As I mentioned a while back, it’s important for you to know and understand your characters. It’s your job to bring these people to life, to show the world who they are. How do you do that? How do you create characters that are more than just puppets on your hands, or shadows on the wall?

Basic Characterization: Character Roles

Every character has a place within your narrative. Whether they’re your hero, the mentor, the king, the villain, the helpful peasant, or whoever, they have a role to play. This is the most basic part of your character. These roles are based somewhat on archetypes, so though they sound mostly fantasy-like, you can apply them to any genre.

Figuring out the role your character will play is likely pretty easy. It’s the whole reason you’re creating characters. What are they there to do? However, knowing what archetype they fill doesn’t make them realistic. In fact, people usually play many archetypal roles throughout their lives. It takes more than putting your character in a box to have create living, breathing people.

Get-to-Know-You: Character Questionnaires

I see character questionnaires as a kind of get-to-know-you game for creating characters. They’re all over the internet if you’d like to find one (I like the one Gail Carson Levine supplied Writing Magic). They usually ask basic questions like “What’s their name?” “How old are they?” “Where did they come from?” “Where will they go?” “Where did you come from, Cotton-eye Joe?”

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. - Ernest HemingwayAnd so forth.

These are the most basic of ways to introduce yourself to your character. They WILL NOT GUARANTEE a well-rounded character. They’re just a helpful tool to get you started. If you’re stuck on a character, they can help loosen the mud around the tires to get you going again. They can show you little quirks that characters may have—such as carrying a good luck charm or having a personal saying that they repeat often. The character can go from being completely one-sided to having a small amount of dimension to them.

But if Larry’s good luck charm leads to him being nothing more than the Superstitious One, he still won’t be an effective character. So what else can you do?

Go deeper: emotions and inner conflict

Real people have vastly varying emotional reactions to the same situation. Creating characters that demonstrate this takes some work. Throw something at your characters and see how they react. One may bristle and fight. Another may burst into tears. Yet another may simply roll their eyes. There are as many possible reactions as there are people.

When I have similar characters from different novels, I often throw them together in a fake scene (which would never happen because they’re in different universes/countries/times/whatever) and see what differences emerge. I have two female warrior-type characters from two different stories. How do I keep from writing the same person over and over? Well, If put against each other in a challenge, one of them would take it incredibly seriously, as though her life was on the line. The other would likely laugh about it. In their own stories, these differing traits lend to them a life-like quality.

In addition to emotion, we have inner conflicts, often caused by conflicting desires. It’s a very human thing to want two (or more) things that you can’t have at the same time. Struggle and conflict are part of the human experience. It brings out parts of your characters’ personalities that would otherwise remain hidden. Beyond their basic role and likes and dislikes, inner conflict shows who they really are.

Break Out Your Cubes

The more you get to know me, the more you’ll realize that I have a million Rubik’s cube metaphors. Creating characters that live is also about remembering that they have more sides to them than you can see. A Rubik’s cube has six sides and six colors, but you can only see at most 3 of them at any given time. The other sides still exist and they influence which sides you see, but they aren’t on display.

Once you’ve figured out the various sides of your character, remember that trying to force too much of that forward at any one time will make your character back into a caricature. It will make them flat again—because that’s the only way to see all sides of a cube at once.

Last week, I talked just a little bit about getting to know your characters. There are many parts to this and many different angles to approach it from, but one of the most important aspects of any character—every character—is their central desire.

What is desire?

Your character’s desire will likely spin off of their main problem. What is the goal they want to accomplish? What are they looking for? What are they attempting to gain? Is it a physical thing, a person, a state of being? Your character may want many things, but the central desire is the most important.

Sometimes, their want is a simple thing, like in Tangled. Rapunzel has a straightforward desire to see the floating lights. It’s that want that drives everything she does. Other times, the desire is more complicated. In Mulan, she realizes near the end of the movie that her true want was not to save her father, like she thought it was, but to find her own self-worth. When you have a hidden desire like that, everything must point towards it, even though your character herself is unaware.

desire supplies motivation

 Desire is often the motivator, the reason why your characters are out there doing what they’re doing.

Why do you do things? What gets you up and going? Likely it’s because you wanted something. It’s the same for your characters. When a character lacks a clearly defined desire, they come off as bland, flat, and useless. A character’s desire rounds them out. It helps you as an author to understand them, and it helps readers to connect with them.

In real life, we don’t always know what we want, but in writing, the character’s desire must be clear. If readers don’t understand what a character wants, they aren’t going to sympathize with their quest. In fact, it becomes boring. Instead of an active character doing things of their own volition, we have a passive character who comes across as a victim.

conflicting agendas

While a few of your characters may have the same wants, more often, they won’t. If these differing desires are at odds with each other, you will have conflict. That’s a great thing! Conflict is what keeps readers going; it’s what grips their hearts and pulls them along for the ride. But it has to make sense, which is where conflict born of a character’s desire comes into play.

If Sally wants to go to the Opera, and Sam wants to watch football, there’s going to be conflict. If Rick wants to make Susie happy, but Susie wants to be left alone, there will be conflict. If Harry wants to keep the Sorcerer’s Stone away from Quirrell and Voldemort, but they want to find the Stone, there is conflict.

