3 Ways to Build Your Character(s)

If you’re a writer, creating lovable characters is a key element to helping your audience enter into your story. If you’re not a writer, but you’re a reader, you know the pleasure and delight of characters who come alive to you and become friends. If you’re neither a writer nor a reader, I’m so sorry.

So how do you create realistic people out of thin air?

One option is to write an exact, precise character description of someone you know and change the name: Rob to Bob, Larry to Harry, Holly to Molly. Writing about a person you have a relationship with is an excellent way to capture personality—but if you’re writing about people who read your stuff, either be careful what you say, or be very clever with your renaming (grumpy old next door neighbor becomes 17-year-old bagger at the local supermarket).

Another frequently used method is to sketch a few attributes into a character, and let them finish the development themselves. As the story progresses and you throw your heroine into disastrous situations, see what she does. She’ll become more three-dimensional as the story continues if you let her make a few bad choices and suffer the consequences.

But whether you’re getting your characters by replicating historical figures, or spying on the lady across the street who’s obsessive about her cat and her yard, here are a few useful tips for crafting personalities.

Give them a past. Not just the “Dark mysterious stranger comes into town and is secretive about where he’s been,” but the simple parts of anyone’s story. Who were his parents? Where did he grow up? Did he have siblings? Was he bullied in middle school? What was his first job in college? As you develop the skeleton of the past, you’re helping yourself flesh out the present. If he grew up in backwoods Wisconsin, he probably won’t feel at home when he moves to Los Angeles. He might spend days searching for a public park, or trying to find cheese curds in a grocery store.

Drive home specific messages. Did her parents always tell her to work hard? To let men open doors for her? Was she raised by an aunt who instructed her never to lie? Did she spend years with best friends who taught her how to shoplift? Think about your own life—for the whole thing, you’ve been hearing messages from the influential people in your life. What were they? How have they defined you? Chances are, you might have trouble with people who have different standards than you do, and those standards are probably based on differing messages. Give your character messages they’ve always heard, and then put them in situations a) where they have to take a stand for what they believe, and b) with other people who heard the opposite messages. The tension will rise rapidly, setting the scene for, guess what, more character development.

Let them fail. Shoveling the driveway in the winter is the classic Calvin and Hobbes way to build character. Bill Watterson is right, hard work does build character—but so does failure. If you always succeed you’ll never learn how to deal with disappointment. Or how to show mercy to others who are dealing with it. Or really celebrate the hard-earned victory of success. And if you’re reading about someone who always does everything perfectly the first time, (in addition to being a little disgusted) you won’t know how to relate to them, because we all fail at some point in life.

And at the end of the day, we most love the characters who are like us—imperfect, troubled, quirky, happy, sad, and human to the very core.