How to Create a Character
Whether you’re writing a novel or a short story, characters are the driving force of any work of good fiction. How many stories have you read without a single character? With that said, characters can be great, or they can be dreadful. You probably want your characters to be great.
Now how do you do that? The difference between strong characters and weak characters is that strong characters have depth and breadth. They come alive and feel real to the reader, while weak characters only flow with the story, making the reader dislike the character or worse—apathetic to their situation. Paper heroes simply do what’s right just because, and paper villains are the same way. Without real motivation behind what they do, how will the characters ever feel real to your readership?
Creating living, breathing characters takes some time and patience. You can’t simply slapdash a person together. You have to think about them and think about how they would handle certain situations. You need to ask them questions and have them answered. A person is made up of much more than their actions. They are made up of their physical traits, their history, their relationships, their hopes and fears, and their personality.
Here I’ll explain to you how I create my characters using a simple character sketch. Of course, no one person is the same, and while my way may work for me, it might not work for you. Even if it does, you may have to adjust it to suit you better. So let’s start with a character. I will name him Frederick Murphy, or Fred for short.
Let’s start off with Fred’s physical traits since it’s the simplest thing to do. Ask yourself what kind of physical traits your character has. Do they have anything unique to their traits? Would they be considered attractive or unattractive?
Let’s do Fred.
- Eyes: Blue and cold like ice
- Hair: Reddish brown and short and neat, very clean cut
- Skin: Pasty skin with lots of freckles all over his face and body
- Height: 6’ 3”
- Build: Lean but strong like a swimmer’s build
- Age: 23 1/2
Unique Features: A birthmark on his left shoulder blade that’s in a shape of a heart and a long but thin scar that runs right beneath his right eye all the way down to his chin
Attractiveness: People always turn to look at Fred because he’s a semi-good-looking man, but when he smiles at them, they take quick notice of the scar. Even with the smile, he looks fierce and a little devilish because of it.
Okay, so once you get some of their physical traits. You can get a sense of who they are, and more often than not, other questions start to arise, like how did Fred get that scar, and how do the girls that Fred dates perceive him when they see his scar? As you can see, we’re just scratching the surface of who Fred really is. So for your next exercise, start asking some questions about your character’s history. Even better, let the character answer in their own unique voice
Let’s ask Fred some questions.
Where did you grow up, Fred?
I grew up in Great Falls, Montana, where the winters are freezing and the summers can roast eggs on the sidewalk. Where you get stuck and never escape unless you join the military or move. And, of course, I just have the luck of not being able to move. But I’d rather be dead than be a soldier for a government I don’t even believe in.
What kind of parents do you have?
No parents. Just parent. Me and my ma started out by ourselves in a trailer home with her working every night. I don’t know where my dad is. I don’t care either. He’s just a low bastard who never could man up. If I ever have a son, I’ll never abandon him like my dad abandoned me. That’s for damn sure.
What were your siblings like?
I got one. His name is Kurt. He’s thirteen years younger than me, and I love him to death. He and my ma are what get me through this stupid crazy life.
What kind of job do you have?
Right now, I’m working as a lifeguard at the pool in Dusty Park—you know the one with the ducks… Anyway, it’s not the best job, but at least, it’s a job. It pays the bills and helps out my ma. She’s been feeling pretty shitty lately. Oh, and it helps pay for my beer and whiskey.
Did you have another job before this one?
Nope. And that’s why this one is so important to keep. If I hadn’t been such a good swimmer, I probably never would have even got the job. Well… actually, I probably would have… seeing I’m at the pool almost every day anyway.
What was school like for you?
School? I dropped out of that years ago. I never took to school. Didn’t like words. Didn’t like books. Didn’t like numbers. I did like calculators.
Did you go to college?
College?! Are you kidding me? That’s for smart people. I may have some street smarts in me, but I don’t got the book smarts that it takes to go to college.
What kind of child were you when you were growing up?
I was a terror. Made my ma’s life hell. That’s why I’m making it up to her now ‘cause I know better. She’s all I got.
You can go on and on with this, and please do so if you wish. The deeper you get to know the history of these characters the deeper you get in their heads and can think like them. When you can think like them, you can better anticipate what they’ll do next.
After you’re done asking questions to your character about their history, you’ll probably have some extensive knowledge of the deeper inner workings of your character. You’ll probably know a lot already about their family and maybe some about their closest friends. This will lead you to a deeper aspect of what makes them who they are—their relationships.
First, ask yourself these four questions about your character:
- How does my character normally interact with people that they’ve just met?
- Are they shy, bold, or somewhere in between?
- How does my character normally act around people that they like?
- How does my character deal with people they don’t like?
Let’s answer them about Fred.
- Fred is sarcastic and aloof. He doesn’t really care what other people think about him, so he just acts however he wants to act, which makes him really standoffish. When people do talk to him, he always thinks they’re after something.
- Bold. Fred will say whatever he wants without censorship. He’s loud but honest about how he feels.
- Fred likes to joke around with his little brother and his friends. Although he’s more of a jerk than anything, he is really a good guy that, deep down, loves the people he truly cares about with all of his heart.
- Fred talks smack about people he doesn’t like. People he doesn’t like would be best to get away from Fred when he’s drinking.
Now, with that knowledge, ask questions to your characters and go into depth about at least two different relationships that the character has or has had in the past. Think about how that person first met that character and whether that person likes or dislikes that person, and how they act around the person because of their like or dislike towards that person.
