Tag Archives: character creation

How to make a person

The problem with stories is they require people.

I’m not talking about author and reader—though they, as well as their relationship, are fraught with challenges too—but rather the individuals that populate the story itself.

Some might call these people “characters.”  But a writer doesn’t really want to invent characters any more than he/she wants to come up with a plot.  Sure, we typically end up with those things, sometimes, just sometimes, we transcend.

When a reader flips through pages made of paper or pixels, the last thing an author wants is the audience to see a story as a series of fictional events.  The goal of any storyteller is to weave a spell of deception so powerful that it all seems real at the time.

We aim for an obliteration of disbelief, though if we’re lucky, we invoke a suspension of the same.

If a writer can trick a reader into wondering what a character will do next or, better yet, what he/she would do in an unrelated situation, the writer is that much closer to success.  Because if a reader cares about a character as if he/she were a real person, the reader is more likely to care about the story they’re a part of.

So what’s the difference between characters and people?

Characters have motives.  People have psychology.

Characters follow a story arc.  People exhibit behavior that moves them in a number of different—and often conflicting—directions at once.

Characters have unique voices.  People adopt different voices in various situations.

Those contrasts only begin to hint at why it’s so very difficult to create a person entirely out of words.  Some might argue that it’s impossible, maybe even misguided.  After all, art is meant to imitate life, not become identical to it.  Anyway, as previously stated, the best we writers can do is pick and choose pieces of reality, incorporate them into the folks who inhabit our fiction.

However, just because it’s difficult, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make every attempt to eschew the temptation to spew out two-dimensional puppets, rough archetypes, and (especially) lazy stereotypes and, instead, aspire to come as close as humanly possible to creating humans.

And how do you get to know a real person?  By asking questions—lots of ’em.  While working on my first novel, a creative writing professor provided me with a handout that contained a ton of questions.  I can’t recall the source, and I’ve made my own additions over the years, so I believe I’m safe with sharing them in this not-for-profit venue.  The questions have served me well when creating main characters, though I wouldn’t recommend taking the time to answer them all for minor players (unless, like me, you have a penchant for the planning process).

Interview question for your person-in-progress

  • What does this character look like?  What color eyes and hair does he/she have?  What are his/her height and weight?  What color his his/her skin?  What is his/her race?  Is there anything unusual or unique about his/her appearance (e.g., tattoos, piercings, etc.)?
  • What style of clothes does he/she wear?  Would anyone notice him/her in a crowd?  Why or why not?
  • How does he/she present him/herself?  Does he/she carry him/herself proudly?  Does he/she appear ashamed, shy, or aloof?  Does he/she have any idiosyncrasies or habits—good or bad?  Does he/she chew gum, smoke cigarettes, or have a twitch?
  • Does he/she speak in a particular way?  Does he/she sound educated, snobby, or dull?  Does he/she use slang or the proper dialect?  Is he/she sarcastic or have a particular way of telling a story?  Does he/she have a favorite tagline?  Is he/she always using clichés?
  • What was this person’s childhood like?  Did he/she have any brothers or sisters?  Two parents, one, or none?  Where did he/she live?  Was he/she constantly moving as a child?  What was he/she like as a child?  Was he/she hyperactive or timid?  Does he/she remember his/her childhood fondly?  Are there any memories in particular that stand out?
  • What does this character do for fun?  Does he/she watch or compete in sports?  Hunt, play cards, or play video games?  Is there something he/she collects?  If anything, what does he/she read?  The newspaper?  Mystery novels?  Can he/she read at all?  What types of music does he/she listen to?  What movies does he/she enjoy?  Does he/she have a sense of humor?  What does he/she find funny or not funny?  Is he/she someone you would hang out with in your free time?
  • How does this person feel about lying?  Does he/she lie when it suits his/her purpose?  Is he/she a pathological liar or blatantly, painfully truthful?  Would he/she cheat or steal?  What, if anything, would prompt him/her to kill?
  • How does he/she view his/her vices?  Does he/she see them as sins?  Is gossiping a sin?  How about promiscuous sex?  Is he/she cowardly, only concerned with Number One?  Constantly complaining, prejudiced, racist, or greedy?  Does he/she have any secrets?
  • Is this character an optimist, a pessimist, or something in between?  Does he/she believe in fate or free will?  How does he/she feel about life?  Does he/she love it?  Hate it?  Is he/she merely going through the motions?  What does he/she want out of life?  What is important to him/her?  What are his/her goals?  Money?  Power?  Success?  Fame?
  • Is he/she spiritual or religious?  How does he/she feel about others’ beliefs?  Is he/she tolerant and/or open to new ideas, or is he/she steadfast in his/her ways?  Has he/she ever been in love?  What does love mean to him/her?  How important is it?  How does he/she feel about sex?  Is it important?  Are his/her sexual habits normal or deviant?
  • How does he/she feel about children?  Does he/she love them, feel uneasy around them?  Does he/she want to have children of his/her own?  What might he/she sacrifice for his/her children?
  • What is a typical day like for this person?  Are his/her days full of surprises, or is he/she on a set schedule?  Is he/she comfortable with routine, or is his/her life too stressful?  What does he/she do for a living?  Who are his/her friends?  Does he/she have many, only a few, none?  Who does he/she hate?  Does he/she have any enemies?
  • Is he/she married or single?  Is he/she a loner by choice or desperately looking for someone?  Does he/she have any kids?  How often does he/she see them?  Where does he/she work?  Where does he/she go for fun?  How does he/she interact with strangers?  Or does he/she stay within his own clique?  What would a random person think if he or she saw your character walking down the street?

