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.

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