character ideas may be constrained by the very game system you’re using, and some of those are very limiting.
The Jam: If you have a friend you trust (or a co-writer) sit down and discuss characters with them and see what you come up with. A good jam with someone means you play off of each other.
Cautions: Different viewpoints may clash, especially if only one of you knows the world.
The Read Through: I read through my character documents now and then and just see what hits me or what I missed. I usually find some new inspiration.
Cautions: Don’t do this too often or you’ll sort of get numb and read what’s in your head.
So there you have it, a list of techniques I use and have heard of. I’m sure there’s plenty more. But I’d be remiss without adding a bit of advice on one you should use . . .
The Importance Of The Character Sheet
One thing I mention above is using a character sheet as a way to get to know a character. Wether that fires your imagination or not, I do recommend having some format for storing character information for your world. It’s not just a brainstorming tool – it’s a record-keeping tool.
Having a standard format doesn’t just inspire you, it’s also a list of basic things you’ll need to know for writing, to have a cover artist look at – and possible to bundle up in some world guide you release in the future. It’s a record that keeps you focused and aware of what you’ve already created, with plenty of uses.
There’s a chance it may not inspire you – that’s the way it works – but finding a sheet that helps you keep track of data is important even if it’s just administrative work.
There’s no best way to make a character in your world. But you can find what techniques work for you and make them work.
You might even invent some new ones. If you do, be sure to share them.
– Steven Savage