Today I want to talk about creating characters – the heart of all great storytelling. As with all parts of the writing process, your characters are likely to undergo multiple rewrites along the way, and you’ll probably kill a few of them off too. But where do you start when bringing them to life?
There are loads of different ways to start the process of developing characters, and no one way is right. So the aim of this article is to give you a whole smorgasbord of strategies to dip in an out of at any stage in your writing process.
10 strategies for creating compelling characters
1. Write a classic biography
List all the facts and figures about your main characters, such as their date of birth and astrological sign, their height, weight, hair colour, posture, their class, occupation, education and religion, their sex life, temperament, frustrations and superstitions.
Any details you can think of, just list them matter of factly. Which elements intrigue you the most? Explore these further. Later on, you can use this information to see if it sparks some dramatic moments or a payoff. This method is particularly good for helping you delve into your character’s backstory.
If you’re creating a character with a job you’re not that familiar with, or a hometown that isn’t your own, use research to gather useful details that will make the character and their world more convincing. Be careful not to use research as a form of procrastination. If your story isn’t research-heavy, try to only research the specific details you need.
3. Start with yourself
We know and understand ourselves better than anyone else, so it stands to reason that we will seep into our characters.
If you’re struggling to make a character work, brainstorm yourself and answer: what are your passions? Your quirks? Your obsessions? Your secrets? You don’t have to base your character on yourself, per se, but some details from your own life, especially your inner life, might help you create a more rounded and interesting character.
4. Listen to your characters
Write a monologue where you get your character to justify him or herself. Use stream of consciousness to let your character talk to you.
5. Write a scene
Think about how your character handles trouble. Write a little scene in which they find themselves in a difficult situation – for example: they get to the front of the supermarket queue and can’t find their wallet; it’s nighttime, they’re alone and they think they’re being followed; they’ve just discovered their best friend’s husband is having an affair; they’ve got into debt and it’s suddenly got very serious – what do they do? How do they react?
This strategy might help you get under your character’s skin. You don’t have to include these incidents in your final story, but then again, you might stumble across a fantastic plot point.
6. Consider your whole cast
Review all your characters – think about the roles they each play. Are they all distinct from one another and useful in terms of moving the story forward? What are their relationships with one another? Is there enough conflict? Is everyone paying their way?
Sometimes, even though we might love a character, they might not be serving our story. So consider whether it might be better to cut them out (and perhaps save them for another tale), rather than under-using them just because we can’t bear to see them go.
7. Character arc
Think about your character arc. Does your protagonist learn something essential or change emotionally over the course of your story? If so, make sure you work out the beats that reveal this change. It shouldn’t just happen in a single scene.
8. Comic characters
If you’re writing a comedy, what is your character’s wacky view of the world? If it’s based on yourself or someone you know, make sure you take their traits to the extreme. It’s more important than ever to give comic characters flaws, but make sure you give them a redeeming feature too.
Use a mind map to brainstorm your characters and help you come up with some fun details. See here for more on brainstorming.
Don’t get carried away with backstory – think about how much you actually need. This will depend on several things, including what you’re writing. If you’re developing a TV series, chances are you’re going to need a lot of backstory to help you come up with an abundance of story ideas. However this can be developed over time, you don’t need to know every last detail about your character before you start writing. If you’re developing a children’s story, especially one for young children, you probably won’t need a lot of backstory.
But what about a feature film or novel? It really depends on the type of story you’re telling; if you’re writing the next War and Peace, you’re going to need a lot of backstory. But if you’re writing something very much set in the present, be wary of creating lots of detailed backstories that you then feel compelled to shoehorn into your story.
Try one or all of these approaches that take your fancy, and see what works for you. The most important thing is to find a method that works for you. But mixing things up helps keep your writing fresh too. Don’t be scared – if you need to rework or even cut your characters, just jump right in. What’s the worst that can happen? You can always change them back again.
You can give these approaches a try at any point in the writing process –at the start, as you begin exploring your story, mid-way through if you get stuck, or perhaps when you embark on a rewrite, if you’ve received some negative feedback.
Get in touch!
I love hearing from my readers, so drop me a line and let me know what works for you when creating characters. And by the way, if you tell me what you’re struggling with, I might be able to address your issue in a future post. You can get in touch here.
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I hope you enjoyed these suggestions. Thanks for reading and I’ll be back again with more tips next week.