Tips For Creating Characters: The Way I Do It.
Earlier this week, I came across a blog, ‘Writers Helping Writers.‘ In it, I found many useful articles, a couple of which sparked an idea for today’s blog. One article asked where characters’ strengths came from, and another talked about ’emotional shielding.’ These are universal to the human experience and come in a number of forms that can be applied to your character after a traumatic experience. [Read the full article here.]
This made me think about how I create my characters, and I thought I would offer my own tips for writers struggling to create theirs. This, as always with my advice, is based on what I do, which is loosely based on books I have read and courses I have taken, but mainly on my own experience.
Character Vs Characteristics
One definition I found for this distinction reads: Character is a “group of features”, traits and characteristics that form the individual nature of some person or thing. Characteristic is a “distinguishing feature”. A feature that helps to identify, tell apart, or describe recognisably; a distinguishing mark or trait.
This is often a concept new writers struggle with, so I’ll put it simply in my own words.
A character is defined by what they choose to do and what they choose not to do. It is behaviour and nature, how they treat people, and the decisions they make.
Characteristics are, as that quote says, distinguishing features. That doesn’t just mean height, weight, hair colour and so on, although those are handy tools for helping a reader differentiate between characters.
Let’s take Andrej as an example. Andrej is one of the characters in The Clearwater Mysteries, and he stands out from the others because he is tall, strong, Ukrainian, has blue eyes, long blond hair, is straight, speaks broken English and doesn’t stand for nonsense. Those are some of his characteristics.
However, his character is shown by what he chooses to do/not do and how he reacts. He is straight. Yes, he is, yet he worked for several years as a rent boy because he had to. He made a conscious decision to earn money by whatever means he could, and that was the easiest way. He speaks broken English, but he can speak English well. He chooses not to because, in his opinion, the English use too many words. He is gentle with those he cares about but is happy to kill their enemies.
Here are a couple of lines from my current work in progress (W.I.P.), the 10th book in the Clearwater series.
‘I am sure Andrej is fine. If anyone can navigate their way through Eastern Europe, it is your brother.’
‘My brother doesn’t navigate, Sir. He stampedes.’
That is an example of one way you can implant a character into a reader’s mind; have someone else talk about them.
Making characters different
The Clearwater novels started off with four main characters. Silas Hawkins and his best friend Andrej (aka ‘Fecker’), Lord Clearwater and his best friend and footman, Thomas Payne. There was also the villain, of course. The current W.I.P. has a cast of thousands. Well, several is more accurate. As the series developed, I introduced more principal players to such as extent that to include all of them in every novel would be unwieldy. That’s why, in book eight, ‘One of a Pair’, and book nine, ‘Negative Exposure,’ most of the cast are off stage. In part ten, I am doing all I can to give everyone’s favourite character a role, or at least an appearance. The problem with a large cast is, how do you make them all different?
Names are useful, obviously, but without a character, a name is just a name. Titles help, and in the Clearwater world, we have viscounts and counts, butlers, footmen, maids, housekeepers, solicitors… Mentioning the jobs people do also helps instil into a reader’s mind the kind of character they may be, though it’s always fun to play against type.
Physical appearances help, as does manner of speech, and my cast all have their own speech traits and mannerisms. Silas dips in and out of Irish, Billy Barnett is a Cockney, the viscount is highbrow, the Cornish butler has his own idioms, Andrej is blunt, Jasper is naïve, and his speech reflects that. Always pay attention to your dialogue and make sure you hear different voices as you write characters’ speech. Vocal patterns reflect a character’s background.
And, of course, characters’ choices help define them. When deciding how to approach a problem, Thomas will approach through logic, Silas is more devil may care, Andrej will blunder in and decapitate the issue, James will think about it sideways, Billy will opt for the practical solution, and Mrs Norwood will blame it on men and take a feminist approach. Those are examples based on my characters, but change their names for your own, and you will see how each becomes different.
Developing the cast
We hear a lot about one- and two-dimensional characters, those who might be described as ‘Joe is a bricklayer who knows what he wants.’ Fair enough, but if he starts out as your hero or main player knowing what he wants and still knows what he wants at the end, he hasn’t travelled very far. So, developing your character from when we first meet them to when they leave the stage is vital to ensure the reader travels on the journey you are creating.
Example: In ‘Deviant Desire’, Silas starts out not needing to be loved (he says). He doesn’t want love because of past experience. He meets Archer, and when Archer falls I love with him, Silas rejects him. By the end, we have a different story, and that’s the start of Silas’ journey. It will run for the rest of his life, and as the series progresses, so does he. A street rat renter from the slums of Westerpool becomes the private secretary to a member of the House of Lords. That’s one journey, but with it, he develops from a man who only cares about his own survival to one who risks his own life to save his friends.
