Writing Techniques: How to start creating characters

writing techniques,

September 12, 2015

Some people find it easy to generate original characters. I know these people exist, because my friend Anna Cowan is one, she has the magical (to me) ability to spontaneously generate unique, dynamic characters that feel instantly alive on the page.

If you're one of these people, this technique is probably not going to be very useful to you. But if you're like me and your imagination doesn't attach to new characters instinctively, this technique might help to start redirecting the tributaries of your imagination towards character creation.

Similar to the How to start writing a book when you have no ideas technique, this is a technique to use at the very beginning of character creation, when you don't feel inspired, and you just don't know what kind of character you want to write about.

This technique can appear to be a bit derivative, as it uses pre-existing characters as a springboard. However, the purpose of the technique is not to copy existing characters, but rather to use existing characters as a way to explore your own likes, to unlock the things that excite you when it comes to characters and character interactions.

You can do this technique alone with pen and paper, but it is also a fun technique to do with a brainstorming partner or friend.

How to start creating characters

Write a list of your favourite characters – the characters that you have loved, that have inspired you or fascinated you, that you have come back to multiple times throughout your life.

Here's a section of my list. I mined my childhood/adolescence because that was the time that my love FLAMED THE BRIGHTEST so there are some pretty embarrassing entries on here.

Faith (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Griffith (Berserk)
Starbuck (Battlestar Galactica)
Lymond (Lymond Chronicles)
Catwoman (DC universe)
Diarmuid (Summer Tree)
Ilyria (Angel: The Series)
Lestat (Interview with the Vampire)
Lois Lane (Smallville, Lois & Clark)
Draco Malfoy* (Harry Potter)
Baringa (Silver Brumby series)
Aeon Flux (animated series)
Loki (Marvel movie-verse)
Wonder Woman (DC comic verse)
Vanyel (Magic's Pawn)
Mikasa (Attack on Titan)
Fenris (Dragon Age 2)
Utena (Shoujo Kakumei Utena)
Akira (Hikaru no Go)
Touga (Shoujo Kakumei Utena)

* But really fanon!Draco

Once you have your list, think about what draws you to each character. For each character, write a short paragraph describing what quality or dynamic it is that resonates with you most powerfully. Follow the lines of thought that excite you, write down the "key words" that you respond to, traits or dynamics that are most alive to you.

For example:

Faith – I love that she should have been the Slayer, a champion of good, but her role was displaced by Buffy. She never had a chance to be the "good" one because that role was already taken. It is powerful to me that she had a chance to be good, but no one let her be, so she instead became bad. I like that she is redeemable, but she resists redemption – that tension of the possibility of redemption that is denied, again and again. I love a character you are trying to reach who fell away, who is unreachable. I also love that she "should" have been one thing, but instead became another. She carries the ghost of what she should have been within her.

When you do this, you will notice some patterns that start to emerge, some key words or characteristics that are repeated. For example, I find that I am obsessed with characters who "should" have been one thing, but are moulded by circumstances into another thing (Griffith, Faith, Loki, Fenris, Lymond), and who wear their damage as strength even when it alienates them from the people around them (Starbuck, Sarah Connor, Mikasa). I notice that I have a lot characters on my list who are obsessed with living up to a perfect older brother (Loki, Baringa, Lymond, Diarmuid). I notice that I like characters who are one half of a pair who embody powerfully opposite qualities (Loki (Thor), Lestat (Louis), Aeon Flux (Trevor Goodchild), Starbuck (Apollo), Akira (Hikaru), Draco (Harry)).

I also gain a lot of repeated "key words" of things that I like or that fire my imagination, such as "extreme competence", "bamf", "antihero", "inner pain seen by no one!", "aristocratic little shit", "not nice", "frigid", and so on.

Once you have your list, you can use it as a jumping off point to start thinking about original characters. You can do this by, for example, choosing an item on the list, and writing down the implied questions that it raises about an original character. For example, one of the items on my list is "extreme competence" so some implied questions might be "What is the character extremely competent at?" and then "Are there any areas where they are not competent?" "How does their competence affect them and those around them?" and so on. When you start writing answers to the questions, make sure that you are choosing answers that are as exciting to you as the original qualities themselves.

And that's it! Let your answers guide you to new characters - you have now mapped out an imaginative space that is exciting to you and you can use it to start creating some new characters of your own.

You can find a complete list of the writing techniques covered in the series at the Writing Techniques Master Post