Being a Better Writer: How I Build Characters

This post was originally written and posted December 11th, 2013, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Whew, this one’s been a long time in coming. Not because it would take me a long time to write—I just sat down with some sketch paper to run over my character creation stuff in my head to make sure I wasn’t missing anything and then started on this—though it probably will (addendum: it totally did), but mostly because I’ve been splitting my time pretty widely over the last few weeks. But since this has been heavily requested on multiple occasions from various readers of both my work and my blogs, it’s high time I finally delivered on what a large number of you have been quite vocally asking for: how I build such vivid, real characters.

Now, before I start, I’d like to point out that my way is not the end-all. I’m simply posting what works for me when I set out to create characters like Steel, Nova, Sky, or Jacob Rocke. The fact is, there are many different ways for creating characters. I’m simply posting the one that works for me.

To be fair, I think it’s a good method. When I first started writing, back in the day … well … yeah. My stuff was bad. Everyone starts out bad, we all know this. But my characters were flat, one-dimensional cutouts. So how did I get from where I was then to where I am now? To be at this point where people tell me that my characters are some of the most real (no joke) that they’ve ever read?

Lots of careful study. You may laugh, but eventually I realized that there were things that made some characters more real than others when I was reading. And I read a lot in school. All through elementary, into middle school and high school and beyond. I read during college. Crud, I skipped out studying for finals because the last Mistborn book was released during my finals week (and since the author taught at my college, I knew he knew what he was doing). I read a lot. And all the while, I took mental notes. I still do, in fact. I’m currently rereading Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, and thoroughly enjoying breaking down the way he presents his characters and setting (in case you’re curious, I find he does the dialog mostly in-character, but writes the rest of the story almost like a narrated documentary). Being able to identify what I enjoyed about certain characters or scenes and what made them real led me to find elements in my own writing that would achieve the same effect. Again, if you want to write well, read well. I can’t overstate that enough.

But that’s about how I got where I am today, and that isn’t exactly what most ask for, although it will help. So let’s talk about my process. What I do.

The first step is make a decision. Do I want to sort of invent the character as I go, or do I want to come up with them beforehand? Jacob Rocke was an on the spot creation, someone I created as I wrote the story. The further the story went along, the more developed he became, but he was quite literally a case of “here’s his power and his name. Now GO!” In that case (and this seems to work better for me with shorter works) I had to at least at the start choose what defined him. All characters have a narrative arc of some kind, or at least the good ones, because people change. Or aliens, fantasy races, or whatever. If you want a meaningful character, they need room to grow. Rocke’s “defining characteristic” was that he was a complete workaholic. Everything in his life was related to his work. From there, I moved through the plot of One Drink, filling out his role as the story required.

But that’s discovery writing, and despite being my first published work, One Drink was initially a writing exercise in the vein of “can I do this?” Most of the time when I sit down, each primary character to the story undergoes a four step process. So, as asked, you’re all going to get to see my in-depth madness process.

Step 1: The Role
The first thing I do when I create a character is play with the basics. What roles do I need to fill? What void will said character fill in this work if they exist? What void will be left empty? Every character needs to have a place, a position, in the pantheon of primary characters. This void is usually what primary purpose the character will provide. Steel, for example, I knew was going to be the team leader. I had to decide what kind of character I wanted craft for him to “fit” that role.

Once I have that “role” picked for character, then I start playing with various “versions” of what that character could be like in my head. I play with mannerisms, looks, things they would say. I shuffle accents and speech patterns—usually nothing specific, just vague concepts like “southern” until I get a character who begins to feel concrete for the role. This … can take a while. Dawn, for example, took nearly a week of solid thought before one day I hit on the right balance and something inside of me screamed “That’s the one!” It’s a bit like hitting “random” on a character creation generator in my mind over and over again, locking down the elements that feel right and giving everything else a spin of the wheel. Sometimes I backtrack and tweak earlier looks or general ideas because they don’t mesh with new ones. Sometimes I come back to this step later when a character isn’t panning out in a way that feels right. This is the core of what the character will become, the raw numbers if you will. For example, with Steel the process was easy. I wanted an older character, grey-haired and tough as nails from years of service of some kind. I wanted him to be gruff but understanding. And he needed to have the kind of voice and charisma where other characters would listen to him, because he was the leader. So that meant experience.

Dawn, on the other hand, took probably a week of straight work. Maybe more. I bounced all over with her character, rejecting archetype after archetype. I had a few things set in stone (she had to be female so Sky wasn’t alone, she was going to be cultured to round out Hunter and Nova’s less serious nature) but aside from that I was in the dark for quite some time. I must have drawn up and then summarily dumped dozens of characters (old, young, strongly cultured or self-trained, accent/no accent, etc) before hitting on the Dawn that exists today. When it clicked, it was a complete “eureka” moment as well.

Nova took about three seconds.

Step 2: The Core Details and the Big Three
From here, I move onto the core details. It’s at this point that I start my character file, a word document or GDoc that is going to contain all the relevant information on the character that I am creating. And at the very beginning of this, I have a set of criteria that I fill out that begin to get some of the characters details “set in stone.” These details can vary based on what I’m writing (for instance, in fantasy works I may have entries for coloration and species, while in a normal book I may just have hair/eye color and call it good), but they usually include the basics: Name, Looks, Age, and Demeanor.

The first few are pretty straightforward. Demeanor is a little more detailed. Usually, it ends up being a few paragraphs on what this character will act like on an average day or when presented with certain situations. Are they a loudmouth? Quick to judge? Do they have trouble making decisions under pressure? This is all stuff that will be fleshed out in The Big Three, so it’s important to get a good handle on a character’s demeanor in this step. I don’t need to know everything, but I need to know basics like attitude so I can extrapolate how they will react if, for example, someone comments that they’ve had a bad day. It’s better if this relates to the story and the role the character will play in it, because that demeanor will affect their role.

Then I move on to The Big Three. Three things that are the most important aspects of any character I create. The Big Three are three question that I must be able to answered to my own satisfaction before I can proceed. If you want to know the most key part of my process in creating characters that are real and three-dimensional as well as enjoyed by others, this is how.

The first question I ask is ‘Why does the reader like this character?” I sit down, and prompted by this question, write out all the things about this character that the readers will enjoy. Will it be something about them that resonates with the reader? Jokes that they make? Character traits (or even flaws)? Why will your readers read about this character and then care about them? Often, I start with what I like about a character and work from there. But there needs to be something about this character that resonates.

For example, with Dawn I wrote—

Why We Like Her: Dawn is smart and determined to do good for others (she’s a doctor). While she can be a little curt, it should be clear to the reader that she is soft on the inside. She should also serve as an example of determination, someone who continues to find ways to work hard and do what she wants even after being forced into an early retirement. She’s headstrong, but not in a bad way. Dawn should be (curt personality aside) a strong, balanced female character, and readers should like her for that. I hope. She is also very self-sacrificial, heedlessly jumping into dangerous situations to save those in need. You DON’T leave anypony behind with Dawn. Or she stays.

For comparison, here’s Nova—

Why We Like Him: He is occasionally funny and he can kick a serious amount of butt when he thinking things through and uses his abilities with the team. He’s the character on the team with the most to learn despite his age, and he needs to show genuine character growth over the series so that people can empathize with him. In addition, he does need to show that he forms attachment with the characters and does care about them; he just doesn’t know how to show it. Readers should initially not like him, but learn to like him as he grows.

With that second one, I think I hit it right in the sweet spot. As a writer, not only does this give me a goal to shoot for when I introduce a character, it can often give me a better idea of where I want the character to go over the course of the story (like in Nova’s case).

The second question is just as vital. I sit there, and I ask “What are all the flaws of this character?” No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, and I want to know what mistakes my character is going to make. I look at abrasive personality defects. Physical shortcomings. Decision-making chains that will result in weak points. If there aren’t enough flaws, I make more. No character is perfect, and I want a good, starting list for all the ways this character can screw up, either with the plot, with their interactions with others, or some other way. They must have shortcomings. If their shortcomings are the kind that aren’t immediately visible—for example, Sky rarely actually stops talking once she gets going—how do I point this out or draw attention to it so that the reader can understand what the other characters see?

The third and final question is a “flavor” question, but no less vital: “What hobbies and quirks does this character have?” This might seem strange—and in fact, I’ve had younger, less-experienced writers actually speak out against me for suggesting this, claiming it to be too much work, unimportant detail, or other nonsense—but do not neglect it. Why? Think of a friend of yours. Your best friend. What hobbies do they have? Better yet, what little odd things do they do that no one else does that make them them? Raising a single eyebrow when giving a sarcastic response, maybe? I have a friend who does that.

The thing is that real, three-dimensional characters have hobbies and quirks because real people do too. Not only do these strange quirks tend to define us and separate our “character” from one another, but they give us context and make us memorable. Even if we don’t remember the action itself, we remember the character for it. How many of my readers would remember that Hunter has a habit of strumming on a guitar or playing amateur jazz on a sax to help him think? Probably not many (except those that are the die-hard fans), but it gives him character and flavor. Character and flavor far past “he sat at the desk, thinking.” We get a glimpse into his life, of what he does, how he thinks. And this makes him real, because everyone around us has a similar set of things that make us unique.

Better yet, this question more than any other will help us delve into the character’s life story. We’ll need to discover how he came by his talents or skills. Why he does what he does. If you want to create good character-driven piece, you’ll use this. For example, there are characters who, to show their “class,” do not use contractions when they speak, and that’s a quirk. A defining one. And even if it totally slipped past 99.9% of viewers conciously, on a subconscious level it will set that character apart from all the other characters.

Ooh, language. That’s a quirk, a defining trait, and a whole ‘nother bundle all in one. We’ll get to that someday. But first, now that the core details and Big Three are done…

Step 3: Other Details
Now we move into some other details that are going to be relevant to the story. I usually write up a good several paragraphs or more for each of these sections (sometimes a page or two) as needed. These sections can change a bit based on what your story entails as well. In my case, many of these change based on the story I’m telling (after all, a non-Dusk Guard character does not need two full pages on all combat training they’ve had). But this section is where I write pages and paragraphs on topics such as body type (describing in detail their fitness, shape, looks, and everything else), story role (what capacity they fill in the narrative and what elements of the plot will involve them), skills (which can come from what role you want them to fill), and most importantly, their personal history, a summation of their entire life to this point. This is when I really start looking back at the things I’ve written to this point, asking questions about how or where said character picked up skills, talents, mannerisms, or hobbies. Is your lead character currently a successful restaurant cook who happens to be freakishly skilled at sidewalk chalk? You want to know how, why, where, and when they picked that up in some form of light detail. If you want to understand your character when you write them, than you need to know where they came from. What they’ve been through. Hit the highlights, but don’t neglect the quirks as well.

Along with this, it’s easiest now if you come up with their family situation. Let’s face it, the hero without a family was boring hundreds of years ago, and we want characters we can relate too. How many siblings do they have? If their parents died young, how? Maybe they’re estranged from their family? Again, how? Why? Details like these come across in your character’s voice, actions, and thoughts, so get them down now. Then, move on to the finishing steps.

Step 4: The Finishing Touches
So, now you have a character sheet like I create. Now you’ve seen my process. But there is one more step. One more vital step. Now that you have all this information, you have to bring it together. And now comes the most important, and arguably difficult, step of the process: taking all these details, getting inside the characters head, and writing as if you are them.

Are you familiar with method acting? Well, I do something similar. By this point, I’ve spent hours, days, even weeks thinking about this character. I don’t know them perfectly, but I know them quite well. Now it’s time for me to start exploring their character. I look back at their file. What will they talk like? Will there be words or phrases that they use in their dialogue that others won’t? What about in the narration? I’d be willing to bet that many of my readers noticed, but each piece of The Dusk Guard: Rise was not only written from a perspective, but in the dialogue and prose style of the viewpoint character. Hunter’s chapters make use of much more “relaxed” terminology and phrases than other characters. Steel is direct, his viewpoint chapters featuring to the point descriptions and taking notice of the things that he would notice first. Dawn, meanwhile, uses much more sophisticated dialogue in her descriptions of events, and focuses things that Steel glosses right over. Even the way objects, settings, or other characters are described varies based on which character is giving the view. It wasn’t quite as distinct in the early chapters, but by the end it’s very clear once you know what to look for (for example, an easy indicator is that Steel is always referred to as “the boss,” or “Steel” in Hunter’s chapters, but as “The Captain” or “Captain Song” in Nova’s chapters … until Nova feels comfortable enough to even think of Steel as anyone else).

This is not easy to do. In fact, it can take upwards of ten thousand words or more sometimes before I get the “hang” of the character I’m writing. When I write, I “method write,” becoming that character when I write their scenes. I try to think like they do, write what they would do, make the dialogue their own, rather than my words parroting back what I think they will say. I let them make their own choices. I let them have real dialogue. I let them forge their own path. This is why I write up such a huge amount on each character (as much as ten pages, single-spaced). I need to understand them. And I give them leeway. Originally by his file Hunter spoke with a southern accent, but he rebelled, and suddenly he was speaking with an aussie slang. It felt so much more natural, I rewrote four prior chapters worth of his dialogue on the spot.

“Method writing” can be difficult. For instance, I’m male, which made it difficult to try and write from a female perspective and have it seem unique when I first set out to do it (at least, until I learned the trick to it). But really, this method is challenging anytime I try to “get inside the head” of a character who is very different from myself. Sabra, a philosopher character, was one of my greatest challenges, but with practice and careful thought, I made it work.

Also, I make sure to let the characters drive their own voice and thereby dodge some pitfalls that amateur (and even experienced writers) fall into. I don’t have characters constantly dropping names in their conversation (In fact, try this sometime: keep track of how often a group of people that know each other will refer to one another by name. It’s not nearly as often as many writers think). I let some conversations be less direct, because in the real world, we often are less direct. I let the characters be themselves, make their own choices. I guide them with plot, but let their own choices be their own choices, in their own words.

Now that I’ve done this, I have a character. Someone who is going to grow, change, and be themselves over the course of some mighty adventure.

Time to repeat this step for all the other main characters.

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