How to Create a Character

by Holly Lisle
All Rights Reserved

No matter what sort of fiction you’re writing, you’re going to have to populate your story with characters, and a lot of them, if not all of them, you’re going to have to create from scratch. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — there is no Betty Crocker Instant Character-In-A-Can that you can mix with water and pop into the oven for twenty minutes. There aren’t any quick and easy recipes, and I don’t have one either, but I do have some things that have worked for me when creating my characters, and some things that haven’t. You may find my experiences useful. For what they’re worth, here are my Do’s and Don’ts.

  • Don’t start your character off with a name or a physical description.

I know this doesn’t seem logical at first glance — after all, you name a baby before you get to know him very well. Why wouldn’t you give your character a name and blue eyes before you find out anything else about him?

There are a couple of reasons. The first is that you have a lot of preconceived ideas about names and body types. Perhaps every Charlie you ever knew was a great guy, while every Barry you knew was an idiot. So when you decide to name your protagonist Charlie before you really get to meet him, he is automatically going to carry along a lot of baggage that you probably aren’t even going to be aware of — but that baggage will subtly influence the direction of your story, and perhaps its outcome. And that influence won’t necessarily be a benefit to your story.

In the same way, maybe your heart has been broken twice by redheads, or the gorgeous surfer you dated briefly who stole your credit card, did drugs in the back seat of your car and got your twin sister pregnant before dumping you and vanishing from your life forever. So you might be carrying a grudge against redheads or good-looking men, and you might have a tendency to make every redhead in your books a bitch, or every hunk a creep in disguise.

Second, if you have a name and a physical description right away — Jane Meslie, 37, blonde with bright blue eyes and great legs and a habit of flipping her hair out of her face when she’s frustrated — you’re going to be tempted to look no deeper that her appearance. When she gets into trouble, you’re going to fall back on that hair-flipping thing, and she’s going to do it so often she’ll be bald by the end of the book.

  • Do start developing your character by giving him a problem, a dramatic need, a compulsion.

Even if you don’t have the foggiest idea what your story is going to be about yet, you don’t know where it’s going to take place, and you haven’t found anything compelling that you’d like to say to an audience of more than one, you can do this. Say “My main character wants _____ more than anything else in the world.”

What does the character want? Love, respect, courage, revenge, a kidney for his kid sister, to find the son she gave up for adoption when she was sixteen? Throw something down on the paper. It won’t be written in stone and you can always go back later and change it. Or you can, when you create the character, bank him for a later book if he doesn’t fit your needs once you get rolling. In writing as in life, nothing you do is ever wasted. So go ahead and jump in. Your character wants something. If he’s like most people, he wants several somethings, and about the time you allow yourself to start discovering them, you’ll begin to find out where your story is going, and what it will be about.

He also wants to avoid something — and these things the character wants to avoid can be more compelling by far that the things he hopes to gain. What scares him to death? Humiliation, disfigurement, pain, terminal illness, poverty? What will he do anything to avoid? What has he already done to avoid his greatest fears? Give him something that will wake him up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, hands clutching his covers, body rigid with terror. If you want to really make your character come to life, choose something that terrifies you — you’ll find that when you write something that makes you shake, you’ll make your reader shake, too.

A rule of good storytelling is that the protagonist will confront the thing he fears the most and overcome it in order to win the thing he desires the most. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, and for every book where the writer followed it, you’ll find at least one where the writer ignored it completely. But overall, the most satisfying stories will at least approach this rule.

  • Don’t rely on crutches.

I’ve read a number of otherwise-decent writing books that have you start out creating your character by giving him a hook — some little device that characterizes the person. Nervous whistling, jangling car keys kept in the right front pocket, a complete wardrobe of blue shirts, the anxious stroking of a rabbit’s foot in moments of deep stress.

It doesn’t hurt to do this, but I recommend that you do it later rather than sooner — perhaps at about the same time that you name your character. Maybe even later — say when you’re in the middle of chapter three and you need your character to do something while talking to the bank teller that will make her wary.

