Character 101:

Creating great characters is an art unto itself, separate from storytelling. So, what are the basics? A great character is someone the reader wants to spend time with. Whether they're loved or hated, great characters intrigue and draw us in. The best writers are able to walk that line between universality and uniqueness, loading a character with both. A reader needs to understand a character and feel this is exactly what the character would do given the situation and the character's past. The reader is taken on a ride with this character, learning more about them as they go.

That's pretty general. So, what are the specifics? Whether you're a novice or an old pro, a quick primer on the general rules can't hurt.

The Name
How do you find the perfect name? Most of the time it either strikes you immediately or you change it fifty times and finally give up. Here are a couple of conventions to help out:

  • Bad guys generally have hard names to pronounce or, at least, contain hard sounds like the "g" sound.
  • Heroes usually have common names like John or Jack. The hero is supposed to be a more universal character that everyone relates to. A more common name helps accomplish this.
  • Many times the hero is referred to by his or her first name, while other male characters are referred to by their last name.
  • Female characters are usually referred to by first names. Unless, she is on the bad guy's team, then, we refer to her by her last name.
  • Don't make the characters' names too alike and avoid starting different names with the same letter.
  • Consider using nicknames for a character or two. Or, perhaps, a character uses his middle name as his name, or has made up a whole new name for himself. Mixing these up a little will add realism to naming your characters.

The Description
  • Basic rule: Keep it short. Readers like to see a character reveal herself through dialogue and action. They also like to create the image in their heads. You can definitely help them along with well-placed details, but a laundry list of physical traits and clothing choices is not recommended. In novels, adding a few lines about history or attitude are helpful and can be a lot of fun to write. But in screenplays, leave it out. If you can't see or hear it, it doesn't belong.
  • Associate objects with the character, like a ring, a haircut, or some other item that clues us into his world.
  • In your story, keep the description of your main characters separate from your other descriptions. This will set them apart from other characters and the background.

The Occupation
What your character has chosen for a career can be one of the biggest ways to add insight into the way your character thinks.
  • What's important to her? How would this affect the choice of career?
  • Would money be an issue?
  • Is he building a career or simply paying the bills?
  • What's her ultimate dream and does this job lead there?

The Dialogue
  • Try to stay away from heavy dialects. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, but, generally, they frustrate the reader.
  • Make sure every character's dialogue is differentiated from the other characters.
  • Avoid having a character state the sub-text. Some writers write a scene "on the nose" the first time, then go back and hide what's really being said behind dialogue or note it in the margins so they can keep track of what's really being said. The best dialogue says volumes without really saying what it's saying.
  • Put opposites together as much as possible, a scene with a shy person and an outgoing person can produce some interesting dialogue.

The Motivation
  • Keep it simple. Whether we like a character or not, we have to understand what motivates her, and it has to be universal enough to appeal to a lot of people. Being motivated for revenge is easy and effective. Being motivated to collect stamps is not so easy.
  • The reader has to understand the motivation of every character.
  • If your character was approached by a Fairy Godmother at the very beginning of the story and told he has one wish, what would he ask for?
  • The two greatest motivators are: 1) stopping a situation that creates or will create suffering, or 2) starting a situation that alleviates suffering. Perhaps it's represented by an object, like the world's largest diamond... or love. But, the motivation is usually to eliminate suffering.
  • Every character in a story needs a clear motivation, even the guy delivering the flowers.
  • Great characters have an inner goal and an outer goal. Each links to the other, but can be conflicting.

The Emotions
  • Design situations that will bring out every emotion in the hero. We want to see her laugh, cry, suffer, and finally be happy. The best situation to bring out character emotions is to threaten or destroy something or someone she cares about.
  • We need to know how each character feels about the other characters. How this comes out is up to the author, but it must be made clear if someone hates someone else and why.
  • A great technique is to use private moments, when the character is alone, to reveal how she really feels about someone or something.
  • Everything that happens to a character affects his inner emotions--how he feels about himself, or others (like the bad guy), or the situation itself (upset at life).
  • Determine your character's dominant emotion. Does she represent happiness in the face of misery, or, maybe, utter hatred. It's important to set a dominant emotion.

The Character Arc
  • Determine the direction of your character's arc. Is the character getting more healthy or less healthy.
  • Convention: A hero changes and that change helps him attain the goal. Villains generally don't change and because she doesn't change, she loses the goal.
  • A great arc can be when a character learns to care about someone or something other than themselves.

The Backstory
  • Create a character bio. It doesn't have to be long, but it's invaluable. Character Writer helps you develop one and will keep countless details straight and consistent throughout the writing process.
  • Understand where your character is coming from, physically as well as emotionally. A person is the sum of her experiences. What has this character experienced in the past that will affect how she acts in your story.
  • Give every character a life away from the story, so they're not just there for the story. Perhaps he has a hobby or other interest, like writing.

The Character Flaw
  • A simple way to determine a character flaw is to look at the story and figure out a belief your character holds that makes attaining the goal impossible. Perhaps, he refuses to forgive someone, or is scared to death of snakes. During the story, he learns to overcome that flaw.
  • The character sees the flaw as a strength at first, but eventually discovers why it's a weakness and that it's in the way of achieving the goal.

The Character Theme
The story has a theme, so do great characters.
  • Determine a character's theme in one word -- smart, funny, troubled, angry, determined -- and stick with it.