Creating good characters is hard. I struggle with it every time I write a story. That has taught me a thing or two, which I’d like to share. Read on if you write yourself, or shoot movies, make computer games, or even if you play Dungeons and Dragons.
For story purposes a character has three ingredients: a personality, obstructed goals, and a style. You may have read things elsewhere about arcs, archetypes, and other terms. Those terms refer to more or less the same things, but I’m using these terms because I feel they’re closer to what I’m try to convey. The names don’t really matter of course, the ideas do. Furthermore, keep in mind that this is a way of studying characters, not a recipe that needs to be followed.
Personality is what makes your character who they are. Are they angry? Or depressed? Elitist or stupid?
Just as importantly, why are they the way they are? This is where backstory first comes into play. A character’s past is only important as far as it has shaped the character as they relate to your story. Imagine your character went to Disneyland each year as a child. Does that matter for your story? It might, if it explains their fear of mice. Or if they lost a brother there and that explains why they don’t want to lose sight of children they are taking care of.
Be careful, though, that you don’t create a Marty Stu. For instance, if your character is that special snowflake that was stolen as a baby but is secretly a princess. And she’s awesome at martial arts. And inordinately clever. And beautiful and everybody falls in love with her.
The character needs to be interesting, but also believable. Usually, you can achieve this by contrast and flaws.
Contrast means making a character have seemingly conflicting properties. Indiana Jones is an action hero who is also an archeology professor. James Bond is a killing machine who is also a gentleman. You get the idea.
Flaws are also important, to prevent the character from being too perfect. Maybe they have a temper, or they’re bigoted, or even a borderline psychopath. The main character in Blind Fury is a blind action hero with a katana. That’s both contrast and flaw rolled into one.
The flaws of a character can also be an obstacle they need to overcome to achieve their goal. More on that below.
Have you ever felt a character seemed too passive in a story? Have you ever been wondering in a Dungeons & Dragons session why your character never had anything to do even though they had this cool background? Have you ever wondered why a character was even in a movie, like Wolverine in X-Men: Days of Future Past?
These answers all touch upon character goals. These goals are where your character and the plot meet. A character without a goal in the story is boring and a smell of bad writing.
As the title says, the goals should be obstructed. A character wants to achieve something in the story, and that needs to be something that they cannot easily achieve. If Luke Skywalker’s only goal in Star Wars had been to own his own gold-plated protocol droid, the movie wouldn’t have gone anywhere, or at least not with him as the protagonist.
The story is built around the obstructions that the character faces. They can be internal, where the character has to overcome a flaw in themselves, or they can be external, where a character has to overcome external obstacles. It will depend on your genre and the story you want to tell what the obstacles are.
If the obstacles are flaws of the characters, then the character needs to change and we’re talking about a character arc. The events (plot) of the story will have to push the character hard enough that it forces them to change, which should lead to the climax of the story. Some will tell you that this is the only way to write a story, but I don’t think that’s true. It is also possible that your character doesn’t change much in the story.
If the obstacles are external, then the character needs to use his existing skills to overcome the problems. In many of the James Bond movies, James really doesn’t change much. He overcomes the external threat for queen and country, and the excitement comes from how he overcomes the obstacles and what will happen next.
By having different characters have mutually exclusive goals, you create conflict. The actions of one character become the obstacles of other characters to achieve their goals.
When you’re designing a character, give them some goals which are not easily achieved, and preferably ones that are in conflict with somebody else’s goals.
Having a character with a personality and goal doesn’t mean squat if the execution is wrong. In writing, this means you have to write the character well. In roleplaying games, or theatre, you have to play the character well.
How does the character’s background and personality affect how they are portrayed? A character who is supposedly stupid is not going to be using words like ‘magnanimous’ or argue the finer points of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Who a character is should be reflected in their mode of speech, what they talk about, and how they look. Be careful of the cliches: ‘my character doesn’t use contractions’ or ‘my character is a computer geek so he wears glasses and had bad skin’.
For a viewpoint character, their personality and goals should shine through in what they notice around them and how they interpret this. A viewpoint character is a lens through which the reader sees the world, and that lens should be coloured. This is a more subtle form of style, but very effective.
I also find it helps to keep notes on the physical characteristics of the character. I often go on the Internet and look for a picture that matches my image of the character in my head. I do not have a sheet that I fill out with the character’s height, weight, and eye colour, though. I feel such a list lures me to lazily writing a character down using exactly those traits: ‘his eyes were blue, he weighed a hundred pounds, and he was five feet tall’. I only add such information if I use it.
Summary in questions
Instead of more writing, I’ll summarise this in a list of questions:
- What personality traits does the character have?
- How do these traits contrast with each other?
- What flaws does the character have?
- What made them that way?
- What goals does the character have?
- What is obstructing those goals?
- How does the above affect their speech?
- How does the above affect their looks?
- How does the above affect their outlook on the world?
- What other physical aspects of the character are important?
I hope this helps you write, act, or roleplay characters.