Ever read a story where all the characters seem to be the same two or three personalities over, and over, and over again? You have the pushy, semi-spoiled Hero, the liberated rather waspish Female who argues with everyone, and the slightly stupid and clueless Sidekick who gets to ask all the really obvious leading questions so the Author can explain things to the Reader. Sound familiar?
Since the art of writing good stories doesn’t live in 1950’s Comic-Book Land, with characters like Danger Dan, we are going to have to be able to make up personalities for our stories that are a little more three-dimensional and interesting enough to keep our reader’s attention for the entire week it takes them to read our book.
I know back when I started writing, I had a problem of always making the same cast of characters in each story. The main character would be a girl my exact same age, except of course she was ultra-beautiful and very cool unlike me. All the girls in the story would be pretty much me again, except focusing on slightly different personality traits. The men in the story were all teenagers as well (I was about fourteen) who were extremely vague, mysterious, super-good-looking male model types, and didn’t do much more than stand there and be nifty props for my “Me” Character. (They were so vague, of course, because I really didn’t have a clue that men are just people too, and I thought I couldn’t possibly understand how a man thinks.)
Needless to say, the characters in my first story were so boring and cardboard that I threw all of them away except two: I kept Lidas and Aleen because both of them had come straight out of a dream. Any character that I made up myself, however, ended up in the trash bin once I learned how to really make a character.
The trick is actually very simple, and easy to master. I call it the “seed-concept” method. In short, the simplest and most effective way to make a good character at the drop of a hat is to choose a seed-concept word, like “goofy” or “shifty,” and focus on this single word or phrase as the core definition of your character. It is out of this single unique phrase or word that the rest of your character, like a tree, will grow. I think of a word that ‘feels’ right for my story. If I need my main character to be stubborn, then “stubborn” becomes his keyword. From that single seed, the entire matrix of his personality, even his appearance, will be generated.
Sometimes I use up to three seed-words for a character, but usually one or two works. No more. Think of a core-word as a point of view. To have a clear three-dimensional character, you need two or three points of reference from which to view them. Any more than this, and you are going to have a muddled, confused, too-complicated mess. If you can’t boil each of your characters down to a single word or three, then your character is probably too diffuse and unfocused for their personality to come across as clear and strong in a story.
Actors use seed-concept words too, when they start to play a character, whether they do it consciously or not. They keep this core phrase in mind firmly the entire time they are playing their character, always coming back to this touchstone to keep themselves “in character.” The core concept can be anything, from “blonde bombshell” to “burned out detective.” As an author, you have to do this as well for each character you write, so that you never slip “out of character” in a scene.
Never forget your seed-concept word! Write it down as the very first word in your character description (see Keep Notes for more info on character notes) and reference it constantly. Or find a picture that reminds you of your key-word for that character, and write their name across it.
In my first stories, I often felt as if my concept of each character lost focus if I had several characters in a scene; if I wasn’t very careful, I would end up forgetting who was who, and all of them would become the same character temporarily, talking the same, thinking the same, and doing the same things. Keep track! By remembering your Keywords, you can play several characters off of one another without losing track. If “Sneaky” is talking to “Innocent,” you won’t get them mixed up.
Note: Do NOT name a character after a Keyword! Even if you look up the word in Latin or Greek! (Like naming a werewolf character “Lupine.” Come on, guys.) If you are going to use a Keyword as part of a character’s name, make sure you translate it into a language that almost none of your readers are going to know. Better yet, look up name meanings, and name your werewolf Caesar because it means “hairy.” (See How To Name A Character for more tips.)
Keep yourself organized! Give each character in your story a new line or new paragraph in a notes document. I usually have my core concept word or phrase as the very first word in their description-paragraph, followed by a more detailed description, history, and vital statistics. Write down everything as you come up with it, so that you don’t make the embarrassing newbie writer mistake of changing eyecolors, family histories, or even names halfway through the story!!
Seed-word concepts are easy to develop into full characters if you have a Plot and Culture worked out for them already. Usually in making a character, you start out with a place that the character needs to fit. They have to be part of a group with a specific goal—which is usually to defeat the Villain. So already you have some boundaries for who your character needs to be.
Plug your seed-word into that spot, and spend some time imagining. NEVER think “what if I were in this position?” or you will end up with the dreaded Me-Character!!! Always distance yourself from your characters. YOU ARE NOT YOUR CHARACTERS. Give them a life of their own, give them some breathing room. And let them be themselves! When you get the hang of this, you will be delighted to find that your characters will begin to honestly make their own decisions and even surprise you now and then! (PS: this is the key to making a real, authentic-feeling romance in a story. More about that in the Romance Engine article.)
