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Character Creation Process?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Creed, Jul 13, 2016.

  1. Creed

    Creed Sage

    It's right in the title: How do you go about making a new character? What's your process?

    This kind of goes along with the discussion on Motivation and Goal, as well as the McGoo/scene structure thread.

    My workplace just had a 10-minute power outage (does everyone have their AC on???) so I decided to throw together a new character, just for fun and practice. I have a list that changes every once in a while that includes the following:

    Defining Characteristic(s): physical, etc.
    Flaws: I just found a great resource here with hundreds of flaws to choose from!
    Speech Patterns: may take a bit of time with the character first, may be as simple as "high" or "low"
    Origin Story: always a rough draft and subject to change
    Anchor them to a place (or not, equally valid)
    Importance to Main Character/Side Character
    Want: the immediate motivation, often short-sighted or fueled by self interest...
    Need: what would give them fulfillment. How does it relate/conflict with the want?
    Basic arc: how do the want/need interact with the plot? Do they choose the want (tragedy) or the need (triumph)?

    I'll post what I came up with below.
    Also, many of my characters were made before I put together this list, so now I occasionally put one of them through it to flesh them out.
    Carolyn and Demesnedenoir like this.
  2. Creed

    Creed Sage

    Here she is...

    Name: Dirwath? Dirwaeth? (I usually give names more time (though that's not the name she's always had))
    • Human, Female
    • Carries a spear
    • Access to Zhyr (Element of water)
    • Body is covered with tattoos, and in her spare time she adds more onto herself in an attempt to write her story on her skin
    • She uses Zhyr to ink herself
    • Cruel, unforgiving, and stubborn
    • Incapable of realizing when a fight is unwinnable
    • Tries to maintain internal balance, devout to Sea and Sky
    • Origin: taken in by a Nameless clan as a child, she remembers almost nothing of who she was before. Her clan died largely of disease during the Ascension of God Kings, and she was thrown out. One of her clan members followed her and they fled to Jenedon, where they work as ship guards
    • Want: to remember her past, and her name, and to reclaim who she was (not so much revenge)
    • Need: to let go of the past and all the wrong done to her
    • Arc/Plot: Encounters the Namagae/hive mind...

    I'm already considering large changes, like what kind of magic she can access, which will inform her background. I'm also maybe on the trail of who she was before she was taken in by the clan. And as luck would have it she's fitting in with a cool idea I had for a short-story/novella in my Universe (the thing with the Namagae/water folk).

    So, how do the other Scribes do it?
  3. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I used to do this sort of thing, but no more. But I don't build stories by looking at characters, I create characters (to a large degree) by what the story needs and I pretzel them into shapes and they lead in new directions, but the basis is the story.

    I just do. I might jot down what a minor character looks like for easy reference. The majors... they're totally in my head, I don't bother writing about them unless it's in the book itself. I think I have a few "character sketches" in Scrivener but they're basically copy-paste of descriptions in the book. Now for cultures, I do some sweeping concepts and basic guidelines so I know what a new character is going to fall into for a basis.

    With characters for instance, in the book out to the editor now, this is a boiled down version of how I think, only it makes more sense, heh heh: The story is about a people/culture who will be driven from their island home, and forced into a several thousand mile mass migration. Who's MC POV for this? Someone who ends up in a leadership position. The culture is (loosely) patriarchal clan structure of a sort with heavy religious influence... but the Antag is a religious figure, so... male, Clan, not a leader yet... so, third nephew of the clan chieftain, gives lots of room for arcing into leadership while also allowing him the freedom to travel without chieftain responsibility... plus, lots of people die above him to become the leader. Tragedy, that's good.

    Now I need a tragic hero, a religious figure, but young... love interest with the MC? Yes, good... female, but also an outcast amongst the holy, she doesn't get magic from the Gods, it's inborn, heresy, burn at the stake sort of offense, but she hides the truth, good... etc etc etc.

    And it blows up from there as the characters point to more plot detail. He needs to look more like his dead mother than father, etc etc etc.
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2016
    Creed and Heliotrope like this.
  4. Creed

    Creed Sage

    Interesting process Demesnedenoir! I do something similar when I'm thinking about a novella/short story length project and/or when I'm mulling over the backstory, want, need, and character arc. The four together are how I really try to write a character with subtext in mind, how I try to dig deep into their psychology.

