The characters in your piece are the vehicle of the story, they drive action, carry the plot(s) and give readers / listeners / viewers (tick as appropriate) an anchor to become invested in the narrative that you are weaving. Characters are not disposable throw away things (except when they are), they are there to fill out the world that you create. They need to be real people that have feelings and respond to stimuli.
Here are some tips that I use when constructing a character (by the way all of these can be summed up under the umbrella term character arc but I feel a deeper dive is warranted).
Tip 1: What’s in a name?
This is one of the first pitfalls that I inevitably come to. I have spent a lot of time (well, wasted is a better description) trying to create a character name before even writing a single word. Try to avoid this one, it is one of those little annoyances that will stop you putting pen to paper. Over time the name might come, for now put in a place holder. They can be character X or just pick a Christian name (just remember you can, in Word, hit CTRL F and replace that name later without scouring every page). Just ensure that you don’t give up because you have not immediately thought of a name.
A trick I have used so my last names do not sound convoluted is to give last names the names of streets around where I used to live. This helps make them random and realistic. Obviously in the UK this will not always work as we have roads called Cock Lane, Crotch Crescent and Slutshole Lane (honestly, these are real places.) so discretion is often advised.
Tip 2: The Character Arc
I am not advocating that you reveal every intricate detail about someone that is passing your main character in the street; but you need to consider certain intrinsic behaviours and reactions when you write them into a scene. You need to decide on their motivation (even if only you know it!) Think about this scenario:
Person A is serving at the till (or checkout depending on location) and your main character buys something. Perhaps the person is rude, when writing this imagine why this might be the case. Have they just had a shitty customer or perhaps they have had bad news? Are they just a bit of a twat? Whatever it is you need to consider that before writing in their dialogue or actions.
Just as a bonus tip, think how that character might then move forward, what might they link to? In the world that you create might (even that background character) have some plot point you might use in a later piece in your writing, even another project.
I did not know it at the time but the protagonist in Into the Breach does briefly appear in my main work in progress.
Tip 3: Change Over Time (developing character arc)
At the heart of any story is the change over time. What is it about the character that has grown that is different to when we first encounter them? This applies to all your main characters. Do not forget about the antagonists as well. You do not want a one-dimensional villain who just wants to take over the world or whatever it is.
When exploring your antagonist(s) what is their character flaw? Irrespective of the genre or plot what is holding them back from a particular goal? Here you must think about the human condition, the primary drivers that make us act (or lead us to inaction). This could be (please note this is not an exhaustive list):
- Naivety / innocence
Whatever the primary driver, use this as motivation for your character at the beginning of your story, put yourself in their mindset. If you are not sure about character motivation and how it can work a good fallback is Shakespeare. He wrote about the human condition. As such we can identify with characters that act according to different motives and recognise their shortcomings in ourselves.
Let’s take Macbeth’s character arc which is completely dominated by his ‘vaulting ambition’.
All those emotions and feelings are part of our shared human experience. Regardless if your character is the lowliest guttersnipe to the ruler of the entirety of a universe.
Tip 4: Rationality
This one is a little more esoteric. There must be a rationality behind why your character behaves the way that they do. I did touch upon this earlier, but here is where a little planning comes into play. What is the goal of that character in relation to the people that they encounter, to manipulate, deceive or even (in rare cases) be generally pleasant? That is what you need to figure out.
Does the character want to get something and is prepared to get it at any cost? Are they worried about their reputation? Do they need or want something that is out of reach?
I should add a little caveat here, rationality is subjective. In the mind of your character is the risk they take rational? Is the risk worth the reward? This can change dependent on context, we all know that with alcohol for example, the sense of risk and rewards shifts massively.
Tip 5: Change is a Constant
You can change your character a little part, a detail, a motivation, hell even the whole damn thing. Your characters need to evolve just like you have. (Hopefully) you have changed at least a little over the years, decided something you once thought was amazing no longer is (I still contest that wearing a double cuffed shirt, rolled fully down of course, with a tuxedo jacket and jeans is still cool). The same can be said of a character.
I know that in my own writing I have changed a character completely, the story just did not fit the way that I wanted it too and after axing my imaginary creation (hard to do but ultimately necessary). The story began to flow and make sense again.
I had fallen into the trap of making a character the story rather than a vehicle to drive it.
Characters need to inhabit your world and be believable, even if you never explain a reason to the audience. Have a little checklist at the back of your mind as to why they might behave a certain way, if they are ‘evil’, what is their goal?
Have fun with the denizens of your world, make them live in it. Just remember, you can always change the words on the page if it does not fit.
Now stop reading how to guides, pick up a pen and get writing!
All the best,