“Discover everything about your characters that you can before you write your story. If you get stuck at any point, they will write your dialogue for you.”
~ MICHAEL J. KANNENGIESER
I have long championed the position that characters are fiction, and that if your characters are weak, shallow, or in any way poorly drawn, then there is no amount of skillful description or plotting that can rescue your story. Over the next weeks and months I plan to share some of the techniques I use in the composition of my own books and stories, and I can think of no better place to start than with the construction of your characters, the people, aliens, spirits, and automatons who are going to tell your story for you by living it. What I can’t do is tell you how to create a character from thin air. That’s one of the primary skills of the writer, so I’m going to assume that you have it.
But if you’re a writer, you know the drill. You’re just ambling along minding your own business, when a trapdoor opens in the gray matter, and out climbs a person. Suave guy, tough chick, or someone completely different, it doesn’t matter. Another thing that doesn’t matter is whether you were already working on a story, and this spontaneous creation is in response to that, or if this person just popped into being and inspired a whole narrative for his or her own use. It is a character, and as such, has to be developed.
The first step is to compare him to the story you are writing. Comedy, romance, action, horror, all have their denizens that populate their pages. Writing a comedy, and the guy who popped up bears a striking resemblance to Indiana Jones? Then you need to look at whether he’ll stand for you making him a bumbling sort of action hero. He won’t have it? Then consider a role as a pompous straight-man. Now comes the tough part: If he refuses to fit into the story you’re telling, then he needs to go. Not to the gallows, but to a sort of author’s limbo where ideas, settings, characters, and situations percolate for use on future projects. If he just won’t gel, then maybe he does need to go permanently; if you can’t make him hold still for a snapshot, how are you going to manage him for the marathon that is writing a novel?
Let’s assume he does work, though. Now he needs to be developed to a level where you know him better than you know some of your own family members. I can hear the murmur rising already. People are going to say, “I’m a pantser,” or “Planning stifles creativity.” If your writing philosophy is to write by the seat of your pants (a “pantser”) for the story as a whole, that’s fine, your style, your business, but a character is much more complex than a simple plot. Plots tend to behave; characters are people, and if the ones you know are anything like the ones I do, they’re as drifty as the most chaotic subatomic particles. Every plot twist, every unexpected development, every decision in which your character either goes to the street corner and waits for the light to change, or just darts out into traffic comes down to who that character is, and you, Mr., Miss, or Mrs. author, have to know. You have to, because if you get it wrong one time, your readers will notice, and you can take that to the bank!
This requires some form of character sheet. I’m sorry, but no short cut exists. You have to know far more than you will ever put on the page, because if you don’t, your character will be a straw man, a stick figure, with no more depth than the page he’s described on. If that’s good enough for your purposes, then you may as well stop reading now, but before you go, consider all the most powerful works of literature, from Dickens to Rowling. Every character comes alive, leaps off the page, draws you into the story and keeps you there for the whole ride. If you want your fiction to grab your readers like that, then read on. Writing is hard work. If it wasn’t, we’d all be on the best-seller list. If you want to be a top-tier writer, it begins with doing the work.
So, enter the Character Sheet. What goes into it? When you first think of this character, record the obvious things: Height, weight, build, color of eyes and hair, distinguishing marks, all the things you’d tell a cop if you’d witnessed a robbery. Ah, but then it gets interesting. Let’s examine each point that you need to know intimately to make your character come alive.
ROLE: The first thing you need to decide is whether this character is the Lead, the Opposition, the Confidant (sort of the Lead’s version of a Henchman), the actual Henchman, the Romantic Interest, or a Minor Player. If a Minor Player, it is important to know whether he favors a victory by the Lead, or if he’s partial to the Opposition.
CONNECTION TO LEAD: If this character is not the Lead, then he or she must know or otherwise have an interest in the Lead’s success or failure, and you have to know what that is. Whether a blood relative, childhood friend, or someone who read about the Lead in the paper, and views him as heroic, or a villain who must be stopped, there is a connection between them, and it must be defined. It isn’t enough to throw a character into the mix who wants to bring the Lead to his knees. There is a reason, and knowing that reason, and keeping true to it, is what elevates the story above the level of Archie and Jughead.
STORY GOAL: Every character wants something tangible, something that will benefit him personally. It isn’t enough to say that the Confidant wants the Lead to win. It’s all about the why. What does she gain if the Lead goes home victorious, and what does she lose if he loses? That’s the motivation, and without it, the Confidant becomes a Sidekick, motivated only by hero-worship, and any other character becomes even less interesting than that.
MANNERISMS: This is very important, and one of the few things that can grow as the character does. If you have anything in mind for him, write it down here. Talks with her hands, sways when standing in one place, nervous tic in the left eye, anything, anything at all. Then leave a lot of space, because much of what you write about this character as the story develops will need to be recorded here. Don’t skimp on this. If your character drums the fingers of her right hand on the outside of her thigh when she’s agitated, and a hundred pages later, she starts popping bubble gum under the same kind of stress, readers will notice. Readers notice everything, and that’s only good if you’ve gotten everything right.
