Coming up with characters is easy. Making those characters come to life on the page?
That’s a little tougher.
It’s hard for me to say that one element of storytelling is more important than any of the others, but I’ve got to admit…I’ll follow a good character through just about anything.
What makes a good character? I suppose the answer to this will vary depending on individual taste, but one of the main things that makes me fall in love with a character is that they feel real. They’re complex and interesting and feel like they could walk right off the page.
So how do we create characters that feel real? I can’t tell you what will work for you. There is not a shortage of advice on this topic in the wilds of the internet and on the shelves of your local bookstore. All I can tell you is what I personally do. It may work for some of you.
I use music. Music is this instant shortcut to emotions and inspiration for me, so you’re probably going to see me using it during several steps of this process. But in the case of creating characters, I sit down with a notebook and pen, put either my own music or Pandora on shuffle, and I let my mind wander. I do try and direct my attention toward the story I’m writing; It won’t help me very much if my mind wanders to what I’m having for dinner tonight or how early I need to get up tomorrow.
I try to think about the characters that I know I need for the story. I think about their histories. I try to think of important moments in their lives. Or maybe when they met each other, if that’s something that will have to have happened before the story starts. I think about their traumas and their successes and their desires. Eventually something starts to solidify.
It’s not always the first song that catches me, or the second, or even the third, but it doesn’t take too long before one of the songs will spark an idea. And then I start writing.
This is not a moment to get too caught up in the prose. I’m writing backstory here, and it’s not ever going to be seen by other people. It doesn’t really need to have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a snapshot.
I put that particular song on repeat and write until I feel like I’m done. It may be short; It may be long. But by the end, I have a snippet of backstory and there is always something important I’ve learned about the character. Usually, I try to distil what I’ve learned down to a single sentence and then that sentence later gets transferred to a character chart.
I do this for my main characters, and occasionally side characters. And slowly, but surely, they start to come to life.
Why does this method work for me? Because instead of just deciding random facts about the characters and jotting them down in a chart, I’ve let their histories grow organically.
Back in the day, I used to read/write fanfiction. I LOVED fanfiction. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was so easy to get caught up in these characters other people had created, but it was so hard to create my own. On the surface, I understood what made good characters—or at least characters that I liked. Why couldn’t I create them for myself?
But with fanfiction, the characters already have this whole rich backstory coming from the source material. When I was beginning to write my own characters, there was no such history. I hadn’t written them yet! So, how can I feel as though I know these characters as well as the characters from my favorite books and tv shows?
By creating rich backstories for them. By the time I get around to writing the actual story, I want to know these characters as well as the ones I used to write fanfiction about. And this is how I get there.
Tell me how you create characters and bring them to life. Do you create huge backstories? Do you use character charts? Do you draw on inspiration from life? Tell me in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!