Creating your characters is one of the most important aspects when writing a book. They need to be convincing, feel real, and your readers need to care about them to become emotionally invested in the story you want to tell.
But how do you go about it? People swear on all different kinds of methods. Some people don’t plan their characters much at all and rely on their characters to tell them everything while others plan every last detail, but this doesn’t work for everyone. There is no true sure-fire way, but below are a few points to help you.
I’ve put together a list of things I bare in mind when creating a character. Please remember that this is not meant to be professional advice, but simply the way I go about doing this. If you feel like I have left anything important out, please add your methods in the comments below for a more complete list.
1) Flaws and Strengths
Chances are you want your characters to be credible and seem like real people rather than obviously fictional characters, and to achieve that they need to have flaws. Nobody is perfect, not even your good main character. In fact, main characters who are infallible and can’t do any wrong, ever, are boring to read about and you don’t want that. Likewise they need strengths. Something they are good at. I have yet to meet a person who fails miserably at everything – even if you think that you do, you don’t. Everyone has something they are good at, so your character should have that something, too.
2) Unique traits.
I read once that every character needs to be unique enough for the reader to know who’s talking without it mentioning names. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve read quite a few books where not every character has had a unique way of talking. Personally I think it comes across as trying a little too hard if every character has a different accent. Having said that, people have speech habits, so at least some of your characters should do, too. That can be an accent, finishing every other sentence by saying ‘right?’, or using nicknames for people only this one character uses. For example, one of mine usually refers to other guys as ‘lad’ or ‘boy’, while he refers to women as ‘lass’ or ‘girl’. He’s got a Scottish accent in my mind as well but because I suck at writing accents, this is all he gets. While this may not be necessary for all of your characters, it definitely helps make them more believable.
If you’re stuck, think about your own friends and family. Chances are not everyone you know has a speech habit, but some of them will do and you can draw from that.
3) Playing favourites.
Everyone has favourites. Favourite colour, favourite food, favourite people. Even if these things never get mentioned, it still helps to figure out what they are. Why? Because it makes your characters seem more like real people to you. That’s a good thing, remember? Before we can make them believable to our readers, they have to be believable to us. Equally, having favourite people will effect how your characters react to the people they talk to. They are not likely to get along beautifully with everyone they meet.
Which brings me to…
4) Past experiences.
Everyone has a history. Your character doesn’t begin his existence the moment the book starts. He will have had a life before that, too. Those experiences are very important since they’ll shape his views and reactions. For example, my main character Rachael has been a homeless orphan in a town which doesn’t want her all her life. Would you believe me if I wrote her as someone trusting with glossy hair and a great figure? Of course you wouldn’t, because that’s unrealistic. Rachael is extremely suspicious of everyone, malnourished and could do with a long, hot bath. A bit like a stray dog. You wouldn’t expect a stray dog which has been kicked in the face and shot once to happily come running to you just because you smile at it, right? Past experiences are important, and fictional characters need to have them.
5) They’re not mind-readers.
Unless they are, of course. Ignore this bit if they are. However, chances are they’re not, so it’s unrealistic for character B to know what character A has just decided in a different town. This might seem pretty obvious but I’ve seen it happen, and it’s always good to go over your basics every once in a while. So when you write this huge, important plot twist your villain came up with remember that your main character has no idea what’s happening. If they end up walking into a trap, let them. Equally, if you write chapter twenty-eight from Anna’s perspective, it makes no sense to read what Justin is thinking because Anna can’t know. (Unless she’s a genuine mind-reader)
Most people have families, so – yes, you’ve guessed it! – your character needs to have some form of social web as well. Even my homeless orphan had parents once! If you make your characters out to be stand-alone people with no relations at all I won’t believe you, and neither will your readers.
7) Unrealistic expectations.
People have urges! They have ambitions! It might sound romantic that Edward waited for 100 years before having sex just to wait for his one true soul mate, but come on. No. People aren’t wired that way.
You might be tempted to create the perfect character for your main person, but please consider whether they are realistic. Keeping Edward in High School for 100 years specifically so that he and Bella can meet there by accident isn’t very believable. I don’t know what your memories of High School are but I was quite happy to be done with it. People can achieve all sorts of things when they are immortal. Sitting your GCSE’s again isn’t likely to be one of them.
8) Even superheroes get scared.
As we’ve already established, nobody is perfect. Everyone has a weakness, and everyone is scared of something. Most people aren’t going to walk into a suicide mission without at least considering their odds once. Most people are scared of death, terrified even. Having a hero without that fear might seem appealing, but it’ll make it difficult for your readers to relate to him.
9) Redeemable qualities.
You know those villains you want to hate but can’t? This isn’t necessary, there are loads of truly evil characters around, but personally I love antagonists I have mixed feelings about.
My favourite stories are the ones where I can’t just sit back and hate the evil antagonist from the bottom of my heart. This comes back to past experiences in point four – chances are the bad guys are the way they are because something made them that way. They weren’t born wanting to see the world suffer. Show your readers what that something is. It’ll make them all the more believable – and that’s what we wanted all along.
How do you go about creating your characters? What’s important to you when you do so, and how detailed are your descriptions? Let me know with a comment for a more complete list.
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