I am often asked, “How do you create a good character?” This question was once something I struggled with. The truth is that there really isn’t a set formula like in Chemistry or Algebra that a person can plug in to create an amazing character. As a writer I have read several professional books on creating characters for TV, features, books, and plays but in the end each one is basically done in a similar processes. Just to point out, there is not one single way to create a character. Every writer uses a different method. Not one method is better than the other, in fact many writers mix and match different strategies to develop a well round character.
I once had a teacher that would call brain storming “intellectual vomiting”. As gross as he made it sound that is exactly what brain storming is. Don’t be afraid to get messy–simply pour out any idea that pops into your head. It doesn’t need to be in a neat chart if you don’t want it to be. Brain storming enables the writer to lay out all their thoughts at once, which later on in the writing processes comes in handy. When brain storming go on and write about ideas concerning setting, plot, supporting characters, and story arcs. By doing this a writer can see what is their strongest field and work on the ones that are still half empty.
Bringing Your Character to Life
After braining storming it is important to work with what has been poured out. This is where being neat might have come in handy, it will save the writer a few minutes of rewriting everything. There are two aspects when creating a character that are fundamental; one, creating the physical description and the mental description.
The physical description is what most writers start with. What gender is your character? Is it a human, alien, dog, cat, idea? How tall is he or she? The physical description usually helps a writer to see their character as a real life person or creature. Remember, a character should be real in the story’s universe.
The mental description is usually the personality. This is even more important than a physical description. When examining another person or a group of people there is a complexity in each and every individual. Not one person is exactly the same. Establish a character’s habits, likes, dislikes, and feelings towards others. Does he or she have a short fuse? Is he or she afraid of anything? What is their favorite food? By establishing a personality the transition to character development will become less painful and challenging.
Now that the writer has mentally given birth to their character it is time to allow for them to step into the writer’s universe. If a writer has spent the right amount of time creating a physical and mental state for their character, then progressing into a deep development should be fun and exciting instead of painful and boring. Character development is presenting the character into the story or plot and showing change or growth. Whether the character belongs in a film, TV show, or novel the character should provoke a feeling to the audience. The best way to make sure that the audience will feel something for the character is to make them as real as possible.
Once the character has the fundamentals it is time to step them into the plot. If the plot was created before the character, it might be slightly different in the changes or adaptions made. When engraving or pasting on a character into the story’s universe don’t freak out if they don’t mix well. There is nothing wrong with restarting. Make sure that the plot and character compliment each other and run smoothly. Depending if the story is character driven or plot driven, the changes the writer makes will vary.
Avoid Superman Characters
I often tell young writers to avoid Superman characters. Like Superman who only has one weakness I try to discourage people from creating super powerful characters. The best way to make readers or an audience care about a character is by adding flaws. A flaw does not have to be a weakness like a silver bullet, but instead can be a certain trait or characteristic which proves as a disadvantage or struggle. Walter White (Breaking Bad) is a great example of character flaws; who would win more votes for best character Walter White or Achilles (Troy)? The writers presented Walter White with an issue which Walter had to deal with, however he went about it the wrong way creating a series of events which makes up the Breaking Bad series. However, make sure that the flaw corresponds with the character and the plot.
Here is an example, if I were to create a character named Joshua who lives in New York city during the 1920s, and has a full time job as a detective–what would his character flaw be? Now, if I were to say that his flaw is that he has a gambling problem–which is a good flaw–but were to also say that his personality is that he is extremely neat and uptight would that really make sense? Would his gambling problem effect the plot if the main problem in the story was capturing a serial killer? Maybe or maybe not, but it is the writer’s job to try to create the most realistic and logical character. Now, if I changed Joshua’s flaw and said that he had trust issues then this becomes easier for audience to connect with Joshua. What if his paranoia of trusting someone leads for him to have constant arguments with his partner and the people around him?
Overall, there is not one perfect way to create a character. It takes several years of practice and drafts to begin to master character development. Do not be afraid of failure, simply start from the top again–maybe the 101st draft is golden. The best characters usually provoke a feeling in the audience whether that is hatred or sympathy. Try to remember that emotional attachment often makes people keep reading or watching. Finally, have fun and explore new territories.