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Thoughts on Character Building

These is a slightly refined version of the outline I used for my Character Building presentation at Phoenix Comicon 2012. For the presentation, I divided the character creation process into five parts:

  • World/Culture/Race
  • Personal History
  • Social Behavior/Traits
  • Other Personality Traits
  • Physical Traits

While this is still a work in progress, I think these five areas are the key to building a well-rounded character, whether they're a major player in your story or a bit part. This isn't a template for creating a character, it's more a series of things to consider while doing so.

I've listed these levels of character development from "deep" (World/Culture/Race) to "shallow" (physical traits). Areas lower on the list are dependent on the areas above them. You can start at any point, but if you have a good understanding of where the character comes from, it'll make developing their personality more natural.

World/Culture/Race

This section is important. It's so important, in fact, that I have entirely separate templates for developing races and cultures. I include it here because people often try to come up with characters without a firm understanding of their background. If you happen to be developing a character from Earth, you don't have to worry about world-building - but what if that character comes from a culture you aren't familiar with? You may fall into the trap of creating a character that acts like they come from your own culture, or worse, a cliché. However, if you're building your own fantasy or science fiction world, you'll be far better off fully developing your cultures and races before you try building characters.

On the other hand, it's not uncommon that your whole story idea begins with an idea for a particular character or characters. There's nothing wrong with that! You can work from the bottom of this list up, but it's a little tricker, as you have to make sure the world you build around them doesn't conflict with your character - or if it does, that there's a very good reason for it.

Personal History

This covers the character themselves, and their own relationship with their culture and race, their family, and their place in society. Here, you will think about the character's childhood, their education, their training - everything that brought them where they are today. What's their name and family name? Does it mean anything? Where were they born? Where did they grow up, and how did this influence them? Did their family integrate into their culture or reject it? Did the character? What was their social class growing up? How has all of this changed over the course of their lifetime?

Plainly, there's a lot to think about here. You don't have to know every detail of a character's life (especially if they are not a major character), but it's useful to know the significant things that happened to them. Throw in a few minor details, and stay flexible. Sometimes other details about their history will come to you as you write your story, things that help them relate to other characters or otherwise serve the story.

There's one more thing I'd like to point out here. Just because you, the writer, know about your character's past, does not mean the audience or other characters know about it. Work the character's history into conversations slowly, over time, if at all. Some people might like to talk about themselves, while others may prefer to keep their past private. Just keep in mind why and how their past influenced who they are today; that will produce a much richer and more realistic character than one who chatters about themselves constantly.

Social Behavior/Traits

These are personality traits, but they belong in their own category because they define the role your character plays among other characters in your story. In a big way, they define the role your character plays in the story as a whole.

Some examples of social traits include being an optimist, being shy, outgoing, emotional, strict, trustworthy, brave, egotistical, loyal, selfish, intelligent, charming... the list goes on. Some have positive connotations, some negative. It is also possible that a character considers themselves to have a certain trait, but other characters might disagree. Ever meet someone who THOUGHT they were a real charmer?

You don't want all characters in your story to share the same behavioral traits. Differences between characters create conflict, and conflict makes your story interesting. Conflict is not always negative - a disagreement or fight is conflict, but so is an extrovert dragging an introvert to a party to "bring them out of their shell". Romantic tension is also a conflict. Two characters may get along fine, but their families despise eachother. There are many types of conflicts, and a lot of them come down to the ways in which characters interact with eachother.

You also don't need to make every character completely different. Sometimes a shared trait can provoke a conflict - for example, two shy characters who would love to get together, but neither wants to make the first move. A shared trait does not mean two characters will get along, either. A great example of this is Arid and Aldwin from Planes of Eldlor. Both characters are cynical and distrustful, but one is (or acts) honest, while the other does not. This is one of the biggest reasons those two dislike eachother.

Other Personality Traits

You never want to make a character that is a mere list of attributes. Every time you assign a particular personality trait to a character, think about why (according to their history) they might've turned out that way.

This area can include moods, talents, abilities, weaknesses, fears, loves, hates, favorites, quirks, and habits. Really, all of these things are changeable over time - a person's favorite food may change monthly, whereas their mood can change several times a day or depending on their current situation. What is your mood like in a stressful situation (stuck in traffic) versus a peaceful situation (curled up with a favorite book)? You may describe a person as generally "happy" or "angry", but you should always consider what kind of stimuli may change that mood.

Talents and abilities are closely tied with a character's past - how did they learn to do those things? Why did they decide to do so? Why are they strong in one area but weak in another? If they fear something (here's a hint - everyone does), why? Is it an instictual fear (such as many people have for snakes), or is it tied to a particular situation from their past? If they hate someone or something, why? What makes this a true hatred, as opposed to merely disliking that person or thing?

Quirks and habits are probably the most fun part of this section, as they give you a chance to really distiguish characters from one another by something other than mere looks. What do they do when they're bored, or when they're excited? What's their posture like when they're standing, sitting, or even sleeping? Do they smoke, or drink? Are they loyal to a particular brand of clothing over all others, or a particular sports team? These things are small and unobtrusive (usually), but if you include them - and keep them consistent - they'll breathe life into your character.

Physical Traits

Unlike most character building templates, I put the physical traits at the bottom of this list. The world, culture, and race your character comes from is at the deepest level of their character development - things that change rarely, if ever, throughout their lifetime. Their looks are transitory, and are dependent upon their personality and their history - not the other way around.

Looks are still important, though, especially in a visual medium such as a webcomic, or to help your audience visualize a character in a written story. It's very frustrating for your audience if they can't tell your characters apart! However, keep in mind that most people don't go out of their way to stand out from the crowd, so look for subtle ways to make them appear different from one another, such as clothing and hair style and color, and things they don't have much control over, like body type or facial features.

As with personality traits, think about why a character chooses to look the way they do and what it says about them. If they have a scar, how did they get it? If they have a generally cheerful disposition, might they also wear brighter colors or more expressive clothing? How differently might a rich person or a poor person view hygiene?

Here are some physical traits to consider: Height, physical build, hair color and style, face shape, eye color, clothing style and colors, jewelry, shoes, possessions they nearly always have with them, etc. Obviously, if the character is not human, you might have a bit more to think about here.

In Closing...

You may have heard writers talk about characters "coming to life", "having a mind of their own", or "writing themselves". If a character is developed well, you'll probably have a good idea of what they'd do in just about every situation. You probably know a friend well enough to say, "he'd love that!", or, "she'd never do that." This is similar - and you'll probably catch yourself saying similar things about your characters after a while. You "know" them because you know how they came to be the person they are, and this will be reflected as you tell your story.