Sometimes, a character can have conflicting desires within themselves. This inner conflict will hold them back and keep them from accomplishing their main task. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry has conflicting desires to find the Horcruxes or the Deathly Hallows. He struggles with getting his priorities in order, and it causes not only conflict within himself, but also with Ron and Hermione. It slows their progress in defeating Voldemort, and gets them into trouble.

Creating your character’s desire

How do you make sure your characters have a desire? If every character (at least all your main characters) need a clearly defined desire, how do you make sure they have one? Simply ask what they want more than anything else in the world. Ask, and then don’t give it to them. Keep them away from it as long as you can (unless you’re writing a story about the consequences of getting what you want. Then you can give it to them part way through the story).

In my short story “Gypsy of the Sea,” my main character Abigail wants to be brave, but she can’t become brave because she’s scared of her father. The story is about her overcoming that fear. Once I figured out that was her desire, the story came together. 

Look at your characters—talk to them. Find out what they want more than anything else, and then use that desire to propel them forward.

 

I had a teacher who had us work it out this way:

Once upon a time, there was a ________ , and what he/she/it wanted more than anything else in the world was _______ . But they couldn’t because_______.

I was with book, as a woman is with child. - C. S. Lewis

Perhaps it’s a daydream that’s been flitting in and out of your imagination for years. Maybe it’s a character that just won’t go away. Or it could be a world that is so interesting that you just want to pack up and live there. Whatever your starting point is, it makes you want to share it with others. Whatever it is, it makes you want to write a novel. That’s great! But what do you do with it?

If there was a way to pluck ideas straight from your head and display it for others to see—exactly the way you want it to appear—we’d probably all go that route. Instead, we have to deal with the task of taking images from our minds and translating them into words that create images in the minds of other people. Whew! It’s hard work, no joke. So before you put pen to paper (or open that Word file), here are three things you should do.

1. Start with a Problem

Before you start writing, even if you’re not really an outliner, it helps to have a good idea of where you’re going. Every story has a problem. The story comes from solving that problem. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the problem is that there’s an evil ring that needs to be destroyed. The solution is that Frodo will carry the ring to Mount Doom and throw it in. Everything else that happens are off-shoots of that problem and solution.

Most stories have smaller problems that contribute to the bigger problem. In Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, the obvious problem is that Tiana has been turned into a frog, but she also has the problem of being a workaholic, and the prince has the problem of being a lazy bum. As they solve the frog problem, they learn how to solve the other two.

What problem needs to be solved? What is the solution? There, you have a beginning and end to your novel. If you don’t know the solution yet, that’s okay too. But you should definitely know what the problem is.

2. Get to know your charactersHISHE Batman

Real people have both strengths and flaws. No one likes a Mary Sue (except Batman), but when you’re first starting out, it’s easy to over-power your main character, to make them so good at everything that it really doesn’t make sense that they’re even having a problem. Take Calaena from Throne of Glass. She begins the series already having the reputation of the greatest assassin in the land. That’s a heavy burden to carry! I wonder if Sarah J Maas ever regrets giving her that rep. It limits the kind of problems that can challenge Calaena. 

When I wrote my first novel (at 12 years old), my main character was a mind reader who could not only hear people’s thoughts at will, but see through their eyes, turn herself invisible (because she blocked her image from their vision center) and occasionally have visions in her sleep of people whose minds she was reading from a long distance. AND she originally knew how to fight. In a later version of the story, I took away her ability to fight physically. Recently, I’ve returned to this story again (because it really is a good one), and now her mental powers are much more limited.

It’s also very easy to have a cookie-cutter character. Real people are more than their high school clique. They’re not just a jock or nerd or emo kid. They have multiple sides to them. Get to know your characters completely, especially your main characters. How? Write them. Write scenes that will never show up in your story. Get to know where they come from, where they’re going. In one of my WIPs, I have a character who came from an abusive home. My own home was nothing like that, so in order to understand him, I wrote about his past. I learned why he thinks the way he does, but I also learned what he likes. It makes him less of the typical brooding character and more of a person.

3. Don’t just imagine your setting—move there

Setting is one area that I have a pretty difficult time with. I know where my characters are, but it becomes very vague in my writing. Sometimes that’s okay; my readers don’t need to see 100% what I see. But often, my settings become a white room in the middle of nowhere, and that loses readers. Instead of just having a general idea of your setting, get inside it. If you know details of the land and layout, it will come through in your writing, even if all those details don’t get mentioned. Think about Hogwarts. We all know Hogwarts. We can feel it. We know about the lake and the forbidden forest and Hagrid’s hut. We know about the moving staircases, secret passages and talking portraits. We are familiar with the common rooms and the dorms. If we paid attention, we know there are 7 floors and 142 staircases (No, I did not have to look that up). How many of those details that we’ve assimilated helped Hogwarts feel real? How many did JKR come up with on the fly and how many do you think she sat down and painstakingly figured out before she ever wrote a book? I imagine far more of them were planned than not.

My short story “Gypsy of the Sea” takes place in an inn. It’s a small location, so I was able to plan out every detail. Because of this, it has a grounded sense of place. If you’ve “moved in” to your setting, you’ll have better descriptions, and your readers will feel like they’re there too.

Once you’ve done these three things, things will flow more smoothly. You may still get blocked from time to time, but you can get through it.