Do you find it hard to know where to start when developing a character? People are deep, there's usually a lot going on. How do you map out inner motivations for your character and how do you make them compelling? This article contains some tips from well-known writers such as Patrick Rothfuss, Amber Benson and John Scalzi.
This article draws from a video discussion about character that you can see here here.
Be a Character Pirate
What does "Character Pirate" mean? It means always be on the look out for characters you like; in books, games, tv shows etc. Everyone has favorite characters from fiction but a character pirate goes one step futher - they ask "Why?".
"Why do you like the characters you do? What makes them cool?". As a character pirate you plumb the depths of characters to discover the traits that make them compelling. Keep a list of the traits you find.
Cast your net more broadly by asking friends about their favorite characters, then ask why, why do they like those characters so much? Compare these reasons with your own. If you think the points are well-made; add them to your list.
Your list of cool character traits does two things:
- Let's you identify commonalities and discover core rules about good characters.
- Acts as a list of ingredients you can use when coming up with your own characters.
Everyone has their favorite characters; Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Hannibal Lecter, Elizabeth Bennet etc. but why are they so beloveded?
In the follow section writers tease apart the their favorite characters and share what makes them interesting.
Jubal Harshaw from Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. In the novel he is described as:
"Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B., M.D., Sc.D., bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, neo-pessimist philosopher, devout agnostic, professional clown, amateur subversive, and parasite by choice."
The traits John Scalzi picks out are:
- He's funny
- Doesn't get along with everyone
- He has his own point of view
Flectch is the protagnist of a series of mystery novels by Gregory Mcdonald. Fletch is the nickname of I. M. Fletcher, a journalist and ex-marine who goes undercover to research stories.
In this case the traits highlighted are Fletch's attitude and great dialog.
"Irwin. Irwin Fletcher. People call me Fletch."
"Irwin Fletcher, I have a proposition to make to you. I will give you a thousand dollars for just listening to it. If you decide to reject the proposition, you take the thousand dollars, go away, and never tell anyone we talked."
"Is it criminal?"
"Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to murder me."
Fletch said, "Sure".
Aloysius Pendergast from the Pendergast series of novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Pendergast is an FBI agent who hunts serial killers and his investigations often have paranormal elements.
Benson picks out these traits as notable:
- A gentleman, well mannered and reserved
- Southern (USA)
- Super intelligent and a lot of technical knowledge.
I like Pendergast; even if his range of expertise becomes more improbable with each new book! (He speaks French, Italian, Latin, Greek, Portuguese, Cantonese, Mandarin and some Japanese and that only covers his languages! His expertise extends to far more domains).
Felicia Day picks Anne of Green Gables. The book Anne of Green Gables is about Anne Shirley, an 11-year-old orphan girl mistakenly sent to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. A brother and sister who had intended to adopt a boy to help them on their farm.
- Orphan - orphans tend to have more freedom to go on adventures as children.
A favourite character of Rothfuss is Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano de Bergerac is a play written by Edmond Rostand in 1897. You can see Pat's full thoughts on his Goodreads review.
I honestly believe, gentlemen, that under That blessed moon of his there never walked, Stalked rather, strutted, so extravagant, bizarre, Far-fetched, excessive, hyperbolic, droll, Mad a gentleman-ruffian as this Bergerac. — Cyrano de Bergerac, act 1
Hercule Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, a nobleman serving as a soldier in the French Army. He's brash, strong-willed, a remarkable duelist, a poet and musician. However he suffers from self-doubt due to his extremely large nose. He believes that his ugliness denies him the "dream of being loved by even an ugly woman."
"Cyrano was staggering. It destroyed me emotionally. Cyrano is proud, brilliant, gorgeous and arrogant - and he's an ass. The story just breaks your heart."
Also mentioned are Wall-E and Merve from Sin City. Wall-E doesn't even speak but he's dedicated to cleaning up a ruined version of the Earth. Merve is gigantic ex-convict who is violent and unstable, with a mental condition that causes hallucinations and paranoia. He's slightly redeemed by his strong sense of chivalry. They both share a trait of earnestness.
Backstory - informs all character action. Even if only a little is revealed in the game, knowing the backstory yourself makes the character feel more rounded and real.
How did your character get to this spot?
Earnestness - the character believes and is unapolgetic about what they are doing in the world, good or bad.
Fanfic test - is your character so well-rounded that people could write fan-fic about them if they wanted to? If so, you've got a good character.
Everyone is the hero of their own story - no one thinks they're the bad guy, they have reasons for their actions.
Start to keep a notebook of your favourite characters. As you think of characters that made an impression on you, jot down their names. Once you have a good list of ten or more, see if you can break down the traits that make each character most appealing. Keep a seperate trait list and see what patterns jump out at you. These traits don't have to be character traits, it might be minor ticks, accessories, bits of dialog - any individual thing that speaks to you about the character.
Characters in a game or story are usually there to fill a role. They provide exposition, hinder the protaginst or need to saved or found. Use the role as a starting point, then add in detail by referring to your trait list and your own taste. (Of course when mood strikes you're welcome to totally ignore your observations and go with your gut). Making characters this way should reduce procastination and result in more compelling characters.