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Character Creation Basics –
Character Building 101
There you are sitting in front of your computer trying to figure out what the POV character will do in a situation, but your imaginary friend has stopped talking to you. In almost every case, this is due to one of just a handful of reasons. Today we’re going to talk about one the biggies.
I submit to you that your character’s silence may very well be due to the fact that (*gasp!*) he or she is one-dimensional.
That’s right, I said it. Timmy the Magician is boring. Cardboard cut-out characters don’t give writers enough clues and prompts to figure out what they’d do in a situation. Even if you figure out something to write, it might be as one-dimensional as Timmy himself.
Most character worksheets cover everything from Timmy’s first cat’s name to his favorite flavor of ice cream. These are awesome things to know, so you can sprinkle little details into your story that add flavor to the scene, but they do little to add real depth to your character. What would Timmy do if his nemesis did X in location Z? Strawberry ice cream! Yep… The struggle is real.
Fortunately, it’s never too late to give Timmy a couple more dimensions. I’d wager that Timmy will get plenty talkative once he has some substance to him, some depth. Future Tuesday Topics posts will drill down into more specific techniques to build a robust character, but today’s post focuses on the most basic things you can do to flesh out Timmy.
Basic Steps to Character Building
Answer three basic questions about each major character, including the MC, and you’ll have enough guidance to figure out how they’ll each react to almost any situation you put them in.
1) What does Timmy most desire, in his secret heart-of-hearts? Now then… why does Timmy want that?
Timmy may not know why, exactly, but if the writer knows then it can guide Timmy’s reactions in key scene moments.
For example, if Timmy’s inner desire is to find his mother, the reason may be that he fears to be alone and he knows Mom will never judge him and walk away. Allow that personality facet to guide his reactions.
Or, if Timmy’s strongest desire is to avenge his brother’s murder, perhaps the reason is that he wants to quench his all-consuming anger.
2) What are his personality poles? Every person has contradictory personality traits, and these can frame Timmy’s choices in the context of who he is deep inside.
Avoid being too complicated, or too abstract. They should be simple and clear, summed up in a couple words. They may or may not tie in to Timmy’s inner desire.
For example, Timmy the Magician’s personality poles might be “Pragmatic / Idealistic.” The two sides his personality that wage a constant war with each other are whether to live up to his ideals (personal, cultural, family-based, etc.) and find a nobler solution to problems even if it takes longer, or take the direct route to solve problems and feel bad about it later.
When a situation arises, his inner dialogue and even instinctive reactions can be framed within the context of his Poles. Two characters with different poles may face the same limited number of options in a situation, but the option they choose and the reason they choose it will be widely different.
3) “What do you want from me?” Everyone wants something from everyone they interact with, different for each person they know. Now figure out why they can’t have it.
When introducing a new character, if you decide what they want from each other and what the obstacle is, then that will color each character’s reactions.
For example, Timmy encounters Rocko as they cross the street in different directions. Timmy, seeing Rocko, wants him to get out of his way. Rocko, seeing Timmy, wants to get him to sign his petition to stop putting turnips inside prepackaged salads. They will obviously have very different reactions to meeting one another.
Any character’s actions in a given situation will be strongly affected by its DESIRE and REASON, its conflicting PERSONALITY POLES, and what it WANTS TO GET from the other character.
Spend a couple minutes figuring these things out when creating a character and you’ll have a much easier time writing his/her actions and reactions in a believable, consistent manner. With these three things, your MC will be more than a one-dimensional caricature, and it gives your story depth and personality.
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If you’ve read Robin Laws’ books on designing tabletop RPG game systems, you’ll recognize the concepts above. While I had unconsciously been using a variant of this basic guide for years, reading Laws’ books helped me become aware of and better understand the ideas I’d been for so long. If you read his books as an author, you may well get useful ideas from them as I did.
Image By Baroness Hyde de Neuville [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons