Tips And Tricks For Creating Great Characters
Great characters are the solid foundation any piece of writing needs, whether it’s fictional or not. Fortunately for fiction writers, they have a choice to make their characters as contradictory, complex, and curious as they want. Getting to these great characters, on the other hand, is tricky, time-consuming stuff.
What is a good character?
“Good” characters aren’t necessarily likable, kind, or forgivable, unlike good people. Good characters are, on the other hand, interesting, wanting, complex, and contradictory — the way that most people are, good or bad. They don’t fit cookie-cutter molds. They are full of lies, loves, flaws, and wants. They have unique and dynamic relationships with one another. Good characters are people who audiences want to read about and understand, and you, the writer, have the privilege of revealing this person to them.
Here are a few articles discussing the components of good characters:
- 25 Things About Creating Characters
- Secrets and Contradictions
- The Zero-F***ery Quick-Create Guide to Kick-A** Characters
Why are good characters important?
I’ll let Faulkner explain it for me:
“Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says. It’s the ingestion and then the gestation. You’ve got to know the character. You’ve got to believe in him. You’ve got to feel that he is alive, and then, of course, you will have to do a certain amount of picking and choosing among the possibilities of his action, so that his actions fit the character which you believe in. After that, the business of putting him down on paper is mechanical.”
Basically, when you have a good character, it’s easy to find a good story to put them in.
Unique Techniques for Crafting Characters
We all have different ways of getting into a character’s head space, rounding them out into not just flesh and bones, but thoughts and opinions. With my background in theatre, I’ve always viewed this stage of writing as “getting into character” — it’s how I become (in order to write or act on behalf of) my character.
- Make them a playlist. We all have music that we listen to in certain moods: sad playlist, happy playlist, dazed and confused playlist. So why not one for your character? It helps me feel the way that they feel; music can impart complex emotions faster than even words or visuals can.
- Follow them for a day. Go to the places that your character goes, whether that be a gas station, the public library, or the only patch of green you can find in a city. Just seeing — and breathing and hearing and feeling — the same kind of environment your character would experience, can unlock a new depth of understanding.
- Feel them, from the outside in. This may sound odd, but I find that good fiction writing is a very physical experience. I feel the need to constantly get up and physically embody my characters to write with greater physical accuracy. I wipe my hands on my pants; I curl myself between the desk and the wall; I pick things up and put them down. Following the physical actions of my characters gives me new material to write about (like the pressure in my chest when I’m crunched up in a ball).
- Spend your morning routine as them. Now you must really think I’m nuts — “this is not an acting class, Julia! You’re scaring your roommates!” But I promise, it’s an interesting and insightful experience. Sometimes my character plays with her face in the mirror. Other times, he sits on the toilet in a daze. This is your character totally in private. How do they behave?
- Pick out your cover art. And make it something your character would like. It sounds ahead of the game, but art and photos can really enhance your understanding of your character’s aesthetic. Maybe they’re not into frou-frou graphics and want simply bold, block lettering. That’s cool, too. But now you know!
- Write a letter from your character. This works amazingly well for playwriting, and I think it applies to fiction writing, too. Imagine your character knows that you’re writing their story. How would they want it told, if they want it told at all? Do they like you? Do they trust you?
- Listen for their voice. All characters are facets of the author (whether we like it or not, they’re our brain-children). Watch yourself saying things that fall into their category of speech or mood: petulant and breathy, happy and loud, etc. Write that dialogue down. Focus on the feeling of the words — they need to sound realistic, and not like histrionic writer-speak.
- WW (My Character) D? You’re at the DMV. You hate everyone and everything. What would your character do? Ask yourself these questions whenever you’re in a particularly happy, infuriating, or sad situation. Would my character go on a run? Pull out her knitting? Break something? Write it down (but don’t actually break anything, please).
- Find their poem. Poems, like music, can very quickly evoke an intense emotional tone. Find your character’s poem to read before you start writing for them. Is it Michael Ryan’s “Switchblade” or Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck“?
- Dream for them. They can be your own dreams, or just regular ol’ day dreams you’ve had. But come up with dreams for your character and write those dreams into your story. They needn’t be full dream sequences, simply the ghosts of dreams that we feel every day — the reason why our thoughts circle back to vases full of water and bubble wands when we’ve dreamed that we were a fish.
How do you get into your character’s voice? Please comment!