I’m sure there are shortcuts out there—streamlined lists or other getting-to-know-you exercises—but the more questions you can answer, the better you will know the people of the page.  At the very least, pull open Facebook and see what kind of profile information a real person is apt to display about him or herself.

Since real people tend to censor, exaggerate, and so forth when engaging in social media, maybe it is a good idea to fill in categories like “politics,” “religion,” and “education” as an additional exercise.  After all, just because you know the deep, dark secrets of your fictional folks, that doesn’t mean they would share them with the world.  What kind of Facebook profile would they set up?

That’s the problem with people: so many layers.  And only you can decide how much—or how little—to reveal to the reader.  But before you can make those decisions, you have to get up close and personal with your characters.

The bad news is the stork isn’t going to drop a fully developed character in your lap.  The good news, however, is that if you make the time, your people are always available for a lengthy interview.

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Choosing the perfect name for your baby (or villain)

Sorry, Team Edward.  Looks like Jacob wins this round. 

The Social Security Administration recently released the top baby names for 2011, and Jacob took first place for most popular boy’s name for the thirteen year in a row.  As for girl’s names, Sophia stole the top spot from two-year champion Isabella (not to be confused with Bella). 

I know this because I can’t not click on an article about baby names.

Before you chalk my compulsion up to an overzealous paternal instinct, let it be known that my preoccupation with appellations took root long before I had any notions of becoming a father.  In fact, I probably spent as much (if not more) time paging through baby name books back when I was in high school than when my wife and I were expecting either of our children.

Undoubtedly, my interest in names was born from a need for names.  I was creating an entire world, after all, and when detailing a timeline that spans many, many centuries while at the same time juggling dozens of storylines taking place in the present, a guy requires character names.

550 of them, to be exact.

While drafting character profiles wherein family members’ names are noted; history files that list the lineage of monarchs, heroes of yore and other movers and shakers of yesteryear; and short pieces of fiction that need a chambermaid here and a barkeep there, it can be bothersome to step away from the work in progress to search for an appropriate moniker.

So I created the Namepool, which in its current incarnation contains 308 names.  Need a name for that knight who probably won’t survive the first big battle scene?  Sir Erasmus Fenwick is at your service.  A black-hearted wizardess to throw some spells at your protagonist?  Lilah Davelle will make him wish he hadn’t wandered down that dark alley.

Even after I transitioned from sword-and-sorcery fantasy to speculative fiction set in modern-day Earth, I found it useful to maintain my Namepool.  After eliminating the more archaic/medieval-sounding names, I ended up with a streamlined list of ninety names.

The funny thing is some of the names already cast the faint shadow of a character waiting to come into being, such as Sunny (short for Persephone), who may or may not get infused with nanotech-based AI sent from the future, and Mr. Nightingale, who decidedly does not have good bedside manner.

A character’s name can serve as an element of characterization in of itself.  Go ahead and add some ethnic flavor.  Give an old-fashioned character a name from a long-gone era.  Or, better yet, reverse expectations by giving him/her a very contemporary name that defies his/her personality.  Sneak in a literary reference.  Foreshadow his/her fate by selecting a name with a meaningful origin.

(Nota bene: The Social Security Administration’s website is great for researching which names were popular in a given year, if you’re a stickler for realism.)

Of course, my obsession with names manifested when it came time to name my daughter and son.  While planning for “Number Two,” my wife and I came up with our own list of favorites independently (my list had forty boy’s names and twenty-four girl’s names).  We cross-referenced our lists to see if there were any overlaps and then ranked the combined list, winnowing it down to a shared top ten. 

