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The Basics of Character Creation

Katherine Sanger was a Jersey Girl before getting smart and moving to Texas. She's been published in various e-zines and traditional print.

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Main Characters in Fiction

Your Protagonist

When it comes time to write your characters for your work, whether it’s short stories or novels, the first person to focus on is your protagonist. The protagonist has a problem to solve, the ability to act, the motivation to act, something to gain, and something to lose. They have the ability to grow and change. They have positive characteristics and at least one compelling flaw. They have a secret. They don’t have to be a hero. In fact, anti-heroes have been and continue to be one of the hottest type of protagonists.

The most important thing about any protagonist is that they MUST make a choice that affects the outcome.

Of course, something else affects the outcome – something that tries to stop the protagonist. The antagonist.

Your Antagonist

The antagonist stands in the way of the protagonist achieving their goal. The antagonist may be a villain, but they don’t have to be evil. It’s just that their goal is in direct conflict with the protagonist’s goal. While antagonists are most often people, they can be a force of nature, a group or organization, or even just a general life condition. For the purpose of this write-up, the focus is on characters.

To have a strong conflict, the antagonist needs to be equal in strength to their protagonist. The antagonist must believe in themselves. They must see their motivations as being valid and justified. But that’s not all. They also need to have their own goals and values. They are not there to just obstruct the protagonist; they are there to reach for their outcome.

Your Secondary Characters

You need secondary characters as well. One of my favorite comments about secondary characters is that they aren’t marble statues (Limyaael). They need to move and exist with their own minds (and within the reader’s mind). Like the protagonists and antagonists, secondary characters need to have their own goals, their own personalities, their own flaws, and their own strengths. They have a reason to be attached to the protagonist or antagonist. When writing secondary characters, remember that they are their own people.

Your Flat Characters

Flat characters, also known as static characters, don’t really change. We don’t need to know who they are beyond their purpose in the story. They can be a cashier in a grocery store or a delivery person. You may still want to describe them, but you won’t go into detail or mention their backstory.

How deep does your character go? The only characters that don't need a backstory are flat characters. Primary and secondary characters should dive deep.

How deep does your character go? The only characters that don't need a backstory are flat characters. Primary and secondary characters should dive deep.

How can I provide information about a character?

How Your Character Communicates

Their dialogue, both internal monologue and external conversations, can provide information about backstories, conflict, and their flaws (sarcastic, mean) or strengths (witty, smart). Their method of communication also reveals information about them. The subtext of a conversation can help to reveal the character’s world to the reader. What stories do they tell themselves, and what stories do they tell other people?

Relationships Your Characters Are In

Their relationships with others and with their world at large will say a lot about your characters.

How do the protagonist and antagonist feel about each other? Are they truly mortal enemies who will die locked in combat? Or were they childhood friends who are now pitted against each other in a struggle? Are they both running for president? There can be lots of details to explore when looking at how they interact with their competition.

What about the other characters? Think about the secondary (and even flat) characters: all the friends, frenemies, enemies, lovers, acquaintances. They might get along, but there is more likely going to be some type of in-fighting and even enemies within the protagonist’s friend, family, and colleague. There may be friendships between secondary characters of the protagonist and antagonist. Look at the web of relationships that are possible. Just like in the real world, you never know who knows each other.

How does the protagonist feel about the world? Are they frustrated by what they think are the flaws? Are they working towards making it better? Making it worse? Maybe they refuse to recycle because they feel it’s pointless, but they work cleaning trash from the roadside. Only you know, and it’s your job to share that information with the reader.

Whatever relationship it is, the character must act on their relationship, and the relationship must act upon them.

One way to expose your character's life in through their relationships.

One way to expose your character's life in through their relationships.

Your Characters’ Appearances

Looks matter, and how those looks are revealed matter, too. Looking in a mirror is a cliché, but sometimes it’s the best way to get it done in a hurry. It’s better, though, to let readers learn how your characters look through action or interactions with other people. What do they say about their looks or think about their looks? How do their clothes fit? What armor are they wearing, and why? You can also look at how other characters react to them. Physical appearance isn’t the whole package.

Your Characters’ Names

Name your characters appropriately. Look at the genre you’re writing in. Look at the setting. When and where is the story, and who is in your story? Does your setting have names that are considered gender inappropriate and appropriate, or are names asexual? Consider whether or not the characters use pronouns. If they do, what pronouns do they use?

What information do I need to share with my reader?

Character History

No one is a blank slate. What is your character’s history? Knowing is important, and it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at a main character or a secondary character. What’s their family like? Where (and when) did they grow up? How many people did they kill in the war? What did they do to spend 10 years in prison? Why are they afraid of cats?

Ambitions/Values

We’re moved by our ambitions, and they’re driven by our values. For example, if your character values fairness, their ambition might be to rework the justice system on their home planet. What are they willing to do for it? What guides them on their journey?

Conflicts

Your characters will have both internal and external conflicts, just as you yourself does. Conflict comes from values. Looking at the example in the ambitions and values section, an immediate conflict can be seen. While the character values fairness, in trying to take over a system, are they being fair? Do they realize if they are or not? Do they fight with themselves over this potential conflict, or is this the conflict between protagonist and antagonist?

Flaws

Simply put, no one is perfect. It might seem tempting to make the “perfect” character, but perfect is boring. Your character should not always win. Everyone has flaws, and those flaws are what make your character interesting to the reader. How do these flaws affect the character? And how do the flaws affect the values and ambitions of the characters?

Restrictions about where a character can go is only one example of how restrictions can affect a character.

Restrictions about where a character can go is only one example of how restrictions can affect a character.

Restrictions

As in real life, your characters will have restrictions on them. These make it more difficult for them to function and work towards their goal. Some of these restrictions include money, time, education, family, transportation, lifestyle, and disability.

Senses

You’ve probably heard the old adage of showing instead of telling. There’s a reason it’s a common saying: it’s true.

Senses include seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. Of course, if you’re looking at the five senses as five separate options to call upon, you may be missing a chance to combine them. If you want to describe a color as vanilla, that also implies a scent. It may also recall a feeling.

Lavender may make you think of relaxing, but it’s also a color and a flower. Using lavender, then, would include the scent of the flower, the color of the flower, and the feeling of relaxation. That lavender is doing quite a job for you – sharing three senses at once!

Characters are intertwined with all other aspects of writing but may be the most important. Without characters, readers have nothing to connect with and nothing to interact with. Spend the time creating and learning about your characters – your readers will.

© 2021 Katherine Sanger