Creativity · Writing

Character Development

Creating characters for stories is a step in the writing process that authors either love or hate. The ones that love it look at it as just another part of the creative process. They often spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about their characters, writing up biographical details, backstories, creating a look and a personality. Some go so far as to draw the characters so they can see how they would look in reality. There’s nothing wrong with this. If it helps them to understand the character’s motivations, then more power to them. When it’s time for them to write the story, their protagonist is like an old friend who they know everything about. In theory, this should make for a fully-realized character.

 

The ones that don’t like to go all out, well, they’re another breed. These writers have an idea of who their character is, what motivates them, what they want. It may be fully fleshed out in their heads and they simply don’t want to take the time to put it all down on the page. That would take time away from writing the story. Or they may only have the briefest idea of who the character is and they’ll wait to see how it develops as the story unfolds. That’s okay, too.

 

There’s no right way or wrong way. There’s only the way that works for you. And that may change depending on the story you’re trying to tell. 

 

Personally, I like to have an idea of who my character is and what they want before I start writing, but I don’t like to know the character too well. I like little surprises when I’m writing a story. If I know my character inside and out, then I basically know how they’re going to react in any given situation. I know their secrets, their desires, their fears. That takes the fun out of it for me. 

 

I may have a name and maybe a gender. Rarely do I consider race, sexuality, or ethnicity. If it’s important, then I’ll hint at it with the character name or a brief physical description. But then, I also want to leave it up to my reader. I like to leave a little something to the imagination. Just like writing the story, I’m not going to tell the reader everything. There’s context, and then there’s sub-context. The things left unsaid. If I write a character and I’m unsure if they are male, female, or an alternative gender, then I want to leave it up to the reader to decide. So if a young woman is reading my story and imagines the protagonist to be female, so be it. 

 

To me, going into a story with only a vague idea of who my protagonist is gives me some freedom. I don’t feel locked into making my character behave a certain way. They’re free to be brave or run away, to yell and scream or to sit quietly in a corner. I generally don’t know what they are going to do when they’re confronted with a conflict. I mean, I know how I want the story to go, but there have been occasions where my stories have taken left turns because my protagonist did something unexpected. My reaction when this happens is a combination of dismay (because I thought I had a great narrative going) and elation (because my story is going somewhere unexpected). And I’m genuinely happy, too. As I mentioned above, I like surprises in my stories, both for the reader and for myself.

 

I’ve tried the detailed character development method, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m one of those people who can get bogged down in the details. I’ll spend so much time creating a fully-fleshed out character that the story gets put on the back burner for too long. I like everything to come together organically. I have a story, I have a basic character. I put the latter inside the former, then sit back and watch what happens. 

 

Does this ever backfire for me? Nope. At least, not yet. I think the thing that usually trips me up is coming up with names for characters. I often begin writing a story without naming my protagonist, then go back later and add it. Names are important. They have meaning. They have power. Picking the right name for a character – to me – is more important than their physical appearance. This doesn’t mean that every name has to have a deeper meaning. Sometimes “Bob” is just Bob. It doesn’t mean he likes to float in the ocean. However, there are times when I want the name to mean something, to give some insight into the character’s background, ethnicity, gender. Those are the times I struggle. 

 

When I begin a story, all I really need to know is the character’s motivation. What do they want? Once I know that the rest will fall into place. 

 

Do you have a preferred method for creating characters? 

RB

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Believe it or not, I have a standard character creation template I use, based on the old “Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe”. The joys of being a geek, LOL. It’s about the most detailed biography template I’ve seen though, so it’s served me well. I don’t need it for bit players, but anyone major in a story gets one filled out