    Do you ponder their backstories before going into the writing, or let it come as you progress? Or maybe both (which is what I mostly do)?
  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Backstory for the MC's is hammered into shape well before writing the character. Going back to the MC above:

    Once I know what he is, clan-blood well away from being chieftain and a warrior... I start thinking about their past to see what connects to the story. One basis for the story is Church vs Clan, so, his father as brother to the Chieftain is Clan, so hey! his mom was a religious woman, but she's dead... a religious woman but murdered by the Church, how? In childbirth, killing the newborn daughter and the mother without suspicion... So, our MC was raised religious-clan until the age of 7 when his mother dies, then under full clan influence, but he retains his mother's faith... but still, why kill the mother?

    Background: the Pantheon of Sôl "breaks bones" with a hot needle, causing cracks to read the future as spoken by the Gods.

    SO: An augur interprets a bone to say that the child of Peneluplê that most resembles her will bring ruin to the Church, so the augur kills her and the child... this is why the MC must look like his mother rather than father, he is the one prophesied. So to speak. He is the slender blond amongst black haired conan's, and he has faith in the Gods which his kin don't share. This will make him more insecure. His brothers are boisterous, they get the girls... he's the wall flower. etc.

    But, what does a young boy of faith want more than anything? to bring his father and Clan together with the Church. That's his first goal when sets out at the start of the story. And boy howdy does that go wrong, LOL.

    That's how my thinking goes into backstory, naturally things can change, but mostly not. By this point, the majors are pretty set.
  6. I divide my characters into three tiers:

    Tier 1: The traditional MCs almost always have a POV. These are the ones that are the focus of the story. They have the greatest depth and background to them. They take the most time to write about. I often focus on some of their basic traits (honesty, competence, etc) and give them certain worldviews that will be challenged in the story to come.

    Tier 2: These are secondary characters. They may have a POV but those chapters are rare. These aren't the focus of the story but are important to either the characters or to some other portion, like the B plot. They get a lesser treatment of what I do for the Tier 1 Characters.

    Tier 3: This is the most numerous group. This is every other character. These are the spear holders, the one line speakers, and the crowd. These get very little building at all.

    That is how I structure my characters, but I often try to "discovery write" my characters while plotting my...plots.
    Creed likes this.
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Like Demesnedenoir, I don't do characters sketches. I have in the past, but the real character in the story too often diverges from the sketch.

    For me, it's a dialectic between character and plot. The MC for my WIP is a spoiled aristocrat. That was about all I knew about it. An Alcibiades type, if you happen to know your Greek history (but it's not important here). So I had a kind of archetype in mind. I arbitrarily decided he hated the army and that he would wind up being the commander of a Roman legion.

    To give that some depth, I decided to make his father a famous general. That almost instantly gave backstory--the son can never measure up to the father, so he rejects everything to do with his father. The relationship is worsened when his father dies when the son is about thirteen. Now the son cannot even rebel; the father is forever unassailable. So when the son is politically maneuvered into taking command of a frontier legion, he's just about the worst general you could want. And that's when the invasion happens.

    The plot needed an internal threat as well as the external threat (the invasion). That's what drove the development of the backstory. But I could not have developed the right backstory until I knew what the story needed. Sure I could (and did) develop a backstory for the MC without that, but it felt abstract, remote, forced.

    What happens is, somewhere around the first draft or partway into the second, I do construct a character sketch. This is based not on what I thought up, but on what I actually wrote. I make this document, complete with hair color, age and all that sort of thing, because on a later edit I need to check for consistency--not only in physical details but in the details of the backstory, favorite phrases, and even stuff like whether the character has an accent or other dialog tic. Because, in the course of the early drafts, stuff like that slides around like a calf on ice.

    Anyway, that's my process. Patented by Rube Goldberg, I believe.
    Creed likes this.
  8. troynos

    troynos Minstrel


    There is no set in stone process. I tend to keep all characters basic, creating what the story requires to start, and letting them and the story flesh them out.
  9. Creed

    Creed Sage

    To be expected, but I also find the opposite to be true, where new characters may diverge from what you want them to be, or what you've already formed them as. Early on, of course, this isn't a huge issue.

    The basic sketch above is fairly broad and doesn't focus in on a lot of specifics. Just something to start the thinking process: What are they like? What's framing their thought processes? How do I begin to tie that in with the story, or the other way around?

