When you’d like to create a character for a book, you might have a slight idea of who you’d like them to be. You’ve got it down to maybe a man who works a particular job, but then you get stuck. How do you develop your character into a three-dimensional person that your reader actually cares about? We’re going to look at what goes into creating a character step-by-step, and how you can develop a character with personality that jumps off the page.
What Makes a Good Character in a Story?
- A character you can relate to
- Motivation and goals
- Values or a cause
- Their Faults and Fears
While there are many aspects that go into building your character, the list above shows you ways we’ll add depth to the character. We’ll also look at ways to layer elements into your character so that each character is unique. How we’ll do that is with:
- How they look, we’re not just talking hair color, but are they disheveled, business savvy and well-groomed, things that give subtle hints to who they are, and not just what their eye color is
- How they talk, whether it’s peppered and fast, or with a tone of arrogance, we’ll dive deeper into this topic
- How they act toward others, as well as quirks they may have
- What they believe about themselves and the world around them
How do you create a character for a book?
The first step in creating a character for a book is understanding what your story is about. When you know what you want to say, it’s easier to develop your character. Let’s look at some basic ideas:
- What does your character want?
- What does your character actually need?
- What has shaped your character’s current path?
- What motivates your character?
- What’s stopped your character from reaching their goal?
These simple questions are a great way to start. We’re going to develop a character step-by-step. Grab a pen and paper, or open a text pad so you can jot things down as they come to you.
Building your Character
- Who is your character?
Is it a man, a woman, a child? Let’s start with the very simple pieces first, and you’ll see with each step, we’ll add another layer. If you try to do it all at once, you may create a character that doesn’t fit your story. So who is your protagonist (main character/hero/heroine)?
- What do they want?
This is what your story is about. Your protagonist needs a clear goal in the story. It’s a means to an end of the story. They are going to go from point A to point B. Whether it’s an adventure or a love story, they will change (which is the purpose of story, to show change/growth of a character), so we need to know what they want. Why is this important to them? Are they seeking to feel better about themselves, to save the world, to convince their crush they’re soul mates, or trying to solve a murder?
- Why do they want this goal?
Why is it important to them? Is their child in jeopardy? Is the love of their life about to marry another person? Have they been accused of a crime they didn’t commit? Do they want to prove to their family they are smarter then they’ve given them credit for? There is usually a motivation involved. People don’t do things without being motivated. Not big things. Sure, make breakfast, but even that is based on a motivation. You’re hungry, you make breakfast. Now, look at a big goal, and figure out why they want this particular goal. How do they think it will change their life for the better?
- What do they need?
How is want and need different? Okay, what they want, is a yearning inside of them, because they think this particular goal will make them happier or a better person. What they need may not be as obvious. They want a better job. The need might be respect. They crave respect from their father who spoke down to them and told them they’d never amount to anything. Your character usually knows what they want, but not necessarily what they need. This will come as an awakening of sort through the course of your story.
- Why haven’t they reached their goal yet?
This is an important question to ask. Why now? Why didn’t they reach their goal last week or last year? What’s standing in their way? Is it a person, a self-thought that harms them, or is it a set of circumstances like time or distance?
Write the answers to those questions first, and then we’ll dig a little deeper. I’ll wait.
Characters Who Look the Same Still Don’t Act the Same
Let’s take the example of a character in a wheelchair. The wheelchair is only one piece of that character. Don’t let that element define them. They are also a person with hopes and dreams. Let’s look at unique perspectives:
- A person who is temporarily in a wheelchair with a broken leg vs. somebody who is not in a temporary situation
- Somebody who is new to using wheelchair vs. a character who has been in a wheelchair since childhood
- A character in a motorized wheelchair vs. a non-motorized chair
We can take that example and look at other situations. Think about a man who lost his legs in a war, stepping on a mine vs. a man who lost his legs due to diabetic complications. We see a man without his legs, but they lived different lives and have different perspectives. Each has a unique outlook based on what they’ve been through.
This correlates to every character you write. Just because you choose to write about two teachers, it doesn’t mean that they are carbon copies of one another. Each element and layer you add, makes them become their own person. This is how you build character personality. Look at the pieces of their life and why they react to things the way they do.
How to Develop a Character with Layers
When you’re developing your character’s personality, you’ll want to take backstory in mind. Now, I’m not saying you should dump all that information in the opening of your story. Most of it will never make it to the page in a big, clump of words. What you’ll do is find your protagonist’s motivations and reasons that they react to things they way they do based on their backstory.
- Understand your character’s backstory
- Why do they act they way they do?
