Character crafting is a tricky, tricky business. About as ‘wasckaly’ as Elmer Fudd’s elusive wabbit. How to create these ‘living/breathing’ people that exist only within the boundaries of the written page and the reader’s imagination?
It’s a lot harder then you might think and is the reason why so many writers constantly attend conferences, courses and workshops that deal with the fundamentals over and over and over again.
Even the published Pros! Which really opened my eyes as a newbie yet to be published, because even when you’ve ‘made it’, the learning and growth never really stops, or it shouldn’t if you’re serious about your craft.
In this post, I will address some of the basic fundamentals I’ve come to learn, keeping in mind that while there are rules, like in everything, once you understand the rules you will know when and how to break them.
So, for those of you who may or may not hear the ‘voices’, here are some steps to creating characters, or fleshing out the ones who are already speaking to you.
Hi! My name is…
For me, personally, the names always seem to leap out first. And the names, arguably, is the most important element of the character. Why?
Because the names set the readers expectations, and the mood. The names need to be complimentary to the setting and tone of the book, but also you need to consider the supporting cast as well. Once, I wrote a series of books, all rough drafts, and when going back over those books nearly five years later to do a drastic rewrite, I realized that five character names all started with L.
You can’t have that. Imagine the confusion and frustration for readers combing over a scene where three of those five are featured together?
Tip: Pick a different letter from the alphabet so that the reader’s only need to see the first letter in order to identify whom is speaking.
After the name, consider how old are they?
This is crucial, as well, depending on the genre you’re writing for because if your intended audience is under twenty five, then you’ll want to keep your characters within that same range, as well. Now all rules do come with exceptions (see the Harry Potter phenomenon) but operate under an 80-20 parameter and bear in mind that all main protagonists should be closest in age to your target audience to avoid alienation. Can’t really expect teenagers to care about, understand or feel a connection to a protagonist rounding the bend of forty.
With age, you also need to consider what experiences this character would have, any particular capabilities? For instance, we were very different people at twenty then we were at fifteen. We had different values and perspectives. Some things might have been enhanced where others were completed transformed or abandoned. A nineteen cynical, jaded and embittered character wouldn’t be believable unless they had seriously run the gamut as a child, therefore if the novel is calling for someone dark and brooding, consider an older character who would have had enough time to develop this attitude.
Boys vs. Girls
I, personally, believe that gender shouldn’t really affect the core of the character, but it again stems down to genre and expectations surrounding gender roles. Historical and period pieces can’t have a woman leading an army into battle, commanding sailors on a ship, or a duke falling in love with a ball-busting tomboy who swears like a trucker and sleeps around like a tramp in heat. Well, it could, if you were writing about a flea-bitten floozy from the cheap side of town, but then ask yourself how interesting or sympathetic a character like that might be to a reader?
Take a look in the mirror, what do you see?
Appearance is a HUGE. We need to know every facet of their physical makeup (hair colour, eye colour, height, build, etc.), but keeping in mind that readers don’t need all of this information. Keep it to two or three defining characteristics that make them unique. Either things they love or hate, or ideally—a combination of the two because we all have something we wish we could change, right?
Do they have an intriguing scar? (Harry’s lightening bolt)
Walk with a limp? Wear a peculiar shaped glasses? Have only three fingers on their left hand?
The idea is to give the reader enough to fill in the holes with their own imaginations, because essentially, this is about the reader ‘seeing’ the character for themselves.
Okay, so now we have a base. We now their name, their age, their gender and a bit about their physical make up. Next post, we’ll take it a step further and begin to delve into what makes them tick. Crucial, if you ever hope to tap into their ‘voice’ and understand their motivations on the page.
Stay tuned for Part 2! Same Bat-time! Same Bat-channel! 😉