Tips for Character Building (A.K.A. Lesson #1 The Basics)
Character is perhaps one of the most important elements of storytelling. If your character is unbelievable, nobody is going to want to stick with them through a whole book, no matter how awesome your plot is. I mean, obviously there are exceptions to this, but for a lot of us, we live with the knowledge that our characters are the life and soul of our novels.
So, when starting a new project, how do you come up with a character? There are a lot of ways to do this, and everybody will be different, but here are a collection of methods I’ve come up with over the years to help me capture my characters.
1. Start with a picture
This first one is nice and simple. I often start with the appearance of my character, because it’s the first thing I’ll visualise. And while this isn’t necessarily important in who they are as a person, it can help you to flesh your characters out in your mind. So, generally what I’ll do is I’ll find a picture. A photograph usually, but you could even draw something if you’re artistically inclined. I’ll Google, “Woman, thirties, blonde hair” or something. And just search until I find what I want.
Focus on the obvious things first: their hair colour, eye colour, skin colour, and then you can start narrowing it down. Do they have a high forehead? Big eyes? Long hair? A broken nose? This can be a lot of fun. Websites like DeviantArt.com are also a good place to look. Just make sure that you don’t use the image for anything unless you ask permission of the artist/photographer!
And then, once you’ve found the picture (it doesn’t matter if it’s an actress or a cartoon character, if it fits, that’s fine! It’s only for personal use) print the picture out and stick it on your noticeboard. Or in your writing file. Maybe even frame it if you’re feeling particularly romantic. =D
Now whenever you get stuck in your plotting, or in your writing, you can look at their picture and think, “What would you do?”
2. Name Generators / Baby Names Websites
A lot of people just name characters off the cuff using the first name that comes to mind. “Oh, I’ll call you Michael.” DONE. Easy as that. Others put in a lot of time, trying to find that perfect name, researching name meanings and origins. I sit somewhere in between those two.
When I’m writing crime particularly, and my project is set in the real world, I often start looking for a name using baby name websites. www.babynames.com is a good one. Sometimes I’ll find a letter I want the name to start with, but even more regularly I’ll simply Google “Most popular girls names in 1978”, or whatever year the character was born. And then I scroll down until I find one I like.
I do the same for surnames, Googling most common names in the areas my novels are set. This can give you a narrower list of names to start with, and make the naming process easier. Plus I like the added ‘historical accuracy’! And then once you’ve found a name you like, you can always have a quick peek to see the origin and what it means. 😉
As for fantasy names, I could write a whole other post on that, but there are some neat name generators out there which you can try, like Seventh Sanctum. Just pop it into Google and generate away!
3. Character Questionnaires
One of the most in-depth ways to get to know your characters is to fill out a Character Questionnaire like this one: (I just pulled this off Google a minute ago). Usually these lists of questions will start with the basics (name, age, gender) and work up to absolute excruciating detail (like ‘what’s your characters favourite way to cook pasta?’). While these often bore me, if you’re the sort of person who plucks random character facts out of their butt and then struggles to keep track of them all (like I used to do) this could be ideal for you.
If you’re lucky, you might find some of the answers sneaking into your novel as fairly important plot points. Who knows? If nothing else, it’s a good exercise to do every now and again to put things in perspective.
4. Write a “Flash” or a Character Sketch
This is something I’ve used a lot over the years to develop characters. Once I’ve got a fairly good idea who these people are going to be, but before I’m ready to pop them into the beginning of a novel, I might consider sitting down and writing what I’d call a Character Sketch.
Basically what this is, is a very short snapshot of your character’s past. It could be an event that affected your character deeply (such as the earlier death of a loved one) or a sort of prologue to your novel (but one which you wouldn’t necessarily publish with the book). Usually what I write is somewhere between 500 and 3000 words long, depending on the event. I write it like a full piece of fiction, almost like a short story or a piece of flash fiction.
You can have other characters present too, which is a great way to figure out how they all speak together and how they’ll display their emotions, any nervous ticks they may have. I think making your characters interact with each other is vital. You’ll get a better grasp for their emotions and the rhythm of their speech if you have them communicating from the outset.
So why don’t you go ahead and give it a go? Write about that time your protagonist found a child wandering alone in the streets. Write about your villain discovering they have magical powers. Write about your detective wanting to make it home for his daughter’s birthday but being unable to do it.
Just remember, what you write for your ‘flash’ shouldn’t be an event that occurs in the novel (unless in the novel it would be told from a different POV). The point is to develop them, which means not paying attention to your plot for a while!
5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly…
Let your characters sit in your head. Get to know them. Know how they talk, how the think, and then when you actually start writing it’ll flow easier and they’ll be more believable. Give yourself a couple of weeks if you can, between creating your character and starting work on your project. Fill the time with character sketches and little dialogue scenes. And then, when you’re ready, you’ll already have a fully-formed character who will (hopefully) just walk right out there onto the page.
Hopefully some of these tips will have been helpful for some of you. Please let me know if you have any questions or additional tips! I’d love to see how other people deal with their unruly characters.