    I've never tried to keep track of appearances, however. That's one of the things I can keep in my head without fear of forgetting.
  10. Helen

    Helen Inkling

    Well, I start with a lesson.

    What's the lesson the character has to learn, who are they before they learn it and who are they after it?
  11. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    I just stick with the kinds of characters I like to read about, or watch on TV and in Movies. They all get their own personality tweaks and goals in the story of course.

    It all comes down to what happens to them and how they react. Hopefully the reactions are understandable based on what the readers know about them.
  12. adalenia

    adalenia Dreamer

    I don't really have a documented system for creating characters.

    I just... create them. Granted, *some* characters are created to fill a specific role in the story, but those tend to be exceptions.
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2016
  13. FatCat

    FatCat Maester

    Am I the only one here who thinks a 10 minute character is flawed in not only reception but conception. You're character failed because they were uninteresting.
    Miskatonic likes this.
  14. Creed

    Creed Sage

    You're going to have to explain this one to me. As in a character that takes 10 minutes to produce? I think the very idea of a "10 minute character" is unlikely. Indeed, I think it's probably impossible (unless you're talking about a side character that gets three pages in a novel-length work).

    Characters are like essays. You can start with an outline: how the arguments logically flow from point A to B to a conclusion. You need to do research, and at the same time, you need to give the subject thought. That process doesn't stop when you begin writing, just as it doesn't stop when you start a novel. If you skip the research, you're not gonna be starting with much, but there's nothing stopping you from picking up some info along the way.

    Essay comes from the French essayer, meaning to try. To express an idea in words, not to express the argument. And because of that it is an organic process, even if you begin with a synthetic frame. A character is the same alchemy of ideas, research, and structure. Essays change as you write them. Characters do too.

    In short, I believe that if you spend 10 minutes creating a character and 10 hours writing with them, they're a lot more than a 10 minute character. That doesn't include revision for consistency.

    (Sticking with the essay analogy, questions about backstory, wants, needs and arcs are not questions that are designed to be answered in 10 minutes. They're the research questions, points from which new discoveries are to be made.)
  15. FatCat

    FatCat Maester

    Starting a "10 minute character" imposes a 10 minute plot. Characters' motivations, triumphs, hardships and arch are the only reason to tell a story in my opinion. I think the idea that you can just whip up a character from a D&D sheet is harmful because the story is the character.
    Miskatonic likes this.
  16. Creed

    Creed Sage

    You haven't contested my position, which means we're relatively on the same page. In fact, your mention of D&D character sheets only reinforces it, because in the role-playing game the sheet becomes secondary to the way the character/player interacts with the world. While the game is played, the character is changing, like an essay, and like a real organism. Stats are involved, but they're not part of the process when it comes to writing a character in prose.

    Exactly what my list encourages with the "research questions," as I analogized them. Want? Need? Arc? Relationships? Backgrounds? In short, their psychology, and how that is fit within a story. It's about potential, not stats and numbers.

    So FatCat, how do you create a new character?
  17. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I know I've already spoken on this, but why should that restrain me? :)

    I just created a character today that is pretty typical of the haphazard way I do this. Here I'm talking about third-tier characters, not major ones.

    I'm in the late stages of the book. My heroes are in a besieged city, with one character, Marcus, in de facto command, so he's up on the city walls a lot. I could have him converse with other main characters, but I sort of need them off doing other things.

    So there's Marcus, walking the city walls (it's Constantinople, so they are _big_ walls) and I need him to talk to someone. Arrian Silvianus.

    First of all, I have a list of Roman names in a document, so I can grab one quickly at need. Initially, he was just [A] because I did not want to leave the writing to look up a name. Did that on a second draft. Anyway, there's Arrian. They talk. I fill in a little bit about him, that he's a survivor of a major defeat from another legion. That he's Macedonian. Maybe I picked a hair color, I don't really remember. The point is, it was character creation on the fly because to jump out of the writing at that point would have been counter-productive.

    Next day of the siege, Marcus needs someone to talk to. There's active fighting now. Here comes Thraso, someone from his own legion, Fourth Cohort, but who has not been on stage before. I make a small point of Marcus not remembering who else from the Fourth Cohort survived the battle. This bothers him. As I'm writing this, I vaguely remember that some time earlier I'd written a scene with Marcus talking to someone whose name was different.

