How To Create Great Characters
How To Create Great Characters
The question of how to create great characters is one of the most frequent questions I hear: from writers I’m coaching, during panel discussions, in workshops I facilitate — even when I’m having a conversation with someone who isn’t a writer, this question pops up.
Create Great Characters with Layers
People are extremely complex creatures, and fictitious people in your stories need to be complex too, if you want them to be realistic and compelling. So that means your characters can’t be cardboard cutout characters: they need to be as real and complex as living, breathing humans.
This can be achieved by using layers to build your characters. By the time you’re done with the character bio, you should know the character so well, you could play them using method acting if you had to.
The Character Pyramid
This is a useful framework when building characters, as each level shines light on the next, more complex layer of your character’s psyche.
Level 1 = The Basics
This includes a character’s physical appearance, age, birthplace, place of residence, occupation, how they walk and talk and other basic information. Think of it as the info you’d be able to glean from a stranger if you chatted with them for about 15 minutes.
Level 2 = Personality
This is where we go a little deeper into what makes your character tick. Here, you’ll figure out and list their personality traits. Do they like animals? How about children? Are they generous? Dishonest? Manipulative? Principled? When compiling this part of the character bio, look for balance. Like real people, heroes are flawed, villains have some positive traits, and no-one is completely without negative traits or redeeming qualities.
Level 3 = Quirks, Backstory, And Other Odds And Ends
This is where it gets exciting. This layer is where you list your character’s quirks and backstory: the things that make them unique, complex, and compelling. For example, you have a character who refuses to eat cereal with milk, but eats it with fruit juice instead. And the backstory for that?
As a child, your character witnessed ugly fights between their parents, and one of these fights involved a bottle of milk being hurled across the kitchen. Glass shards were everywhere, and your character accidentally stepped on them, making the spilled milk turn red as the character’s parents kept yelling, unaware that their child was bleeding all over the kitchen floor. As a result, your character can’t stand the sight of milk, let alone the taste, and eats their cereal with fruit juice instead of milk, even though it tastes peculiar.
Level 4 = Biggest Fear, Greatest Hope, Heart’s Desire
This is the inner sanctum of your character’s psyche. Here, you’ll find the god mode cheat code for your character, i.e. what really makes them tick. It’s much easier to figure your character’s motivation in the plot once you’ve figured out and completed this layer of your character.
Biggest fear. Don’t include things like phobias or general fears here. This is the core fear of the character; the other side of coin for their heart’s desire. Deep, overarching fears can include things like “being alone forever”, “not being seen for who I really am”, or “never finding out what my place in the world is”.
Greatest hope. Your character’s greatest hope is the best possible outcome or situation — it can be a state of mind, a large goal, or it can be things like “I want to find my long-lost brother”, or “I want to start a new life in New York”. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the opposite of their biggest fear, but it can often turn out to be a tangible manifestation of the opposite of their biggest fear.
Heart’s desire. A character’s heart’s desire is what they fiercely want, above anything else, to the extent that they would possibly kill to obtain this. That’s how much they want it. The heart’s desire is usually the facet of a character that takes the longest time/ most amount of effort to figure out, and you may need to do some character exercises before you find your character’s true heart’s desire. Once you’ve figured out their heart’s desire, their motivation and goals in the plot will make a lot more sense — or you might even want to tweak them.
One big clue is the tangible things that your character wants. Is it money? Maybe their heart’s desire is to feel secure … or is it to never feel vulnerable again, like Scarlett O’Hara in that memorable scene? Is your character clingy or emotionally needy? What do they seek from other people? Approval? Affection? Maybe their heart’s desire is to feel like they truly belong — whether it’s with a community, a person, or a group of people.
Clues to a character’s heart’s desire can also be gleaned by looking at their fears. If a loss of status and material wealth is one of their biggest fears, what does that tell you about them? Like real people, characters have varying levels of self-awareness, so it’s entirely possible (if not probable) that your character isn’t aware of their heart’s desire.
Now that you’re acquainted with the different layers of character creation, you can take a stab at building a character bio.
Refining Your Character
You’ve built your character. Congratulations! Now, it’s time to refine and develop them further. Here are three exercises you can use to get to know your character even better.
#1: Three Dead People
Pick three people, preferably deceased, for your character to have a conversation with. It can be a family member, a lover, a historical figure they admire, or someone they loathe/ fear. The prompt for the conversation is this:
Your character is doing some household chores when [insert dead person] turns up in their kitchen. Write the conversation between your character and the unexpected visitor, ending in the following line: “Well, you certainly took your time with that.” This line can be given to either the deceased person or your character.
Scenario: Your character is trapped in a locked room with no windows, with the person they hate most. There is only one way out (the locked door). There is also a threat waiting for them outside the room (nature of the threat is up to you: zombie sheep, rogue accountants, rampaging bears … as long as it works for the exercise). Your goal for the exercise is to write a conversation between them, screenplay-style, where at least one character ends up escaping from the room alive.
#3: The Hot Seat
This is an acting exercise that I modified for fiction workshops. It’s not only very useful, it’s tons of fun. You’ll need a partner for this exercise, preferably one who does not already have any knowledge of your character.
Speaking as your character, enter the “hot seat”. Once you’re in the seat, your partner will ask you a series of rapid-fire questions for at least 2 minutes. Their goal is to guess who the character is, and your goal is to answer all the questions, as your character, without pausing for more than 5 seconds before answering. If you’re in a writing group, you can even have everyone take a turn in the hot seat with characters they’re working on.
The Next Step
What happens after you have an arsenal of compelling, complex characters? You’re not going to let them sit in your notebook forever, of course. Well, you could, but that would be a shame.
That’s right, the next step is a plot plan! Don’t panic: we’ve got some handy plot plan cheat sheets for you, starting with this one. Happy planning!