SPEECH PATTERNS: Here go your character’s regionalisms and accents, his embarrassment talking to the opposite gender, his stutter, the way he says “y’ know?” at the end of every sentence, and all that jazz. I suppose you could combine this with Mannerisms, but keeping it separated helps me keep these points from getting lost in the shuffle.
PERSONALITY: List here the character’s basic traits, the qualities that are going to inform his every action, be that a bubbly optimism, cowardice, underhandedness, saint-like honesty, any sort of quirk or flaw you can think of, and stay true to them. Again, readers will notice. Note: The four indispensable traits of the Lead must be Courage, Virtue, Likability, and Competence. Lose Courage or Competence, and you have a comedic hero, as in Beverly Hills Ninja. Lose Virtue or Likability, and you have an anti-hero; think Paul Newman in Hombre. Lose two or more, and you will have an unsympathetic ass who will kill any story you place him in.
BACKGROUND: This is simply the pertinent facts in your character’s life up until the beginning of the story. Examine the story you are writing, and let your imagination run wild; a young woman who had grown up in a convent wouldn’t likely choose to become a gangster’s moll, for example. Jot down a few details. They needn’t be exhaustive biographies, but you need to know what has driven these people to the time and place of your story, and what factors they believe are important. A few areas to solidify:
Geography: Where was he born? Into what conditions? Where did he grow up? Was the childhood location stable, or did the family move around a lot?
Family: What were her parents like? Does she have siblings? What is their relationship like? Did she marry or have children, married or not?
Childhood: What was his childhood like? Was he happy? Abused? Popular? Miserable? Lonely? What caused his underlying condition, and what sort of person did that make him?
Education: Did she go to college? Where? Did she do graduate work? Was there any other sort of training such as vocational school or military training?
PERSONAL LIFE: Where does the character live? A house, an apartment, a co-op, a condo? In what state, city, or town, real or made up, in what neighborhood? Is there a spouse? A parent? A roommate? Are there children or pets? What is his social life like? Who are his friends? How does he socialize with them? Does he go to the gym, do things with his son, enjoy a night out with the boys, or a card game with his wife? Does he like to go dancing or visit museums? We are all products of the road that brought us to this point. I am 69 years old, and I still carry baggage from my childhood home. Your characters do too. You need to capture it.
PRIVATE LIFE: What does the character like to do when she’s alone? People don’t just sit and stare at the wall until the next dramatic plot twist arises. We all have things we like to do. I write, play video games, read, watch music and documentary videos, and sometimes go for walks just for a few examples. You need to know whether your character is a bookworm or a squash player. Also, most people have a secret they would kill or die before disclosing. Maybe your character is a porn actress. Maybe she’s embarrassed to be a Furry. Maybe one summer as a teenager she helped her cousin bury a body. Once you know what that character is hiding, she will fairly leap off the page! It needn’t even be that dramatic. Patience Hobbs, the airship pilot of the Beyond the Rails series, has a small tattoo in an area that is always covered by Victorian clothing. None of her friends know she has it, and it doesn’t come up in the stories, but I know she has it. I know who put it on her, why she allowed it, and what it signifies, and it informs her actions in ways almost too subtle to imagine.
PROFESSIONAL LIFE: What does he do for a living? He does something, unless he is retired, a bum, or a member of the 1%. What is it? Did the story you are telling come about because of his job, such as a police officer or a journalist? Or was it an obligation dumped in his lap by his shiftless brother-in-law, and attempting to solve the dilemma it presents is going to bring him into conflict with boss and coworkers? How is he viewed at work? Is he a valued team member, or a problem employee? Who are his friends? Who are his allies? These are often not the same people. Who are his enemies and his rivals? Again, not always the same. Does the story take place in his work environment, or is it going on outside, maybe affecting his performance? All things that contribute to a well-rounded character, and vital for the author to know.
SKILLS: These are special abilities that the character brings to the story. This is perhaps easiest to envision in a fantasy story. If your character is a mage, what are her most familiar spells, the ones she will go to in an emergency because she can rely on them? Which are harder for her to manage, ones with a high payoff, but a big risk attached to attempting them? The housewife in your story may have dropped off the kids at school and gone from there to a two-hour karate lesson every day for the past five years. This will inform the way she looks, carries herself, and her confidence level at the very least, but it will also render her attempt to free her children from their kidnapper considerably more believable than if she’s a librarian who hasn’t exercised since the Bush administration. Once you identify a skill that your character is going to need, identify in parallel with it a reasonable way she could have acquired it, and when it comes up in the story, you will have a full understanding of it, and be ready to explain it in a thoroughly believable fashion.
STRENGTH: What is this character’s strongest positive trait, the one that will inform his approach to solving every problem? Express this in one word, if possible, certainly not more than three or four. This character may be completely villainous in his outlook, but everyone believes that he himself is righteous, and has powerful strengths to support that belief. These are things like loyalty, ingenuity, discretion, and adaptability. Most of us would be honored to be described in those terms, but those are character traits that would serve a villain well.
