Methods of Character Building

29 Apr

I apologise for how long it has taken for me to get this one written and up. I’ve been – and for about a month will continue to be – extremely busy with other things (such as editing the writing/characterisation advice book which I hope to publish soon).


This is not about fleshing out a character or building them up along the way as you write. Those are things you do when you already have created a character and need to make them more than they currently are. This is not that. This is also not about making yourself a better person.

This is about finding starting points for when you have a cool idea for something other than a character and don’t know where to start in creating a character for it. It is about different types of starting point. This is for when you, say, have a cool idea for a world where extrasensory advertising is a thing, but can’t turn it into a story because you can’t tell a story with no characters and you don’t know where to start because you have no ideas for them. For the natural storyteller, this can be a common occurrence – although whether the inspired idea which cannot tell a story on its own is an item or a gimmick (or image, or character, or map, etc) varies. Sometimes the best thing to do is to put the idea away – in a file, mental or physical – and come back to it a later point (such as when you’ve had a great idea for a character but no idea what to put around them). Sometimes it’s just a bad idea and the lack of auto-expanding inspiration stemming from it will indicate that. But sometimes it is worth going over the idea to figure out if you can create a character from it and, if so, then you can potentially write a very good story. The following are methods, as divided by starting point, of building a basic character (which will later need to be properly fleshed out) for those occasions when you’ve essentially painted a mental picture in detail and bright colours, but lack of inspiration left you with a vague character-shaped silhouette where you need a person (or, at least, a proper profile).


Character from Image: If you have a visually-attuned imagination, you may find yourself in the position of having the image of a cool character – like a drawing or a snapshot – but no idea how to turn that into a story because you have no context (you know what they look like, but not who they are, or when or what the heck is going on). Now, if you are a painter or other type of visual artist, this isn’t a problem, but primarily visual imaginations are not limited to those who work in visual mediums. Many natural storytellers who have primarily visual imaginations and no ability to translate what they see in their minds eye into physical images (i.e. can’t draw for shit) will write extremely evocative descriptions into their work or go into film (especially directing) and theatre (where scripts must have some visual elements).

But I digress. Trying to create a basis for a character – and thus story, setting, and plot – is essentially the art of analysing the implications of everything your mind’s eye shows you and extrapolating upon it.  Some images are easy to analysis and extrapolate on – if you see someone locked in battle you can quickly start making suppositions on who they are fighting and why, and if you’re imagining someone say, with distinctly elfin features you can quickly narrow down the situation to some form of fantasy. In other situations there are no obvious tells and the author may have a great deal more difficulty figuring out who this “person” their mind is showing them is. In both cases, however, the key to creating a character from an image is to analyse all the data the image gives you first and then to extrapolate from it. You want, after all, to create a coherent character, rather than a character that has traits (left over from the original image) which do not fit the rest of their stated nature and their setting. This method of character building is pretty straightforward. First you analyse your mental image and write down everything you can see (facts only – that someone’s stance gives them the appearance of being prideful is a fact, whereas that they are prideful is a supposition from that fact, likewise you can say from an image that someone is wearing well-to-do clothing, but not that they are well-to-do). This list should contain everything from what they’re wearing, to what environment they’re in, as well as what their physical position is like, what expression they have, and what they look like. Next go over each item on the list and check out when, where, and why that would exist (clothes belong to specific eras and places or are inspired by them and would have to come from similar cultures in similar eras, different patterns of calluses on hands mean different things and subtle dents on either side of the bridge of the nose indicate that the nose’s owner habitually wears glasses, etc). Use this list to narrow down what sort of era and location, as well as lifestyle, the person could conceivably have – that is: what fits all of the data and the constraints the facts of that data (could only have lived in a time after glasses were invented, clearly does a great deal of work with their hands, etc) reveal. Now there should be a strong frame of what is possible, and from there the writer can extrapolate – deciding which of the options made available by the data’s constraints is the one which suits the character they are building, and so on. Eventually this leads to questions like “Why” – as in “why does this imaginary person have callused hands if they are wearing well-to-do clothing and have obviously expensive glasses?”. Perhaps they are rich and have a hobby which involves a lot of hands on work, or perhaps they are poor and have stolen the outfit in order to pull off a con. At this point it becomes a question of what answers please the author – one is likely to speak to them more than the others –and from there they merely need to keep analysing and extrapolating based on the new information and restraints that are brought with each answered question.