Then the negotiations and campaigning began—which was probably for the best, judging by how “creative” some of my character names end up being.  Consider the following doozies from my Renegade Chronicles days:

  • Solophat Emorgus
  • Alabalyn Thoranon
  • Zorroaster Legireac
  • Drivbethelle Bleu
  • Fortunatus Miloásterôn
  • Saerylton Crystalus

When I look back at some of the “candidates” I thought of for my own kids, I can’t help but cringe.  (Orion?  Really?)  But that’s the beauty of inventing new people for the page versus the real world: You can bless or curse a character without feeling too guilty about it.  And if Ebenezer Skelton doesn’t like it, well, I blame his fictional parents.

Names are powerful.  They can elicit emotions, often unintentionally.  Don’t believe me?  Try reading through the birth announcements in the newspaper without drawing any conclusions about ethnicity, socio-economical situation, and likely future profession.  Then realize that, if you’re an author, your readers are going to do the same thing with the handful of syllables you toss onto the page.

Of course, you’re pretty safe with naming your werewolf Jacob.  Those traditional boy’s names never go out of style.  And worry not, fans of Twilight’s melodramatic vampire: At least Edward clocked in at number 148.

And I’m pretty sure that little girl named Cullen at my niece’s soccer game wasn’t just a coincidence.

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Friends and family of writers, beware

A fiction writer’s rap sheet can get quite extensive.

Perhaps pride is our biggest flaw.  The stories in our heads, well, not only do we think they are worth our time to tell, but also we think they are worth your time to read.  Not only that, but you really ought to pay for them, too.  Oh, and let me sign that first edition hardcover for you.  You’re welcome.

Of course, no one can force you to read a book…excepting literature professors.

Unfortunately, we’re also chronic kleptomaniacs.  Joseph Epstein said, “Every writer is a thief, though some of us are more clever than others at disguising our robberies.”  He was referring to minor counts of plagiarism—an apt description, a novel turn of phrase, a treatment of syntax that (with a minor tweak) we could pass off as our own brilliant invention.  We read like crazy so that our writing becomes better through osmosis and untraceable tricks.

That kind of stealing is mostly harmless, I suppose.  Certainly, it doesn’t really affect you non-writers out there.  So what if after reading Tolkien, I suddenly start composing quasi-archaic run-on sentences?  Or if, post-Palahniuk, my penchant for short and incomplete sentences explodes?  No harm, no foul to the general populace.

However, the thievery doesn’t end there.

As much as we weavers of fiction would like to believe that our brains are the birthplace of magnificent, magical, and altogether unique ideas, that’s simply not true.  A wiser man than I once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  It’s worse than that, though:  The human mind is incapable of unadulterated innovation.  We can’t create, only assimilate; can’t conceive, only reconstruct, rearrange, and revise reality as it already exists around us.

That’s where all of you unsuspecting sources of inspiration come in.  We’re always watching, you know.  We need material.  Anyone can throw together a character.  Flip a coin, roll the dice, or just jot down the first thing that comes to mind, and you’ll end up with a fake person with his or her own hair and eye color, a height, a weight, an occupation.  But in order to assemble a multi-faceted human being, you need much more than a random combination of traits.  We writers crave details.

And surely you won’t mind if we steal a few from you, our closest friends, our family members, hapless passersby…

There was a student in my women’s lit class whose name I never learned.  I had no occasion to ever speak to her, but I haven’t forgotten her eyebrows.  By my best approximation, each one of her perfectly symmetrical eyebrows formed its own 60-degree angle.  I haven’t yet given one of my characters 60-degree eyebrows, but someday I just might.

What’s-her-name will never know if I steal one of her body parts for my fiction.  But other crimes are harder to hide.  Names, for instance.  If I use your name, please don’t read too much into it.  Just because you share a first or last name with a character doesn’t mean he or she is based in any way on you.  (Maybe I just like the sound of the syllables.  Or maybe your name means something you never even realized.)

The same goes for physical characteristics.  That may be your nose, your tattoo, your scar, or, yes, your eyebrows on the page, but it’s somebody else’s accent, hobby, and hometown to complete the composite.

Honestly, I can’t say whether you should be honored or horrified.  What I can say is that I’m grateful for the insight about your career, the catchphrase you didn’t know you had, the mannerism that transforms my one-dimensional extra into a rich, memorable supporting character (though there is danger in that…).

Don’t worry.  We would never exploit your flaws.  Your secrets—bad or banal—are safe with us.  In fact, we take great pains to camouflage our crimes.  We want the world to think we came up with it all ourselves, remember?  Anyway, there is honor among thieves.  We won’t tell anyone that the ugly couch in chapter three belongs to you or that your foibles have given a certain antagonist his softer side.

We’ll never tell…if you won’t.

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