WEAKNESS: Similarly, what is the one dominant weakness that will test your character to the fullest when the going gets tough? These are the Seven Deadly Sins sort of traits. Envy, greed, laziness, arrogance, and selfishness all belong on this list, along with sloth, gluttony, and so on. Tempting though it is, pick one, and make your character face it by the end of the story.
NAME: I know, it’s a small thing to name a character. Throw a dart at a telephone directory, and there you are. True to some extent, but it’s not quite that simple. There are a few considerations you have to take into account. Is your character ethnic, or from an ethnic background? A migrant Mexican worker is unlikely to be named Clive. You need to consider the period in which the child was born. When I went to school, the most popular name for girls was Debbie; my daughter’s school was awash in a sea of Jennifers. Girls in the Victorian era, in which most of us steampunks write, are more likely to carry such cumbersome handles as Theodosia, Eudora, or Henrietta. Consider who the character is to imagine how her name might have been changed with use. A party-loving club-crawler named Cecelia might encourage her friends to call her CeeCee; a college professor of the same name might decline that particular honor. Nicknames are usually given by others, and they aren’t always flattering. My mother’s legal name was Kay Frances Tyler. Not the worst name in the white pages by any means, but it didn’t quite fit the professional gambler that was mom, a fun-loving girl at home in a man’s world with the nerve to bet it all on the turn of the next card, and show a steely-eyed poker face looking over a pair of deuces. At home, the other adults called her Kay, but on those occasions when I found myself accompanying her to the local gambling haunts for any reason, everyone I ever met in that world called her Frankie; it fit her like a tailored suit.
Most importantly, help your readers out by choosing names appropriate to the character. A high-powered attorney might be named Grant or Elliot; the drug dealer he’s defending probably won’t. Finally, keep your names distinct. Do not, under any circumstances, have three important characters named Edmund, Edward, and Edwin. Okay, nobody’s that heavy-handed, but a useful trick is to write down the alphabet on a page of your notebook, and when you name an important character, for example, David Smith, cross out the D and the S, and don’t attach them to any other important characters in that story.
All right, I know I said a few naming considerations, and this is the biggest section in the article, but naming conventions are important. The name describes your character, and a well-chosen name defines her. Done right, you can tell a bank officer from a pre-school teacher, a liberal from a conservative, one who embraces life from one who endures it. Done wrong, names can lead a reader into a minefield of confusion, and I’ve been led to believe that readers don’t like that. They don’t like it to the point that they will remember your name, and never buy another book that has your name on it.
THE BIGGEST NO-NO: Resist the temptation, no matter how strong, to impart all of this information to your reader. The reader should glean, whether through dialogue or exposition, no more than two-thirds of the information you compile on these characters, and on the thoroughly detailed ones, closer to half. Part of the character’s power to hold the reader spellbound is the mystery, the uncertainty, the romance of what’s implied. Use that mystery to seduce, to charm, to intrigue. Never relieve that curiosity, and they’ll remember your characters into their old age.
Okay, I’ve given you a ton of material here to use in creating and developing your characters, and you’re probably thinking, “What’s the matter with this guy? I just want to tell a story!” Well, I’m honest. That’s my character trait that I fall back on when the going gets tough, and make no mistake, if you’re a writer, the going is tough! It’s hard to get a firm figure, but taking the averages of the various places I’ve looked, it appears that some 5,000 books are published every day! The majority are self-published, which means the writer is responsible for the quality of his own work. No one is standing over him making him take care of the details, and so most of them don’t. There are tens of millions of books available for sale on Amazon; go on, ask me how I know! Vast numbers of them have sloppy grammar and spelling, improper punctuation, ridiculous premises, and are riddled with plot-holes. They are a complete waste of every aspect, from the writer’s time to the reader’s 99c, or whatever he paid for his Kindle edition. Anyone who has the misfortune to encounter one of these is probably going to swear off indies for life, so they harm all of us. The things I’m telling you in articles like this are the secrets of success. Do the work. There are no short cuts. Writing is hard work. After all, you’re creating a world, a society, a culture, and all the people in it. You’re controlling every aspect of every character. Did you think it was going to be as easy as dealing a hand of solitaire? If you haven’t been approaching character creation using some formula similar to this, why not? The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary. First do the work, then enjoy the success. It doesn’t happen any other way.
And I’m going to wrap this up here. That’s a lot to take in, and if you have been pantsing your characters, you’re probably in shock right now. I’ll be around for questions and comments, and would love to hear your thoughts on this.
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There isn’t a lot coming in on the newsfeed this morning, but by a stellar coincidence, author C.P. Leslie has posted a whole article about the issues a period writer encounters with character names. Kismet is alive and well, it seems, and right here on my site! Read well, write better, and I’ll be talking with you soon.