Character from Item: This is what you get when you have a really cool idea for a thing (say, for instance, a longsword that allows the user to fly or a phone which allows the user to time travel) only to discover afterward that, without a character or plot, that cool thing alone does not a story make. From this starting point (a cool thing) you can start to build a character by asking a simple series of questions, they are as follows. Who would make something like that? (Someone capable of making it.) Who would want something like that? (Someone whose motives it would suit to use above other similar items.) Are they the same person? If not, which is more inspiring to write about? Now, these might seem like impossible questions to answer, but they aren’t about who the person is as a whole, but rather what their motivation was. In other words: the potential uses of the object and what would be required to make it must be analysed and from there you can begin to figure out what sort of person would make it, want it, or both.

Let’s take the flying sword as an example. Who would want to have or make a flying sword? Someone who wants to use a sword and be able to fly, possibly at the same time, and doesn’t want to carry around two separate items – this means they must be in need of as much mobility as possible (doesn’t want to carry extras), expects to do close-range battle (what use is a sword, even if it can make you fly, against: arrows, bullets, and bombs?), and who expects to need to get off the ground during combat. So we’re probably looking at someone who lives in a pre-gun world, who travels a lot, and who is expecting to fight something which is much taller than they are (such as a three storey high monster). From this we can reasonably say that we’re looking at some form of knight errant in a world with lots of monsters (possibly dragons, given the whole flying aspect) to slay. If we also decide that they are the same person who made the sword that allows the wielder to fly, we can also argue that they are (given comparisons to how similar historical societies worked) probably a younger son of some gentry or minor lord who has the education to create enchantments on a weapon (an unusually learned man, thus, as many historical lords and noblemen would not have bothered to learn about the sciences and studies of monks, here replaced by apparently workable magic). Now, this is by no means a complete character and much still remains to be worked out, but from the example and analysis it would be a reasonable basis to say that the world is one with magic that can be studied scientifically, and thus is not uncommon, and that the character is a well-educated – and probably with an interest in the practical applications of intellectual pursuits – knight errant from an upper class background or lower nobility who is out to travel the world and slay dragons in aerial hand to claw combat. It’s not a complete or well fleshed out character by any means, but it is a workable starting point.

Character from Location: I differentiate this from setting for one key reason; setting is not by definition a location description as it can also include things like worlds with strange physics as their gimmick. Such worlds will be discussed later. Character from location is the best method for creating basic characters (to later be fleshed out) when you are starting from either a world map you’ve invented or you have, say, a beautiful city or an awesome jungle with a hidden temple in your imagination. Now, depending on the type of location (structure/settlement in use, structure/settlement abandoned, natural location unsettled, etc) you have to start with different questions. When you are starting from a structure or settlement which is in use you have to start by asking yourself why someone would want to live, or work, there – as well as who is in charge there. Now different places will get different answers (if the location is a creepy curio shop with an apartment over it: the answer is probably that they own a curio shop and therefore they are in charge, if the location is a beautiful seaside city: the answers are likely lots of fishermen and someone dedicated to the upkeep of their city, etc). But the key is to answer each question, often with multiple options, and then follow that on to its own question (and in the case of options to choose the one that is most inspiring: that gives you the most next-step questions – in the fishing city example that’s more likely the ruler than the fishermen).

