Do you want to know about creating characters that are believable and strong? Sorry, I lied. It’s not really a cheat sheet. But, worry not! This post contains every single question you need to answer before you actually write a character – plus, a method from my favorite TV writer that helps improve a character.
There are three major points we will cover here:
- Character vs. Person
- Questions Before Creating Characters
- Piling Up the Traits
- Methods Used by Other Authors
With no further time waste, let’s dive in!
Character vs. Person
I’ve talked about what characters should be like before, but now I’ll focus more on how fictional characters (or even non-fictional characters in biographies) differ from the real people.
Erving Goffman is probably the most famous for his study The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life which explains how people act differently in different circumstances and different surroundings.
Despite me writing a critique on Goffman’s paper earlier this year, I do acknowledge the above statement to be true.
People act like twenty different book characters in a day, all depending on external triggers that cause character changes. Whether it is a person we’re comfortable being with or a situation that makes us want to run away – we shift rapidly.
But, imagine writing a character like that! They would be inconsistent. To show two different characteristics on one page? We would be mad to write like that.
There are two objectives:
- Make characters consistent
- Make their change true.
To start with the change – there must be a reason for it. Fictional characters act in a very simple way – there is a cause for an action and there is a consequence. Both of these are strongly connected to the plot (if they do not contribute to the overall story progression, plot-wise or character-wise, they don’t belong in your story).
The one we’re more concerned about is making characters consistent. The thing is, characters can’t be like real people but can be fully developed personalities. That is what they really are. Create a cloud of traits and have a character act based on those traits in situations you put them in.
Questions Before Creating Characters
Apart from fact questions such as name, date and place of birth, parents’ names, physical descriptions and similar, there are questions you need to ask your characters once they come out of their shell. These questions will help you understand them and write them as realistically as it is possible.
These questions refer to the history of your character and to their personality.
First of, the history of a character is determined by asking questions such as the first memory, the first kiss, the worst memory, the best memory, a hiding place, the first best friend. Not all of these, not even a half of them will actually appear in your story, but knowing the answers can trigger an anecdote your character tells that greatly push the story forward.
Another set of questions are the most personal ones. Such questions determine your character’s sexual preferences, their goals, their motives, their fears, their longings.
You can freely create a question list and fill it out, or you can visit this site I used and copy the questions you think might be relevant.
Keep in mind, some questions might seem unimportant but you should answer as many as you can before you actually make a trait pile.
Piling Up the Traits
This is a simple and straight forward process. List all of the traits you want your character to have and contrast them.
One way of doing this is by creating a mind map with your character in the center and a range of extremes as the directories from which the trait branches grow.
For example, have your characters name written in the middle of the paper (best done by hand) and have four major fields come out of the corners.
Name the fields something like this: virtues, flaws, extreme happiness and extreme disappointment.
Out of these four traits should grow and pile up.
You’ll notice the two major fields refer to emotions – that’s important because traits differ when strong emotions are involved. A character can hate guns and vow never to carry a gun. But an extreme emotion in the negative field can make them pick up a gun.
To help you find your way through this maze, here is the list of traits separated into positive, neutral and negative.
Plus, the picture below is a life-saver for authors which I stumbled upon.
Methods Used by Other Authors When Creating Characters
I mentioned above that I’ll tell you what my favorite TV writer does when creating a character. This is it.
The man in question is Steven Moffat, a brilliant writer who is perhaps most famous for creating strong characters in shows such as Doctor Who and Sherlock. The truth is, he handles a lot of criticism for both of those shows. He gets blamed for a variety of things but gets also praised for the same stuff – it all depends how you see it.
Personally, I find his wit, clever plots, good dialogue and independent characters very enticing.
So, when I share his method for creating characters it is something I truly believe in.
The first step to creating an interesting character is starting from a cliche. The very fist thing to do is to model your character based on a cliche which you’ll later abandon. So, decide if the character is only comic relief or a hero or a coward or a trickster… You get the picture.
After you put the character in these tiny but defined boundaries, write them like that and spread outside the proven circle. As you write them, describe their actions and thoughts and write down their traits, something extraordinary happens – they show something that isn’t in compliance with the cliche. When that happens – when they say something out of character or think something outside the box – you have your character. Rewrite everything from before and write them in the tone that appeared.
Author: Mladen Reljanović
Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.