    On an editing pass, I try to reconcile the two. Maybe I get rid of Arrian and let Thraso be there on both days. Or the other way round. Or let them both be different, or even kill Arrian. That's all still unresolved.

    I recount all this to make the point that character sheets or even just guidelines do not seem to me to be of much help. I need to be *in* the story as these people come on stage. It turns out, I do this even with major characters, but the process of creation and reconciliation is much more complex and clumsy. Or, if you prefer, organic and genuine. It does mean I need a really good continuity editor, but I just feel that the relationship between character and story is so intimate, it is impossible for me to disentangle the two.
  18. Beanie_Zed

    Beanie_Zed Dreamer

    Jumping in here--it's fascinating to see everyone's style.

    I'm mostly a pantser when I write, so my characters tend to come about organically as well. Main characters tend to live in my head for a while until I get to the point where I have to write them. However, once I start I will usually write out a quick outline (a modded version of the template in Scrivener) to keep important details straight.

    For example, in my WIP, one MC has a few aliases, so I needed to put together a quick biography on her early life to keep all her names straight. I tend to stick to high-level details (names, any important relationships, motivations/major conflicts, a night out a karaoke) and leave most outlines unfinished--unless I'm really stuck on something, then I break out the in-depth-everything-you-need-to-know chart and get into the character's head.

    For supporting characters, I tend to do the same thing skip.knox does (and I feel so much better about life knowing that I'm not the only one haphazardly creating a cast of thousands). Although, now that I think of it, I've gotten several major POV characters this way, too.
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  19. Letharg

    Letharg Troubadour

    For me, writing a compelling and life like character is all about knowing their background. I don't sketch out their personality so much as I figure out what's happened to them before the events started. I like my characters to come fully formed, with an interesting background and events that has happened to them before the story which I can draw on to justify their actions.

    For instance: If I realize I want a grumpy sour old wizard as a PoV I begin there and start figuring out why he is grumpy and sour. What events lead him down this path. What betrayals made him distrust other human beings. Etc.

    I can't write unless I know the background. I need it to figure out the voice of that character and even the voice of the story. Not long ago I figured out that each time a story has failed for me it's because I did not know the characters involved in advance. For me, the characters are much more important to have figured out then the story, I can wing the story but the voice of the piece always become stale if I don't know the persons I'm writing about.
    Creed likes this.
  20. As i've probably explained before elsewhere, my method of writing is highly organic. I think of a story as an ecosystem, and the characters as the creatures that inhabit it.

    I think it would be most helpful to say that i don't actually "go about making a new character" by any kind of "process." Not that it isn't a process, it's just not that i have a single "method" for doing so with steps and everything. I used to use checklists and information sheets and things like that, but i don't bother with those anymore. Knowing that my character has a short temper or has blue eyes is information. And it's useful information, but it doesn't help me understand who exactly my character is. What their inmost self is like.

    So...I don't really create them, i kind of let them grow in my mind. They might start out as an image. I might get this vision of a girl with one yellow eye and one green eye holding an antique-looking lantern with a faithful wolf at her side and wonder, who is she? what's up with her eyes? I think she's looking for something--what? (By the way, i am still trying to figure out who she is.) I might be writing crap and my narrator says something that intrigues me, making me want to know more. (The narrator of a short story i wrote for fun a few months ago is going to get their own book pretty soon.)

    In an already established story, if i need a character to fill a role, I come up with a picture or idea in my mind. I might name them. Then I more or less wait. Once I've made the character, they often start to take on shape on their own. If a character needs help becoming real, I give them a quirk or weird trait.

    So, basically i meditate on them. I pay attention to how their voice might sound, what they might wear, what kinds of things they might say. Usually, i have to write them for quite a while before they really become solid, break them in, so to speak.

    Now, with characters that are central to the story, i need to go deeper. I need to seriously plumb their depths and find out who and what they are at their core. There are several ways i do this. Sometimes i talk to them. Seriously, i write out a dialogue between myself and the character, trying to find out who they are. I write about their thoughts. I write about their insecurities and fears. I find out what they think about when they're bored. What they love the most. Sometimes they don't seem to open up very easily, and those can take time.

    What i never do is try to "make " a character anything. I once tried to change my MC's personality to make the story work better. It didn't work. I had to change her back.
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