In the curio shop example we can actually build out fairly easily: a shop of curiosities is not going to be found in a town or village; so it is owned by a city-dweller and in an era and location of enough prosperity to support such a business. What’s more: curio is a word from the 1850s, and while there is no reason to believe it couldn’t be found earlier in an alternate world, it is reasonable to assume that curiosities would not have been an overly profitable business before that era’s technological level made middle classes with spare money and longer distance travel common, into normal things. Now being a curio shop owner suggests a middling social class, with some literacy and a curious – likely intellectual – mind given the fact that the shop sells (and thus probably buys and evaluates) curiosities. It is possible that the owner has inherited the shop, but if they were not inclined to curiosities or minded the creepy atmosphere it is likely that they would have switched products or sold the location to pursue a different career at the first opportunity. Further, we can reasonably presume that the owner of the shop is either unable to travel themselves due to financial or medical reasons or simply prefers to learn about the strange things in the world from the comfort of home. The curio shop may be creepy due to the content or due to the upkeep of the actual building and that will determine whether the character has a very macabre set of curiosities or if they merely are not diligent in (or, less likely, unconcerned by) the maintenance of their store. That’s a lot of potential explanations for a character, so for the end of this example I’ll pick those traits I’m most interested by, and conclude from the starting point of “creepy curio shop” that the character is an intellectual, middle class shop owner in a prosperous and post-industrial revolution city, who has macabre interests and is prevented from caring for their storefront and travelling by poor health. That’s not a fully fledged character, but it’s pretty good for building off a three word starting point.

Comparatively, when you’re dealing with an abandoned or unsettled location, you have to ask yourself why someone would go there (and in the case of abandonment: why was it abandoned). Someone who lives somewhere may simply have been born there and never moved away – it takes far more effort and motivation for someone to choose to go travelling (implied in this form of location to character building) than to simply stay where they are. Motivation is a key player here: someone who goes to an abandoned temple in a jungle because they got lost probably isn’t going to be sticking around out of curiosity – but they also must have been trying to get somewhere else – and someone who is out adventuring or exploring (curiosity, excitement, funding from somewhere) is going to be a very different person than the one who comes to that place because they are looking for somewhere to settle (and different again from someone returning to a location they had abandoned!). To give brief examples: the person who got lost and found the temple city may have been travelling through the jungle after being forced off course from some other adventure (this could be anything) and may be on a time limit, whereas the explorer might be an archaeologist or a merchant trying to find a better trade route. Likewise, the settler may well be the leader of an exiled group who pushed into deep jungle territory after recently losing a war, and the person returning to the place they abandoned might have realised that in their rush to leave they forgot something important or be seeking closure. Now, after the slightly divergent first questions (why would someone want to live there versus why would someone want to travel/explore/return there) the process is essentially the same, and I won’t bore you by building out more characters when you’ve already seen it done a paragraph ago. But the main difference to keep in mind is that if you are building a character from a location they are already at it is the location which is the shaping force upon the character, whereas if you are building a character from a location they are travelling through it is the motivation of the character to travel which is the deciding force.  Character from location they’re already in is straightforward, but character from location they’re travelling to is much more a case of character from plot …which leads us to…

Character from Plot: Right off the bat, different genres and plot lines call for different kinds of characters. A detective has to have an inquiring mind or they just aren’t going to bother trying to solve the mystery, let alone actually solve it. Erotica just isn’t going to feature an asexual main character having loads of sex (unless it is purely sexualist discrimination in the form of corrective rape fantasies which objectify and misrepresent an entire orientation). An action hero needs to be a physically inclined sort of person, else they’d be a guile hero and in a very different sort of story. For a story to hinge on a big misunderstanding, one person has to be really bad at talking about anything and the other has to be mildly paranoid, stubborn, and inclined to jump to conclusions – with two straightforward or practical people, it just wouldn’t work.

When people have a great idea for a plot or incident within the plot and have no ideas for characters to run that plot, the most common mistake in attempting to build those characters from that starting point is to ask what sort of person would do that. Yes, I know, it seems counter-intuitive to say that’s not a good plan, but it’s not a good plan. Trying to define a person by asking what sort of person would be in a sort of plot is just setting yourself up for an endless stream of tautologies and clichés. What sort of person would go on an adventure? An adventurous one.  What sort of person would be the hero on the quest to save the world? The reluctant hero. Who are the protagonists in the grand romance? People seeking romance. What kind of person would try to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse? Someone who wants to live. These descriptions ultimately tell you nothing of use.

