5 Steps to Original Character Creation

October 10, 2015 | By | 8 Replies More

Pryal Color Portrait 2014-12If you’ve done any fiction writing any your life, you’ve probably received some writing advice. And you were probably to do this: Avoid clichés in your writing!

But what’s hilarious about that advice is that the advice itself is a cliché. (Whoa, so meta.) In fact, writing advice itself is full of great clichés. Let’s all recite the great clichés of writing together: Show, don’t tell. Don’t fear the Sh***y First Draft. (Anne Lamott, it is great advice, but it’s given so often these days it’s become cliché.)

And then there’s my personal un-favorite: Write what you know.

Can you imagine how boring life would be if all we did was write what we know? Like most advice, it has some truth to it, but it shouldn’t be followed religiously. Let’s look at how writing what you know affects the creation of original, believable characters.

Here are five steps to creating original characters, characters who will drive your story forward, whom your readers will believe in, whom they will love or hate, or better still, love and hate, because that’s more real and human. And to follow these steps, you will have to write what you know. But you will also have to delve into the unknown, too, the mystical, even—the super.

Step 1.

This is the easy part. Here’s where you get to write what you know.

Make a list of all the flaws in yourself that you wish you could change. I’ll give you some examples of mine. Sometimes, I takes things too literally and don’t get a joke. This lack of insight was really painful in high school. Sometimes, I get really single-minded in my drive to succeed that I overlook other people’s feelings. I don’t mean to, but I hurt them anyway.

Make a list of 10 flaws. We’re all writers, therefore we’re all a bit neurotic. I’m sure you’ve spent enough time examining yourself to know what your weaknesses are. You can do this.

Step 2.

Here’s where the magic starts to happen. Each of these individual flaws becomes a character. “Too Literally.” That’s a character. “Single-minded” is another. And so on. But in order to make this work, “sometimes I take things too literally and don’t get a joke” has to become “Always takes things too literally.” You have to take the flaw to the extreme. Each of your rather ordinary flaws must become a character’s fatal flaw. (If you want to learn more about the usefulness of fatal flaws in storytelling, Google the Greek term hamartia. Aristotle had a lot to say about that.)

Step 3.

Now that you’re depressed about your sad-sack characters, the fun really begins. Because no one is only flawed. Everyone, even the most flawed individual, has strengths.

So let’s brainstorm some strengths. But not just ordinary strengths. Superpowers. Make a list of superpowers that you wish you had but that you do not have. Note: Here’s where “write what you know” goes out the window. Do not list your own superpowers. That’s boring.

A superpower might be, “Is really good at physics.” Another one might be, “Looks like a movie star.” Whatever you do, pick something that is amazing and that you do not have. When you write about your character’s superpower, you want to sound in awe of her—as much in awe of her as everyone else is. If the superpower is one of your own, then your writing won’t sound awestruck. (You know, because familiarity breeds contempt. Ha! Another cliché.)

One note: A superpower can be something that seems small, like this: “Is really great around death.” Just so long as it isn’t your own. (That superpower is one of mine, so I couldn’t use it.)

Step 4.

At this point, you might see where this is going. It’s time to start pairing the superpowers with the flaws. A superpower paired with a flaw creates the core of your character, like the nucleus of an atom. Using my examples above, we get the following:

–  “Always takes things too literally” pairs with “Is really good at physics.”

– “Her single-minded drive to succeed hurts those around her” pairs with “Looks like a movie star.”

ENTANGLEMENT front coverThose two nuclei right there? Those were the beginnings of the two main characters of ENTANGLEMENT and LOVE AND ENTROPY: Greta (the physicist) and Daphne (the screenwriter).

Once you’ve paired up all of your flaws and superpowers, you are ready for Step 5.

Step 5.

Nuclei are not characters. Not even close. Lastly, you have to write your character sketches. You build these sketches around the flaws and superpowers. Use the flaw to humanize your character. Use the superpower to help her get ahead, to get her out of (or into) trouble.

For example, in ENTANGLEMENT, Greta the physicist may take things too literally, but that also means she doesn’t fall for the glamour of Hollywood. She sees right through it. Her literal approach also means, though, that she nearly dies because she can’t see trouble coming. Her physics superpower gets her a job that she might not have gotten at her young age and also gives her a very particular lens through which she sees the world, the way she makes connections between events, even people.

What you might notice as you start to write these sketches is that what you thought was a superpower might also be a flaw, and what you thought was a flaw might also be a superpower. That’s a great moment. That’s when your characters start to become human.

Now you need to do this pre-writing work for all of your characters. And when I say all, I mean all of them, not just your main two or three. If you have ten characters in your book, then ten characters need this much development and backstory.

But by doing this work you are doing yourself a huge favor. This level character development pre-writing pays off big time when you start drafting your book. You will already know how all of your characters will act in any given situation. When a character gets in a car wreck. When a character’s loved one is in the hospital. When any of life’s ordinary or extraordinary events occur, having this background prepared means that you already know what your characters will do and say. You don’t have to wonder, you only have to write.

When that happens, you’ll realize that you’re the one with the superpower.

Katie enjoys her three professions—novelist, freelance journalist, and lawyer—for one reason: her love of the written word. Fiction or nonfiction, Katie thrives on putting thoughts to paper and sharing them with the world. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the energy of the campus and cafes inspires her writing. She is the author of ENTANGLEMENT: A Novel (Velvet Morning Press 2015) and LOVE AND ENTROPY: A Novella (Velvet Morning Press 2015). She contributes regularly to THE HUFFINGTON POST, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, THE TOAST, DAME MAGAZINE and other national venues.
She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. You can find Katie on Twitter at twitter.com/krgpryal, on Facebook at facebook.com/katieroseguestpryal, and on her blog at katieroseguestpryal.com.

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Category: How To and Tips

Comments (8)

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  1. H.C. Maree says:

    What a foolproof and practical approach to creating characters. Thanks for the advice. I will definitely be using it.

  2. What a great article, Katie! It’s an approach that’s easy to do and pretty simple to assimilate. I’m often hesitant to seek other’s techniques because I’m afraid I’ll only confuse myself or something, which is dumb. A writer has to have a toolbox full of tricks, and I’ll be adding this one to mine.

    I especially like how you take a real/familiar versus not-real/super powers approach. It’s the contrasts with in a person (character) that gives them depth and I think this is a great way to get that started.

  3. Mel Menzies says:

    Great advice, Katie. I had a lot of fun creating the protagonist in my latest book, Time to Shine. First of a series, it’s an Evie Adams mystery, and my hope is that her name says it all. Evie is a counsellor, who helps her clients to solve the mysteries in their lives (rather than the usual detective) but, as indicated, she’s a little bit naughty, in a nice way, and does not toe the line herself.
    Most of my books – commissions from Hodder and other publishers – have been biographical (or how to books). Even when writing real life stories, it’s important to pick up on the nuances of characterisation. In my bestselling book, The Last Mountain, I had to convey the traits and physical mannerisms that were peculiar to my main character. Difficult, as he was deceased, but Hodder sent me off to Geneva to talk to his widow. I’m not sure I satisfied ALL his family, but I believe Jana was happy about the they way I’d depicted her lovely husband.

  4. Vicki Lesage says:

    So interesting! Up until now I’ve only written memoirs so I write what I know (cliché — check!) and I write about my own flaws and superpowers. When I finally delve into fiction (one of these days…) it will be exciting to go through these steps. (Though to some extent I’ve done some of this because even in memoir writing you can’t say EVERYTHING so you do have to plan which aspects of your characters you’re going to show.)

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