04: Designing Characters
Tips on designing awesome, balls-to-the-wall, memorable characters. Then some tips for making those awesome characters actually fit in to the setting you created for them.
Character names need to fit the setting, be easy to remember and easy to differentiate from other characters. I try to give characters names that start with different letters of the alphabet, so the reader only has to see the first letter to know who I am referring to.
If you are writing for people under 25, your character ages are probably going to be dictated by your target audience. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule. However, generally speaking, children and teenagers like to read about people their age or a little older. Reading and watching TV shows is how we gauge our own lives. We are learning about life from entertainment.
Which is where the whole ‘life imitating art, or art imitating life’ argument comes from.
If you are not writing for new/young adults, teens or children, you need to ask yourself what experience your character needs to have and what physical capabilities. A twenty year old is not going to have a vast knowledge and world-weary attitude. If your plot and conflict calls for that, your main character is going to need to be in her forties, or even fifties. On the other hand, a fifty year old is not likely to act like a teenager—fifty years is a lot of experience. So if you need a ditz, you probably need someone in their twenties. Or a hippy.
I am going to expand on gender considerably in the next post. However I will say this: You should be able to switch most of your characters genders without it affecting them as a person. Sometimes there may be society limits on gender (EG: females not being allowed to serve in the military), however if the character’s personality, interests and behaviour are central to their gender, you haven’t created a character, you’ve created a stereotype. Also, you’re sexist.
Character appearance may be important to you, but the reader is usually only interested in how it impacts the story. Impact on the story is what you should pay attention to when planning this and that will often revolve around cultural bias and bigotry. Sexism, racism, ageism, fat shaming, the perks of being attractive, the shame we experience being crippled.
While you need to make a note of hair colour and height so it remains consistent, in the text you should focus on two or three defining features (round glasses, black hair, a lightning bolt-shaped scar) and let the readers build the rest themselves.
Strengths and Weaknesses:
I’ll let you in on a secret. Every trait a person can have can be good or bad. Any strength you think you have can also be a weakness. Any weakness you have can also be a strength. Sometimes they are both and that’s critical to writing good characters.
What is leadership in one is bossiness in another. What is loud and brash to one is enthusiasm to another. What is compassionate to one is soft-hearted and weak to another.
So when you are giving your character strengths and weaknesses, make them the same thing. Fun loving, but irresponsible. A good leader, but bossy. A skilled fighter, but aggressive. Intelligent, but impractical. (Yes, I did just list the traits of the teenage mutant ninja turtles.)
Interests, hobbies and skills:
Character interests can fall into three categories: relevant to the plot, relevant to the subplot, used to give the character depth. When you are developing their character sheet and considering this options, try and keep those three things in mind. Don’t just give them hobbies and skills you wish you had, consider how it will affect the plot and sub-plot and what it the reader will think of those skills—how they will affect their perception of the character.
A nice little quirk that is the opposite to the rest of their character can be nice. EG: A hardened soldier who has also learned to sew or a reckless, drunken mercenary who has a natural talent for cooking. Maybe even a shy, bespeckled boy who is aggressively competitive at tennis.
Skills they have been forced to learn, but don’t really enjoy, can also be interesting. Such as characters who have been pushed into sports or academics by overly passionate parents. Remember to make a note of what they are really terrible at too. When I was writing Lifesphere Inc I was constantly forgetting Eli couldn’t read. It’s amazing what you take for granted.
Setting, Rooms and Tools:
A bedroom has a skateboard and posters of rock stars. There are playboy magazines stuffed under the mattress of the single bed and superhero figurines lined up on the window sill.
You open a handbag. You find red lipstick, two flip knives, gum, a black phone, pepper spray, a stack of phone numbers on scraps of paper—most with men’s names. There are recipes from high end restaurants. There is a police ID badge.
You can tell a lot about a character from their room and their possessions. They tell a story all on their own, without the character saying a word—without them even being present. When you are developing a character, make a note of the things they own, the space they’ve claimed, and the clothes they own.
It should all go in their profile somewhere and it can be a powerful character building tool, if applied in the right way.
Upbringing and History/Social Pressures:
What is nature and what is nurture? When we have unlocked mysteries of the human mind entirely, there will probably be no further need for fiction. However for now, you need to consider the effects of both on character development and behaviour.
Imagine for a moment, your character is gay. For the sake of argument, we are considering this a nature trait—one hard coded into the DNA and brain wiring before a baby is born. Now consider how their personality and actions will be affected if they are born into a society where homosexuality is a perversion and a sin—something punishable by death and ostracisation? Now imagine that same character born into a futuristic society where overcrowding is a problem, where homosexuals have equal rights, are old news and are even preferred, as they are less likely to create more babies.
How will living in fear of being exposed for who they love affect your character’s personality? How will they be different in a world where no one notices or even cares who they love?
Every single one of us is put under pressure to confirm to society: who to love, who to marry, how many children to have, what age to have them, what sort of jobs are acceptable, what to eat, what to wear, how to look, how to worship. They’re often so ingrained into our upbringing, we are unaware of most of them. We accept them as ‘normal human behaviour’ without considering the thousands of cultures before us that lived differently.
Sometimes, being a good author comes from being self aware. Then writing the worst parts down.
I covered this extensively in the last post. However keep in mind your motives, conflicts and fears not only need to reflect and propel the plot, but they have to be suitable for the character. A seventeen year old is more likely to be driven by the idea of becoming a famous rock star than they are by leaving a legacy for their grandchildren.
A Cohesive Package:
A character, major or minor, has to be a cohesive whole. Their interests, motives, environment, strengths, weaknesses and the society they come from all need to come together in a logical and coherent way. Just picking traits at random to make a character more interesting (or God forbid, more like how you wish you were) will not result in a memorable and beloved character.
Nor will just cloning the characters you love created by other people.
Write one to two paragraphs with no characters, no names and no dialogue describing the bedrooms of the following:
- A single woman who has lost custody of her children.
- A teenage skater girl.
- A medieval knight.
- A sci fi bounty hunter.
- A creepy child possessed by some sort of ghost/demon/monster.