- What happened to them that caused them to behave that way?
- Were they scarred emotionally or physically? As as adult or a child?
- Who or what caused them to pull back from their goals? Pinpoint this, for more relevance.
- What else happened in their life? What is their background when it comes to being raised. Was it a strict household or lenient? Do they come from money or did they live in poverty? Each of these elements will shape your character and their views of the world around them.
Okay, by looking at the questions above, you can see how adding another element to your character slowly makes them more complex. Each piece of the story helps create your character into a well-rounded, dimensional person that your readers will love. What’s next?
What is a Character’s Voice?
A character’s voice is they way they present themselves to those around them and how they see themselves. Note that I didn’t say how the world sees them. It’s who they think they are.
Let’s dig deeper. Now, note that I’m not just talking about the vocalization, but I’ll use that as an example to hopefully give you an ‘aha’ moment. Let’s say your character is from southern Louisiana and worries that the corporate world in the fast-paced Manhattan district won’t take them seriously if they speak with a slow, southern drawl.
They want to be seen as the ideal candidate for a job they’re applying for. For them, their motivation is wanting their potential employer to see their value and the assets that they can bring to the position they’re applying for.
They think, if they sound less southern, it might help them. How they present themselves to others, is part of who they are. When they are with friends, they will speak naturally, and not feel the need to impress them in a way that they tried with their employer.
Another example of character voice is the rhythm of how they speak. If you’re from the Northeast, you tend to speak quickly. Fast, paced. You might sound like you’ve had to much caffeine. Though, not everybody speaks that way. It’s an assumption, though for reason, as many Northeastern people do speak that way. I live in New Jersey. I don’t think about how fast I speak, until I’m somewhere else. I realize it’s like I’m on hyper-mode. I don’t notice it at home.
Tics, in words you choose. Maybe our potential employee choose to use large, extravagant, and eloquent words to impress at their interview. While with friends, they might use choppier language and have similar phrases they use often.
A character starts to take shape in the flow of their words, their word choice, how they speak, what they say, and the subtexts and meanings of those words. Have you ever seen somebody coyly smile when answering a question with, ‘Sure, no problem.’? You know they don’t mean what they say, and they’re probably going to write off the task they were asked about. Subtext is saying something different than what you mean.
All of these pieces add to the character’s voice. Yes, you can add in something like a scratchy, smoky voice if they’ve smoked cigars all their life, or maybe a speech impediment if it’s important to your character. Just remember, voice is more than the pitch or tone of a character’s voice. It’s more in how they present themselves in different ways.
How to Make a Character Stand Apart
We’ve covered a lot of different aspects of a character. Here are some basics you want to consider when you’re building your character. Developing them into somebody we want to read about means getting to know your character. It doesn’t mean you need to know what their astrological sign is or what they had for dinner last night, but there are some basics:
- Who is your character? What do they look like? What do they sound like?
- How do they behave around others? Do they act the same around everybody, or do they behave differently around different groups of people? Are they outgoing? Aggressive? Introverted? Helpful? Cynical?
- Consider who they are when they’re at work, at home, or in social situations. Often we put on masks and act differently based on the situation.
- What drives them forward? What is the motivational factor that pushes them to reach for their goal?
- Do they have a flaw or fear that stops them from living their perfect life? How did they get that flaw or fear?
- What opinion do they hold? Do they like who they are? Do they dread parts of their life? Do they wish they could be somebody else? Are they only paying lip-service about who they say they are?
Each of these questions will help you dig deeper into creating your character. When you develop a character for a story, start at the top level, then go deeper. Ask yourself why they do the things they do, then when you answer that question, ask why to that. Go three layers deep to get to the root of things.
Here’s an example:
My character hates going to get blood work done, but it’s a necessity because of his diabetes.
Why does he hate going?
Because one time he fainted in front of the nurse, and felt embarrassed and ashamed.
Why did he feel embarrassed?
They found the nurse attractive, and worried what she might think of him. He’d been considering asking her out on a date. Now every time he goes, he feels foolish.
Why does he feel foolish?
He realizes that he doesn’t think he’s good enough for her, even though he likes her. BINGO. This has nothing to do with getting blood work. It has to do with his attraction to a woman he doesn’t feel good enough for. It makes him self-conscious and feel like less of a person.
See how by asking why, deeper and deeper, you get to the root of the question. Now we know why he acts the way he does when he spouts off to his friend, “I hate getting blood word done. It’s stupid.”
There are so many layers you can add, but this is a great place to start. If you’d like to learn more about how to get your story started, you’ll find information in the highlighted article.
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