I will repeat: as I said in the Plot article, you are NOT your Hero! You are in fact the world, the Villain, and the problem! As a writer, you are working against your Hero, and the Hero kind of has to fend for himself. Use your keyword. How would “Clever” handle being in an airplane that is about to crash? Obviously, he would use his brain and figure out something clever. He would react totally differently than “Coward” would!
Give your core-concept character some depth by thinking about how they have grown up dealing with being who they are. Most people are embarrassed about their true nature, and try as hard as they can most of their lives to be exactly the opposite. For example, I am a super-sociable outgoing extrovert who likes meeting new people. But throughout my life, I kept trying to be a disgruntled angst-ridden loner vigilante type like the Wolverene comic-book character. I got really frustrated because no matter how grungy and tough I tried to act, it just didn’t wash. I was not at all convincing. In fact, people somewhat pitied me. But when I began to be myself, people began to like and appreciate me. Your characters can go through the same confusion.
For example, your seed-word might be ‘kind’ but your character actually comes off like a Grizzly bear. They are deep-down motivated by kindness, but don’t know how to express it; or they are embarrassed about their core reality, and try to hide it by acting as if they are the exact opposite. But in the end, your character’s core-word of ‘kind’ will shine forth, and prove who they really are, and they will have to come to grips with it.
A Note on Plots: The plot is concluded when the main character(s) has either come to grips with his own reality (admitted he is his core keyword), or has overcome a weakness (another version of coming to grips with and dealing with his core concept). At that point, when he is forced to face the truth and grow up a little, your plot comes to a comfortable and natural close. This works with any story, from a Romance to a hard Sci-Fi thriller. Most of your character conflict is going to be the fact that your character is deceiving himself about something. (See The Hero Is Not Always Right.)
After you have figured out what keyword fits best in the Plot position you have to fit him into, we move on to character description. Remember, cool contact lenses and a gun does NOT make a cool character. Your character is not what he owns, no matter what the TV says. You are going to need more than one descriptive gimmick like blue hair to make a person.
Also, your characters do not all have to be super-beautiful models running around with perfect bodies!!! Sometimes it’s nice to have a good-looking person saving the day, but usually it's just tedious and annoying for us normal-looking people. Something different here would be good, like the ugly old 60 year old guy saving the day, or the pimple-faced teenager. Break up the monotony of Supermodel Heroes! Honestly, out of all the Fiction books I have read in my life, only a small handful didn’t have super-attractive Heroes, and those were usually the Classics! (Mr. Scrooge was not a centerfold.)
How do you come up with good descriptions for your characters? Everyone has a method. If you rely on your imagination, you will probably make the same blue-eyed blonde-haired people over and over and over. But I have worked out a useful little tool called a Random Roll Table, borrowed from my Role-Playing-Game days.
I make a list from 1 to 10, or 1 to 20, or 1 to 100. One table I call “Eyecolor,” another I call “Haircolor,” etc. Then I fill in each line with a color that makes sense, going through the whole spectrum... for hair, I fill in everything I can think of, from red to pitch black to pure white to dyed. For eyes, I look at pictures of models from magazines, and get things like “hazel: green with brown star inside” or “ice (super silvery pale) blue” rather than the usual ‘brown, blue, green, black.’
I have other tables for hair type (curly, straight, kinky, fine, thick, wild, etc.), hair length, beard length (for men), body type (wiry, muscular, broad, lanky, etc.), body weight (skinny, normal, chubby, etc.), age (from child to geezer), relationship status (single, dating, married, divorced, etc.) and a 100-number table for Quirks! (Snores, gambling problem, missing a pinkie finger, freckles, monobrow, ugly, attractive, etc.)
Then I go to a site like this: DICE ROLLER (you can get real dice that make more accurately random rolls from a game store), and I use the dice to come up with a random entry from each list to make my character. Sometimes when I put it all together, the description is kind of weird; if so, just change one or two items, or more, into something that fits. (Like usually if your skin color is dark brown, you won’t end up with carrot-orange hair... but be creative! Maybe they dye it.)
If you would like to play around with this method of character-making, I have included some sample roll tables for you to experiment with. Open the dice-roller page in a separate window to use it alongside this one.
