This week I bounced between the distractions of setting up novel promotions and editing a middle-grade fantasy. I resolved a few sticking points for my current manuscript, but instead of talking about those I want to squee over character creation.
Whether it’s rolling a character in Dungeons & Dragons, or even naming a character for a video game, character creation is as fun as magical fireworks. When creating a character I’ll look over a list of basic personality attributes as well as checking my Note Vault, where I’ve compiled curious character traits over the years.
In novel writing, you want your characters to be unusual, unexpected, dramatic, and full of consequence. Except for the protagonist, who should instead be sympathetic, consistent, and sympathetic again.
If you’d prefer your protagonists to be dramatic and all those other things, then I sympathize with you. I want the same eccentricities, and that’s how I wrote my Lady of Gems series, with a heroine with an invisible illness. However, I likely would’ve had more success and a greater readership if I focused on making the protagonist less unique and more relatable, closer to the average reader. Ah, well, I regret nothing!
I do love antiheroes, but they’re always more of a gamble and likely to be less popular. Discussing them deserves a post unto itself, and I’m eager to dive right in to showing you my character-primer worksheet. Think of it of a bioluminescent vat where you design a person for your mad schemes. Maniacal laughter isn’t strictly necessary but much recommended.
Big Five: These are the dominant personality traits or other details integral to the character. I’m nervous to share my current picks for my protagonist because they’re probably not right yet, but here we go: 1) Determined, 2) Craftswoman: runecarving, 3) Knowledgeable: Goatherd, 4) Sharp wit, and 5) …. Yeah, I haven’t picked her last trait. For instance, when writing similes from her perspective, I’ll be drawing on her knowledge of goats or carving stone because that’s where her experience lies. A good simile reveals a character’s past.
Motives: Characters come alive when they want something. Better yet when they want multiple things that conflict with each other. I prefer characters to have intrinsic conflict, as well as tensions between themselves, the environment, and other characters.
Arc: At least the protagonist should change over the story, and that change should directly bring about the ultimate victory.
Past: I’ve found that rather then charting out every day in a character’s history, it’s better to focus on a few important moments. These are life-changing events, evocative, and what the character agonizes over, or savors as a treasured memory.
Beliefs: The next three sections allow you to flesh out how the character views the world as well as her priorities. I created an “Ambivalent about” section as a reminder that characters with conflicting opinions about a single thing (they like some parts of it but not others) tend to be more realistic and believable.
Secret: I’ve found that giving a character a secret, something that they’re ashamed about or can’t tell, adds a new dimension of interest.
Strength / Weakness: Protagonists should be generally efficacious, but they’re most believable if their expertise is in one field. For instance, if an ace swordsman is also brilliant and charismatic (then you probably have a bestseller but) I have a harder time relating. I’d prefer for a character to have limited powers and some weaknesses.
Physical appearance: The keystone is what other characters will know her by. Minor characters will only be described by their keystone trait, but more on them later.
Smell / Sound: In one story I describe an embalmer smelling of preservative salts with a trace of rot, and I love how it added dimension to the encounter. The Sound element may be speech accent or the tread of their walk.
Not all of these will be filled out for every character, but it’s important to consider them. For minor, named characters I have another framework.
These don’t need as much work. Now, say a random guard has to run up to the protagonist to deliver a line. Even if the character never gets a name, she should have an angle, a Motive. Giving a character a motive is the quickest way to bring her to life. Even if the guard’s motive is only to hurry back home because her shift is ending, that will jade her line and add a note of realism.
The most important thing I’ll discuss today is creating sympathy for the protagonist. Nothing matters until the reader cares. The most solid two methods are lavishing the heroine with undeserved hardship, and, second, having her still help others. Put her in danger, make her selfless, relatable, with a painful element in her past, and she’s brave, doing what we aspire to. She admits her flaws and seeks forgiveness for her mistakes. We see humanity reflected in her imperfections. Her emotions mirror the reader’s: she reacts to situations viscerally in the same way they do. The protagonist might start out lonely, or she’s liked by likeable people. She’s definitely disliked by dislikeable people. She has power, something the reader can envy. She has humor. Most importantly, she doesn’t whine or complain.
Lastly, a word on books with many characters: tedious. I struggle with combining characters, or cutting them, but it does have to be done. I won’t want to start my next book until I’ve condensed the character count. I tend to think that more than seven major characters is probably too many.
That’s all for this week. Let me know if you have any character-generation tips to share, or if you have a leaping-goat awesome idea for the protagonist’s last trait.