Here’s an example with Fred’s mother and Fred’s brother.
Tell me about your ma, Fred.
Why do you want to know about my ma? You better not be trying something funny, man. Or—
Sorry, Fred. Your ma just sounds like a good person and someone you care about so I figure that you wouldn’t mind talking about her.
(Fred Sighs) She’s my ma. What more is there to say bout her. She raised my brother and me single-handedly. Did it all by herself without a man by her side. She’s one tough lady.
Do the two of you get along?
Sometimes… well, not really… I wasn’t the best of kids, and being so close to family all the time can make it hard to breathe sometimes. You know what I mean?
I heard she has cancer.
Who told you that? I don’t want to talk about this anymore. We’re done here.
What’s your brother like, Fred?
My little bro. He’s good. A pretty carefree kid. He’s pretty lucky. I’m kind of jealous. Just a little bit… You know I was never a carefree kid. Lucky bastard.
How was it growing up with him?
Well, my ma was busy all the time. So I basically raised him. Guess that’s why we’re so close. Sometimes, I think he’s the only reason I stay home. Maybe if he had left, I would have been up and gone already. But he needs me, especially with Ma like this.
Are the two of you handling the cancer alright?
(Fred stares at the ground) He says he is. I don’t believe him though. But then again, he hardly knows Ma really. Maybe he just doesn’t care like I do. Or maybe he is just bullshitting. I dunno …
As you can see, you can get pretty creative with it, and it can actually be pretty fun. Again, we could go on, and you should. If you do this for your character’s multiple relationships that he or she probably has, then you have a very deep character with a powerful persona and group that he or she belongs to.
Hopes and Fears
Now we’re getting towards the end of this little exercise. Before you finish up, you need to ask your character three huge questions.
- What in the world does your character fear the most?
- What does your character want the most?
- What’s standing in his way of getting what he or she wants?
Let’s do Fred.
- Fred is most afraid that his mother will die and that they’ll never have the relationship that he always wanted with her.
- Fred wants to leave Great Falls and see the world.
- He has to take care of his brother and his mother.
Now you know what they fear, what they want, and why they can’t get what they want. Your character has some real depth to who they are now.
Now that we intimately know your character’s history, relationships, hopes and fears, and looks, we can kind of see a burgeoning personality coming out. Now it’s time to describe your character’s personality and life. Take as much time as you want to describe them. The better you can, the better you know them, and the better the story will be because of it.
Fred is a twenty-three-year-old lifeguard going nowhere in his life, and he knows it. He was born in Great Falls, and he will die in Great Falls. The only thing that gets him through the day is swimming where he can relax and just focus on himself. He fears that he’ll never leave this small city. Ever since he dropped out, all he’s ever wanted was to escape it and see the world, but now with his mother sick in the hospital, he’s afraid that he’ll never be able to that.
With rising bills and stress levels that are through the roof, his mother and him continue to clash over and over, while his brother stands by and watches. Deep down though, all that Fred really wants to do is to make up with his mother and show her that he loves her. But his pessimism and his sarcasm hinder his ability to do that. He doesn’t know how to be that son, and he doesn’t know how to put back his broken life together.
He’s gone through girl after girl and gotten into many fights because of it, but a lot of guys at parties and bars try to pick fights with him like because of his scar he attracts it. With all the brawls he’s been in, he’s become a good fighter but bitter towards people.
But behind the hard and tough vestige he puts on for the rest of the world lies a scared man that doesn’t know how to show how he truly feels to the people that love him the most.
After all that character development, you’ll not only have a character that feels real to you and your soon-to-be huge readership, but you’ll have tons of plot points, twists, and secrets that you may never have had without. Congratulations! You should probably start writing soon. Eventually, that character’s nagging voice will start to drive you crazy with the urge to write! Have fun and happy writing.
Adriana3 on November 24, 2018:
This was very useful, thank you!
careaboutfiction on January 13, 2017:
thanks a lot for this
Autumn Renee from Midwestern US on August 05, 2013:
Most likely plot would be good to have written. Especially planning major events from start to finish. I usually let the characters lead the story, but I find they never know where they are going...
Anthony Zullo (author) from Lakewood, WA on July 31, 2013:
Not for a while, Autumn. I'm currently swamped with other projects. You can check out my blog though at anthonyzullo.wordpress.com, and follow my journey into self-publishing my novel if you'd like until then.
If I do have time to write, which subject could I help you with the most?
Btw, the scar came from one of his mom's exes :-0
Autumn Renee from Midwestern US on July 31, 2013:
Very nice compliment to your hub on planning. Will you be breaking all the steps down?
I to was hoping to learn about the scar...
jesse on June 07, 2013:
Sooo, how'd Fred get the scar???
RavenBiker from Pittsburgh, PA. on January 07, 2013:
I found this to be a relatively good match to what I do with characterizations. The use of a detailed "employment application" sort of thing is a good start. I would also agree that as the story unfolds, nuanced things, such as mannerisms and thought processess, emerge pretty muh on their own.
My suggestion is to write a scene where the character interacts with the workd around him. This scene can be use in the final telling of the story but this is not the purpose of writing this scene. The purpose is to get to know your characters better.
Also, what many creative writers do is not match the character to the plot. A well plotted story will help create character.
"Listen" to your character too. In other words, bad dialog can "kill" the believability of character, i.e., low I.Q'd characters sounding too smart and "quiet" characters too chatty.
Thanks for the Hub. Thumbs up!