Some writers say they don’t control their characters: they have lives of their own. Sometimes they run away from us and do things that surprise us.
You don’t have to let your characters run away from you. Knowing their backstory, their motivations, and their flaws and weaknesses will help you get ready to write your story. That doesn’t mean your characters can’t surprise you. They still can. But that can be a good thing: it means that your subconscious understand them enough to take them places.
When I am getting ready to write a story, it’s usually percolated in my mind for a while. I’ve had conversations with the characters; I’ve run scenes with them. I’ve sometimes even argued with them over “why in the world they would do such a thing!” This is an organic process for me. As a sometimes-actor, I talk to myself in character a lot more than I’d like to admit. Creating characters for an unwritten story isn’t that different from creating characters in acting. You have to create a backstory. You have to find passions and hatreds and fears that haven’t been discovered yet.
The First Date
One of the first things I like to do when I’m creating characters is to have a first date. Okay, that sounds weird, but hear me out: the purpose of a traditional first date is to get to know the other person. You ask them basic questions, surface level things. These are the first things you need to know when you’re creating characters. Likes, dislikes, how many siblings they have, what their parents do/did for a living. This is what forms the basis for who the character can become. You want to find out the Whats in their life. Sometimes, you might end up going a little deeper, but usually that’s something that’s left for the second date.
The Second Date
Okay, now you’ve gotten to know your character on the surface. Cool. Unfortunately, a favorite color isn’t going to be great motivation for your character’s arc. We need to get to the next level.
This is where you’re going to start finding out those little stories that have shaped your character. You need to find out WHY they like vanilla, but chocolate gives them a migraine. Maybe when they were four, they ate a chocolate milkshake so fast that they got brain freeze and they puked. Now they can’t eat chocolate ice cream or derivatives thereof without getting migraine symptoms. BUT they still love freezing Reese’s Cups (because they’re delicious!). That fear of heights? Did Tommy pushed them off the tower on the playground when they were five and they broke their leg? Or maybe someone they knew died in a hobby airplane crash.
Whatever the background, find out more about the Why. Knowing these little details can enrich a character more than you might realize. Don’t push too quickly yet, though; there’s a lot of little Whys that you can find.
Now you’re really starting to like (or dislike) this character. Either way, you want to stick with them, otherwise you would have stopped hanging out with them. Something intrigues you about them. You want to know more.
You’re ready to go steady. It’s time to delve into the How.
How does their past affect them? How will it shape their future? This is crucial to a good character arc. If you don’t know where they’re coming from, you can’t figure out where they’re going. If your character is starting out as a timid type who doesn’t know how to say no to a bully, do they need to become a stand-strong, don’t-take-guff character by the end of the story? Can they? Or do they learn how to subtly manipulate the people who are trying to control them? Either way, it has to be believable.
Pop the Question!
Do you think you’re ready? Take the plunge and form a family! If you’ve done your job in creating characters that are believable, you have your cast. Start testing them out together. Take them on group dates and see how they interact. Who bullies who? Who’s the loudmouth and who sits quietly in the background, calculating and observing? Even if some of these characters aren’t intended to interact together, it can still help you see new aspects of them.
Once you have your cast of characters put together, you’re ready to move on to the next step of your novel planning. Knowing your characters is half the battle. And when they’re ready to perform, the rest of the process becomes a whole lot easier!
Have you created your characters? Have they surprised you yet?
This post is part of the How to NaNoWriMo series. Check out the other posts below:
That’s an intriguing process! I’ve always had a different process for coming up with characters. Usually their genesis either comes from a picture I see a story idea that requires certain types of characters. On rare occasion I’ve had a story character come from a D&D character that I’ve played.
Once I have a character concept , then I try to get a visual sense of what the character looks like. Since I don’t draw well, this means looking at pictures online, usually on deviantArt or Google Image Search, or even using HeroMachine to cobble together a general appearance. Sometimes I also put together a “stats sheet” for a character with basic information such as physical characteristics, typical temperament, preferred weapons (if any), even the character’s preferred clothing. Around the same time that I start bringing together basic characteristics, a backstory also coalesces, which gets written onto the character sheet.
Then I test characters by making up scenes to put them in and seeing how the characters would react. I ask myself, “*Why* does this character react this way?” and from that dig into the character’s motivations, personal values, ingrained worldview, and any particular virtues or flaws they exemplify.
Once I have a character more or less fully-formed, then I run my character through The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test at http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm. Not only does the test help me determine if it’s a good character, but it also gives me ideas on how to further refine my character if needed.
Once my character’s formed and tested, then I put them in the story and let them do their thing!
Huh! Those are some really great resources; I may have to look into those and do a follow-up post about using them. I’d definitely never heard of the Litmus Test site. I think I’ll be running my characters through there before NaNoWriMo now, though! Thanks so much for the info! =D
No prob. Here’s a link to the free online version of HeroMachine, too: http://www.heromachine.com/heromachine-2-5-character-portrait-creator/
It’s basically a paper doll dress-up-type webtoy with a wide variety of fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero-themed outfits and accessories. It has its limitations, natch, but I like it. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun to play with!