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.

Change is Hard

If you’re like me, you have trouble setting and keeping goals. Improvement is hard, yet we all crave it. I doubt there is a person on earth who wouldn’t like to do something better. There are a lot of things I’d like to change about myself. 

One of the biggest problems I face in setting goals is wanting to change everything all at once. I look around and want to sweep the house, do the laundry, keep my site up, take care of the baby, edit for other people and do my own writing all at the same time. Then, once I’ve listed all the things I’d like to do, I’m so exhausted by the thought of it all that I do none of it (except take care of the baby; that’s a necessity). I can’t even set one goal. There’s so much I want to improve that I don’t know where to start.

Rubik's cube in sunlight

Goals are like a Rubik’s Cube

This isn’t the first time in my life that I’ve felt this way. For those who don’t know, I am a Mormon. From October 2012 to April 2014, I served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines Urdaneta Mission. It was awesome, but often then, as now, I got overwhelmed with just how much I need to do better.

While in the Philippines, I discovered a metaphor that helped me wrap my head around what I needed to do and set one goal at a time. Think of goals as a Rubik’s cube.

 

Well, now that you’re even more stressed out, let me explain. When solving a Rubik’s cube, you can’t solve the whole thing at once. There is a certain order to it. When you look at an unsolved cube, you might find yourself overwhelmed with it. There are so many colors, and they move weird, and every time you move one into place, another one gets put out of place, and there are over 43 billion billion ways to do it wrong (no kidding; look). It’s stressful for sure.

That is, if you don’t know how to do it.

When I got my first cube, it came with a handy dandy little guide with tips and patterns to follow to solve it. Some may say that learning to do it this way is cheating, but I’ve learned lots of things from a book, and no one has a problem with those. Anyway, the first step was to decide which side was going to be the top.

Yup, it’s that simple. Which side is the top? (I usually pick white.)

After that, you solve the cube layer by layer, not color by color. Following the patterns, it was easy. After a while, I didn’t need the patterns anymore; I could do it easily. Sometimes without even looking while I moved the squares in their memorized sequences.

 

several mixed Rubik's cubes

“The first step is to pick which side is the top.”

Set One Goal at a Time

Setting and meeting goals is like solving the cube. First you’ve got to pick the top. Which goal is your top priority? If you’re writing, which story do you want to work on first? Or is it that you need to establish a daily habit or work on a specific part of the craft that is harder for you? Whatever it is, choose just one, and put it on top.

After you’ve set one goal, work on it. Put all the white squares on top.

One thing about working layer by layer on a cube is that you don’t actually ignore the other colors while you are focused on the white. Each square has more than one color, so you do have to make sure the ones that are white and red go between the white and red sides. But that’s secondary. The focus is getting the white done. After that, you move on to the next layer.

Rubik's cube top layer turnedWhile it’s not a perfect metaphor, thinking of goals as a Rubik’s cube helps me not to panic. I can take one of these many things I want to improve and build it up until it’s where I want it to be. Then, I work on something else. Do things slip from time to time? Of course they do. But you have to move the white squares to get the second and third layers into place. As long as you’re paying attention, those habits will last.

So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the progress you haven’t made, just remember that you don’t have to do it all at once. Set one goal, take it layer by layer, and you will solve it eventually.