Another example is James Wright. He starts off as a timid, slightly chubby messenger still delivering messages at the age of 24 and ends up an assured detective. To get there, he must overcome the trauma of being bullied as a child and learn to believe in his own strengths. This is achieved through the actions (and character) of Clearwater and others and through the choices James makes along the way.
The trick is to ensure your characters develop. To look further into this, I suggest studying books on screenplay writing. Books such as ‘The Hero’s Journey’ by Vogler and ‘The 20th Century Screenplay’ by Aronson. Both will also give you invaluable insights into plot, structure and so on.
I don’t want to wander too far Into The Woods (another excellent book on the art of storytelling by John Yorke, and you can’t go wrong with anything written by Robert McKee), but stories have archetypal characters who play classic roles.
There are the obvious ones, the Protagonist and Antagonist, but there are others, and when I am writing a book, section or scene, I try to bear in mind which of my cast is playing what role/archetype at the time.
What I mean is, you have impact characters. The impact character is the one who remains steadfast, thereby causing another character to change. There is also the antagonist who stops the hero from getting what he wants and needs. You have what I and others call the emotion character, the one who usually puts the softer side of the argument/case or reacts from the heart. There is the realism character, the one who thinks logically and puts the realistic side of the case. Then, you have the classic sidekick or the foil off whom your main character bounces. I should point out, though, that every character should have some of the traits of these roles. That’s how you end up with a three-dimensional ‘well rounded’ character and not a cardboard cut-out.
Ever seen The Golden Girls or other hit T.V. series concerning a small group of people? Well, you might say the Golden Girls are all protagonists and the antagonist is the fact they have been forced to live together. (That’s what makes sitcoms work; a group of people, all different, who are forced together by circumstances they wouldn’t usually choose for themselves.) When Blanche is the emotion character, Dorothy might be the realism character, but when Dorothy needs support, Blanche takes on the role of the realism character to help her see sense. That’s just one example. I am sure you can think of many others.
My rather vague point here is that by employing your characters under various scene-specific roles, you add to their character and give them depth. Dorothy remains the staid, sensible, big, reliable one, but at times, she is vulnerable, witty, gets thing wrong and can even be as horny as Blanche.
Fatal Flaws and all that jazz
There are, of course, many other facets to developing characters and defining them in ways outside of their characteristics. I advise you to look at those books I mentioned. I could chat away for hours, but those books are considered and expertly written by people who planned to write a book, not chat on a blog. You will find other mainstays of character creation, such as fatal flaws, where a character overcomes a fear or prejudice. In doing so, the character develops and becomes more interesting to the reader.
And my trick?
How do I manage to keep my characters fresh, different and interesting? More importantly, after 10 novels with one cast, how do I remember who is who and what they are like?
Apart from a ‘bible’ where I record their traits, height, eye colour, and other characteristics, I use a simple technique that I heartily recommend.
No, I don’t copy characters, but I do compare them. You may not have read the Clearwater Mysteries (or any of my other books), but it doesn’t matter. This list of superheroes should explain my point even if you don’t know the characters in my main cast. Superheroes help keep me on track when remembering which of my crew is assigned to which overall role, and although I don’t copy the characteristics of established comic book characters, keeping them in mind helps keep my characters on track. So, here it is, finally out the bag. If my Clearwater Mysteries crew were superheroes, this is who they would be.
Archer, Lord Clearwater, is Ironman because he has the money and is the leader.
James Wright is Captain America because he is loyal and is my action man.
Andrej (Fecker) I think of as Thor because of his physique, blond hair and he is sometimes dopey.
Silas is Spiderman because he is young, can get in and out of anywhere and always has something new to learn.
Thomas is J.A.R.V.I.S., Iron Man’s (Archer’s) stable, calm and loyal assistant.
Jake O’Hara is the Flash on account of his speed.
Dr Markland could easily be Dr Strange.
Leaving the superhero path, Mrs Norwood is rather like Aunt May from Spiderman, Lady Marshall an older version of Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds where Jasper would be Alan Tracy, and Billy would be a Cockney version of Brains…
My Tips for Creating Characters
- Don’t confuse character with characteristic
- It’s what they choose to do and choose not to do that defines character
- Ensure diversity in your ensemble
- Develop them from A to D via the B and C, give them an arc
- Let them have flaws
- Pay attention to their ’emotional shielding’, how they overcome pain
- Base them on people you know and, importantly, understand
- Give them their own way of speaking, different backgrounds and traits, style etc.
- Let them run away with dialogue and story and then go back and rein them in later
Those are just a few of my thoughts about creating characters. If you are serious about improving your creations, then my last tip is to read books on the subject by experts. I suggested books on screenplay writing because screenplays cram into 120 pages what a novel might fit in 400, and screenplay writers tend to have a more succinct and clearer approach to creating and developing characters.