Character creation has always been incredibly fascinating, how and why certain characters are who they are, what their purpose is, where have they come from/going to. Storylines, plots, subplots, settings etc are necessary but without characters to move through and experience a world of make-believe, that story can seem lifeless.
I remember a time when I was young, at my cousins house, in bed and supposed to be asleep. I was making my way through a bunch of cartoon annuals, Whizzer & Chips, Beezer, Beano. I don’t recall too many of the actual stories but the characters were amazing, and it wasn’t just due to the imagery either. The cartoonists could have easily created a whole other set of work without cartoons. Short novels would have been just as vivid and exciting with amazing characters.
In my late teens I had a habit of creating characters just for fun. Using 1 piece of A4 I would cram every inch of the page with as much information as I could, from age/sex/name to their likes/dislikes/nicknames/education/habits/sayings/dress sense/music preference and so on. I still have that character folder sat on my shelf, stuffed with strange characters.
I’m fascinated by every aspect of character creation, and yet I still have that itchy feeling when breathing life into a new one. Have I described their appearance enough? Will they come across to the reader how I intend? Are they too much like the character I created in the previous chapter? Like I’ve said before, I don’t claim to know it all or be a specialist, but what I do know I like to share.
Why do some characters stand out?
Think of a book you’ve read and a character that stands out clear in your mind. If you still have that book go and find that first introduction to that character. See what it was exactly that made it so memorable, there may have been a unique hook right from the start. It may only have been a few words or short description, but it was enough to lodge an image in your mind. For me characters are already in existence, I’m sure there was a sculptor (Michelangelo maybe) who said the statue was always in the block of stone, he just had to chip away until it was visible. I like that concept. The characters I create feel like they exist, I just have to scribble away until I reveal what I want.
My character creation method flows differently depending on how a story unfolds or how involved a character is within that story. There is a lot to be said for the name of the character, take James Bond for example, an iconic name, and if you care to Google it you will find a reason why Fleming chose that name. Whilst a name is important, I don’t worry too much about it as the journey and experience that character has is far more important.
Description can be tricky.
Sometimes I prefer to give a quick reference to a few facial/body features, maybe hint at a habit they may have or personality trait. This doesn’t mean there needs to be pages of description. The reader doesn’t always need to know every last detail, especially when you have the rest of the story to fill in the blanks. Description can be enhanced through actions and dialogue, how the character reacts to situations and why they act that way. How they speak and interact with others can show the reader more than just a plain description. Think about sitting on a bus, watching 2 people.
You can examine every inch of them (just make sure they don’t catch you staring at them continuously, some people don’t like that!) and yet you will only know what they look or move like. Imagine that they start talking to one another, you will learn more and more about who they are from that dialogue, expressions, body language and so on. So you’re characters can be moulded through many different means.
There is an art to drip-feeding the reader with information that entices the reader to keep turning the page. I’m not saying don’t go full-out with a huge description, if that’s what you feel is right then go for it. Just remember that overloading on description can become boring and you risk losing the focus of the reader who is itching to move on with the point.
Character sheet: Keep a track of appearances.
Once you have some description on paper, make a note of it. Clean piece of paper – few notes about their appearance: Fred – grey/blond curly hair, lopsided smile, blue eyes, finger missing, smartly dressed, Scottish accent. Keep it simple to start with, that way you have room to build on that character sheet later on as you fill in the blanks. Like keeping a track of time lines for your plot, it can help when adding more details on your character at a later date, a quick glance and you’ll see Fred is 5ft 6inches, much shorter than his brother Lucas, (separate sheet for Lucas) who is 6ft 4inches.
Character sheet: Personality is important.
Using the same approach make a start on the personality, note down the things you have already just mentioned and then add some more: Fred – 38, married and loving it, hates his work and his boss even though he is sleeping with her, gets paranoid around car doors because that’s how he lost his finger. You stated that Fred had a finger missing in your initial description, but didn’t say why. Later on someone could ask Fred how he lost his finger, and because you spent some time jotting down a few ideas you know how to answer that question.
As an exercise grab yourself a sheet of paper.
Scroll up the screen and have a look at the picture. If you’re into video games you might recognise the characters. It’s not important if you do or don’t. Pick out a few and write a Character Sheet for each one and see how much detail you come up with, you might be surprised once you get into the flow. It’s something I like to do alongside doodling, gets the creative juices flowing. You may find that as you sketch out a character sheet a storyline starts to form, or the character you create now is the one you’ve been trying to pin down for a while.