Some writers start their creative process with character creation and then build plot and setting around the character(s), other writers begin with plot or setting and then populate it with characters. Regardless of where a writer is in the creative process, there are generally four techniques they can use to create new characters: real life, adapted from real life, concepts, or goals.
Using Real People
Start with yourself and the people you know. Everyone is a unique combination of where and how they live, what they like, what they believe, their strengths and weaknesses, etc. If that doesn’t work go somewhere with lots of people; wander around a mall or park, or sit on a bench. Watch the people who pass by. Bring a notebook and jot down any strong impressions, the snippets of conversation that you overhear, and build on that. If you need someone specific, like a musician, an engineer, or a policeman, look for one, explain to them what you’re trying to do, and ask if you could interview them, maybe follow them around for a time.
Adapting from Life
Many characters may not exist in the world of an author; historical figures, mythical creatures; and some experiences may be out of the question. It’s not always an option to visit a cave, and no one should commit a crime for the sake of writing a story. But research can only go so far.
Find an analogous experience. If the character is committing a crime, consider the situation. If they’re excited browse through your own memories, of times when you were excited by what you were doing, something requiring specific skills. Emotion is a powerful bridge. Another aspect is finding comparable experiences. Not many people can go into space, but scuba diving also involves floating in an environment without breathable air. The key is to find either a memory or an experience you can have, where either the emotions or some aspects of the situation are similar, and then recognize what the differences are, and adapt accordingly.
Creating from Concept
Some characters exist to fit a role; whether it’s representing a specific perspective, adding a touch of humor, or just providing some information. These characters are often built out of order. They start with a personality and then gain a backstory to explain it.
When building a character from a personality start with an archetype or stereotype; consider zodiac and Myers Brigs personality types. Give them one or two personality quirks. Then step back and consider the character’s place in the story. If they are a walk-on character, literally there to fulfill a role once, this is probably enough. Minor and major characters warrant more development, which is the subject of next week’s post.
Four Basic Relationship Roles
Most characters fulfill one (or more) 4 basic role types:
Protagonists are the characters going through some form of personal journey. They are changed by the events of the story. Examples include Harry Potter & Dumbledore (Harry Potter), Keslier & Vin (Mistborn), etc.
Supporters are the characters who help protagonists through their troubles. They may have goals of their own, but they are more often moved by the events of the story than moving them themselves. They are often friends, confidants, and/or mentors who have known the character for a long time.
Examples include Ron (Harry Potter) and Dockson (Mistborn).
Challengers are characters who confront the protagonist, who doubt them. A challenger may offer help, but they also don’t hesitate to criticize or even oppose the protagonist. Challengers are frequently friendly rivals or romantic interests, characters that push the protagonist to confront their shortcomings and/or grow beyond their limits.
Examples include Hermoine (Harry Potter) and Vin & Kelsier (Mistborn), who frequently criticize each other when other characters refrain.
Antagonists are characters who either have a goal that requires the protagonist to fail, or specifically want the protagonist to fail.
It’s also not uncommon for characters to have multiple roles. In the play Othello, Iago is both a supporting confidant for Othello, and his secret antagonist. Many adventure stories feature one-sided relationships, where the protagonist has romantic feelings for an antagonist. Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream used one sided romance to great effect.
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