Writers: How do you create characters?

05/06/2015 Discussions, Writing 8

Writers: How do you create characters?Characters can without a doubt, make or break a piece of fiction: they are the beating heart of a story. I know from my own experience as a reader that it doesn’t matter how good a concept the story has, or how well plotted it is, if the characters are flat and lifeless. Readers need to care about characters and feel invested in them in order to engage with the story, which is why creating characters can be such a difficult part of writing.

So I thought I’d do a quick discussion post about creating characters, and I want to know how other writers go about populating their stories with interesting, relatable and hopefully likeable characters.

There seems to be two schools of thought on how to come up with characters, just as there are for how to come up with story ideas. The classic ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’ theory can be applied here, with some writers creating detailed character portraits before they even begin writing, whilst others start writing and let the characters develop naturally.

Personally, I’m the latter. I tend to come up with a story idea and a general idea for a character (as in, age, gender…and that’s about it!) and just start writing, although this tends to have pretty mixed results. Sometimes I’ll read back my latest story and find vivid characters full of life, but more often than not I find vague, wishy-washy people with no distinct identity. And that’s so disappointing!

So I’d love to know how other writers come up with their characters, and what they feel gives the best results. Do you find writing some kind of character profile helpful, or do you prefer to just write the story and see how the characters develop? And have you ever tried the opposite approach?

8 Responses to “Writers: How do you create characters?”

  1. George Holland Hill

    I’ve realised that I’m naturally a “pantser” writer, but as that caused me problems with my first and only book — I didn’t know how to wind up the damn story! — I decided that for the next one, which I’m currently working on, I would need a rough idea of how its starts (that could change), but I would DEFINITELY need to know how it ends. But just a rough idea of what comes in between, how to get from A to Z, let’s not spoil all the fun of the characters coming to life and doing their own thing along the way.
    But if it’s true that my natural inclination is to be a pantser, does that apply when it comes to creating characters? I really had to think hard about that. Is it actually possible “create” a character as a pantser? No, I don’t think so: the only “pantser” way a character would appear would be totally out of the blue, just pop out of your head unbidden and onto the page.
    And thinking about “character” I also came to a bit of an embarrassing conclusion!
    I realised that in my “urban sci-fi humour” book (an new genre?!), out of the three main characters, two were actually based on me! Different aspects of me.
    One (the “spaceman”) was a baffled version of me wondering “What the hell am I doing on this planet?” which is something I was wondering a short while ago; a second character, Mr Sherlock, was pedantic me, trying to be a bit too clever, and obsessed with the English language, its strange words and idioms.
    The third character was more or less a copy of a heavy-drinking Irishman who used to be my neighbour. But I tried to add a bit more to his character to make him less of a stereotype, but I’m wondering now whether I tried hard enough. Probably not.
    But following on from a consideration of character comes dialogue.
    Before I started writing the “spaceman” book my biggest concern was how to create dialogue — would I be able to do it? How could I create a conversation between on character by getting inside his head, then getting inside the other man’s head and come up with a reply — and do this switching in and out of heads repeatedly just to come up with a few paragraphs of dialogue! It sounded utterly impossible! Or at least impossible for me.
    What I found was quite strange. Once I had a picture in my mind of what these two characters looked like, and what sort of characters they had, then a movie would start to run in my head of them discussing something together. I was amazed! It was so easy.
    And then later (at least a day later; let it settle first) I could edit whatever they had said to each other and “improve” it.
    But here’s another point that’s occurred to me from your question: if I can turn aspects of myself into male characters, how do I create a female character? I realise that in my book the spaceman does have a wife (he’s very surprised when she turns up and announces it!) but she remains a fairly minor character.
    But some of the characters from the first book will be in the second one, and she is one of them. And very early on she announces she’s pregnant — so she has to take a much bigger role this time around.
    How will I cope with that?
    No idea yet. I’m only on chapter two at present, so we’ll see what happens. . .
    Typical pantser attitude!

  2. Ardelia

    I’m a planner. I like using a character profile and planning out physical appearance, strengths, weaknesses, flaws, endearing characteristics. It’s not all set in stone, though. Sometimes I change things along the way if the story calls for it, or if I feel like I’m forcing the character to do something that’s not quite him/her. But for the most part I like having my characters all planned out before I start.

    • Laura

      I think I’m going to try this approach myself. Sometimes just making it up as I go along works out, but sometimes the characters can just end up being pretty boring or indistinct. Maybe planning them out beforehand would help! 🙂

  3. Josh

    I tend to be a plotter as you put it. I only really can get into character’s mind if I know who they are, what they want and where they’ve been. This is one of my favorite parts of writing, creating characters and their backgrounds.

    The rest of my story writes itself once I know what a character is. Scenes become questions of “how does this guy react to this girl?” Or “Does he act this way, or does he go that way?” Or “Does she give up now, or is there something that keeps her going?”

    That sort of thing. Strong, deep characters always seem the most entertaining to me.

    • Laura

      Your approach to creating characters sounds really good! I usually have a plot in mind and then try and fit the characters in, so it would be interesting to try it your way and start out with a character and put them in different situations. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Eduardo Suastegui

    I have a different approach. I don’t create characters. I meet them. BTW, I’m a pantser, but I’ve met my characters long before I write the first sentence.

  5. Julia Pike

    I did an online course about writing story book for children. They recommended planning out each character. Thinking about how they have low self confidence or are desperate to be treated like an adult; how they fiddle with their hair when nervous or chew on their lip when thinking, has really helped me develop my characters and think more carefully about how they may respond in a certain situation.
    I have a sheet for the main characters with their appearance, likes, dislikes, position in family, traits. I’m not so meticulous with the surrounding extras.

    • Laura

      That sounds like a really good system, and I might try that myself for my main characters. Thanks for commenting!

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