More often than not, this seemingly goofy method of character-making comes up with really great stuff, I’m not kidding! I have made a lot of major characters on a random roll system like this, because it will come up with unusual or neat ideas you never thought about; and a lot of times, weird quirks like sleepwalking or having a fidget or a twitch gives you ideas for expanding your character concept... WHY do they have a twitch? What happened?
My usual method is just to make batches of random characters... a list of ten or so... and roll down the lists. Hair color for all ten... then eyes for all ten... then eye shape... whatever. When you are done and have ten random characters, read them all and a few should stick out to you as perfect for this or that spot in the story. I usually laugh when I finally read them all, because some of them really do make a person jump out in my mind! If you are doing this to make your Hero, choose the best one and there you go.
Of course there are a lot of other methods for making characters, but after this many years of writing I have boiled down all my story-making methods to the most effective plus fast plus easy possible. I don’t want to waste time or brainpower, and this random method gives me a lot more ideas than anything else I have ever tried. If you HAVE to have a character with long brown hair, fill in those parts first, and then roll the rest randomly; that will diversify your characters in a story and keep them all from looking like they were born from the same parents! (It will also mix up your racial types, which is always more fun than having a book full of Aryan blonde people and nothing else.)
A note of caution: at this point you will probably get very excited that you have so much description for this person. DO NOT overload your reader by dumping the entire super-detailed description on your reader the first time the character is introduced!!! Pay attention to what you notice about people when you first meet them. Usually you will only notice things like: eye color, hair color, whether they are attractive or not, and then anything unpleasant like a weird smell. The fact that they have amazingly long and crooked toes will certainly not be noticeable at first, so don’t include it.
However, a description like “she was very tall and a little too thin, a redhead with gorgeous dreamy blue eyes, but when she smiled at me and those ruby lips parted, I noticed her teeth were yellow and crooked” is more interesting than “she was tall with blue eyes and red hair.” Try to keep your very first description down to one, maybe two vivid, visual sentences. DO NOT drone on for ten pages about how everyone is dressed, does their hair, the expressions they are making, etc. This is really boring for readers. (The best part about reading is that we can make up those things for ourselves.) But one weird and interesting factoid just thrown into the mix in the middle of a scene or dialogue section can really make a scene pop. “She lay back on the hammock and crossed her long, skinny legs and I noticed that her toes were really long and crooked, kind of like tree roots.” Definitely will stick in your reader’s mind.
WHY your character looks the way they look should give you lots of inspiration for how they got that way. Obviously the skinny redheaded chick with the crooked teeth and root-toes didn’t grow up rich or she would have had better oral hygiene and worn good shoes! Work out as much detail for each character as you can stand. Spend time coming up with a basic history, birthplace, childhood, family tree, schooling, etc. for every single character who will be entering the story unless they are merely a passer-by in the street.
Flesh out your Hero especially. Think about him, dwell on him, think about his life. As you are going through your daily life, think about what your character would be doing in the same situations. Everyone has quirks and habits, and your Hero should too. But keep in mind that you are NOT your Hero! He might do something totally different than you would do. Let him have his way. Let him be himself. Allow your characters to live and breathe and have their own life separate from you, and they will come alive.
Daydream their life. Be them in THEIR life, rather than yourself, and dare to become other people in your mind. Trust me, this is the fun part of writing. And it won’t make you (too) weird. ;-)
Even though most of your notes will never make it into your writing, the fact that those histories exist will give your story a realistic sense of weight and proportion. Even if nobody ever finds out that your character keyworded “Sly” grew up in a super-wealthy exclusive boarding school, that little factoid will heavily influence how he acts and reacts to all the characters around him and every situation.
NEVER make a ‘perfect’ Hero. What I mean by that is this: if you make a guy with no perceivable faults, he will be not only extremely lame, but your readers will quickly lose all respect for him. Most people love Han Solo from Lucas’s Star Wars movies (the original trilogy), and hate Luke... because Han wasn’t perfect, and Luke supposedly was. Han was cool! We could identify with Han! He was a little crooked, had a few problems, but hey, in the end he was good as gold. Luke on the other hand never made a mistake, never had any shady dealings going on, never seemed to be tempted by anything at all except some rather difficult to understand temptation to join the Dark Side of the Force... we didn’t click with Luke. Very few people can.
Keep yourself trying something new all the time. Try dabbling with weird characters – old characters, crippled characters, extremely young characters, mentally unstable characters – anything to make it different. Imagination can make you into anything.