And don’t mistake a few nervous tics and a jaunty saunter for characterization. Your own character is what’s inside of you — what you’re made of when things get ugly and hard; whether you’ll take something that doesn’t belong to you if no one is looking, whether you’ll tell the truth even if lying is easier, whether you’ll be faithful to you wife when presented with the perfect opportunity for a no-strings-attached one-nighter. Your character has nothing to do with whether you wipe your bangs out of your eyes with the back of your hand or always wear something yellow, and the same is true of the people you’ll be creating and writing.

  • Do empathize with your character.

This is sometimes easy. When you’re writing your protagonist, and he’s in deep soup, and you’re pouring your soul into his struggles and his angst and spending plenty of words and sweat making making people see that he’s a great guy in a tough spot, the empathy will be there. You’ll know who he is and you’ll care because you’ll see yourself as him in the same spot. In the dreams you’ve had since you were a little kid, you’ve been the hero. You know how the routine is supposed to go.

Sometimes empathy comes a lot harder, though, and I think it’s most important when it’s hard. Recently I had to write the toughest scene in my life, a scene where a woman that I’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to make sympathetic over the course of a book and a half does something so utterly reprehensible, so unforgivable, that if I’ve done it right the readers will be praying for her death from that moment on. Given the choice between doing something right and doing something evil, she chooses the path of evil, and in the moment of her choosing lies the fate of her world and the rest of the story.

But her choice couldn’t come out of the blue. I had to build toward it. I had to make what she did understandable, and in order to do that, I had to be able to understand it myself. It was a truly terrible act, one of the most horrible things I am capable of imagining, and when I wrote the scene, tears ran down my face and I got queasy and I got cold and when I was through I went to bed and cried. I had to put myself in the place where that character was, and she was in hell, and she did a hellish thing — but she did it with my hands, and my mind, and my eyes.

When you write, you can only write those things you know (or the things you know will be the only things you write well, anyway.) So when you write the villain, you have to be the villain. You have to understand why the villain acts as he does, you have to know that if you were him in that situation, you would do as he does — because if you can’t do this, no one who reads what you have written will believe in the characters you have created. Empathy in those moments is an agony. You have to look into the darkest part of your soul and find the part of yourself that could be a monster, and you have to put that on the page for people to see. There’s no easy way past this, because your hero can only be as great as the evil he overcomes. If you can’t face the evil in yourself, you hero will only overcome straw villains, and your work will lie flat and lifeless on the page.

  • Don’t sympathize with your characters.

Empathy and sympathy are two sides of one coin — empathy is understanding, while sympathy is an affinity you share with your character that creates change, allowing the character to affect you. You must feel empathy for the characters you create, both the heroes and the villains, but you can never feel sympathy. In other words, you have to understand why your characters do what they do, but you can’t let that understanding tempt you to ease their suffering, or let them take the easy way out of situations, or experience sudden miracles that remove their obstacles.

  • Finally, do write from your own life.

This is no picnic, either, but it’s the single technique that has brought my best characters to life. I’ve found that when I take my worst moments, the painful, humiliating, disastrous, or simply dreadful ones that still make me cringe inside, and I change them enough to keep from getting sued, they make good fiction. And my responses, translated to the character, seem to live.

You can only write what you know, but you can take the fears and hopes and feelings you’ve experienced in a relatively mundane existence and translate them to a broader canvas with imagination and persistence. The fear you felt the moment your car almost slid over a guard rail or the elation you felt when you won first place on your 4-H project at the county fair translate very well into the fear your character feels on finding himself at the edge of a cliff with a sword-wielding army at his back, or the elation she feels on discovering the secret code that gives her access to the hidden passageway.

All paintings are done from the same basic set of colors, and all characters are built from the same basic set of responses and emotions. How you use these elements — how you mix them and apply them — determines whether you’ll end up with a masterpiece or something not even your grandma would hang on her wall.

I hope this list helps you get started and stay headed in the right direction while you’re developing your characters. If you’d like to do more with this, this link will take you to my Character Creation Workshop: Designing A Life; you’ll have a new character when you’re done.

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