What you actually need to ask yourself is what each action (each moment in the plot) actually is. What word describes the action of going to investigate a mysterious happening? Inquisitive. Active. Curious. Probably not satisfied with whatever answer everyone else has accepted. What does going on a quest to save the world mean? It means a genuine belief that the world is in danger, degree of self-confidence that they alone can fix the problem – arguably arrogance, active inclination. Party goer at a grand gala meets a beautiful stranger and asks them out? Impulsive. Arguably, they’re more interested in external beauty than internal beauty – lust driven, not love. Also: wealth and possible enjoyment of the festivities. The thing here is that you have to ask yourself to describe the specifics in the plot – rather than just genre – and work from there. From every point in the plot – even if it’s just a vague idea of a plot with some genre attached – you should be able to pull one or two, minimum, adverbs (descriptions of what that action is: cautious, reckless, etc) and from there apply those to the beginnings of a person. These then can be interconnected so that they all make sense together and expanded upon until a basic character has been built.

Character from Setting: Given that I’ve already done location separately, this one might seem a little strange, but it is a distinct starting point. Setting is not merely a location, but also how that particular universe works. One could arguably call this character from gimmick instead, but that has a negative connotation. The best way to find character from setting is to start by asking yourself what the normal of that universe is and then extrapolating on that to figure out what ways a person could differ from the norm. A person who is slightly out of the ordinary is often a good primary character – although, writer beware: most of the first conclusions of who would be out of the ordinary are nothing more than clichés (such as the princess who doesn’t want to wear dresses, the reluctant hero, and the person from a society with some norm we would find alien or repulsive who just so happen to be exactly like us, despite how unlikely that would be). However, you do not have to choose to build a character who does not match their society’s norms if you do not wish to – just so long as you actually have the normal by their standards character behave normally by their standards and are willing to portray them as an ordinary person.

To give you an example or two: let’s say we have a world with two distinct differences from our own – the first is that air and water are essentially bound by the same rules, so all fish fly, and the second is that everyone, upon reaching sexual maturity, is magically bound by a red string of fate which connects them to their soulmate (offensive premise much?). If we accept these as the norm in that world we have to ask what the results of such things would be. Drowning wouldn’t be a thing, obviously, so it’s likely that lifeguards wouldn’t exist. Likewise, fishing might well involve standing on top of hills and shooting arrows with nets attached into the open sky. Arranged marriages probably never became a thing, politically speaking, and the obsessive search for love and romance which suffocates the modern world probably doesn’t exist either. Meanwhile, you have to ask if this red string affects people who aren’t romantically or sexually inclined (given that it comes upon reaching the age when you can start procreating) and how people who are string-free are treated by society. And just like that we have moved from asking what normal in that world is to asking what abnormal in that world is, because defining the one automatically means you have to start defining the other. In such a world, if you wanted a normal person as your character, you could ask what milestones and niches would appear (that is, extrapolate off the first question: what is normal). You might find that given all fish can fly, that sharks can also fly and that your normal protagonist is a shark-falconer: a person whose profession it is to shoot sharks out of the sky before they can swim in and swoop down on populated areas. You might write about the everyday struggle of a young person who just got their red string and was deeply perturbed to find they must go on a long journey to find the other end – or that they know and dislike the person they’re tied to. Meanwhile, if you wanted abnormal people, you might find yourself writing about a fisherman who has started using aeroboats to do his fishing, in defiance of all traditional methods, or explore the ramifications of being asexual in a world where everyone is expected to find their true love the moment they become adults. This means, ultimately, that you start defining the character by comparing them to what normal is.


…I think that’s everything? Comment if you think I should have mentioned another method or starting point to begin building characters from, or if you’d like me to extrapolate on something I’ve said – I’d love to hear from you.

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Posted by on April 29, 2016 in On Writing


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