How to create great fictional characters

Character creation is a key part of the planning process. This article addresses what to do in the pre-write stage, whether you are writing a novel or a short story.

There are four ways to create fictional characters: 

  1. Autobiographical method – Base them on yourself, giving them attributes you yourself have.
  2. Biographical method – Base them on someone you know or have studied/researched. 
  3. Create them from scratch.
  4. A combination of two or all of these. This is the most common method.

It’s not advisable to lean on method 1 or 2 exclusively, because with the former all your characters are going to be the same, and with the latter you will at best offend people, and at worst leave yourself open to legal challenges for libel and the like.

Example:

One way to do the combination method is to select someone you know and choose a number of their characteristics. Then tweak one or more of those characteristics so the person wouldn’t be able to identify themself. For example, you could switch the gender, or significantly alter their age. Lastly, add a number of characteristics from scratch. As long as they are credible you have carte blanche here. In this way, you can come up with a completely new character starting with someone you know.

For example, I selected the lady who runs one of my local newsagents.  First I identified a number of her attributes. I decided whether I was going to keep the attribute or not, and if so whether I was going to tweak it. The table below lists the attributes I kept and shows which I tweaked. After this, I added a number of additional characteristics from scratch.

CharacteristicsTweaked?
FemaleN
ShortY. Tall
FatY. Slim
Runs newsagentY. Runs hairdressers.
Hard-workingN
MaternalY. No children.
RaucousN
Feisty/formidableN
Fun N

The above exercise is particularly useful if you have no character already in mind when you begin character creation and is useful for beginner writers.

But sometimes you already have an idea of the type of character you need for your story, and it is about fleshing them out and building on it. Some stories require a certain kind of protagonist and/or a certain kind of antagonist, or you know you want to write about a particular character you’ve had in your head in your ages. You still need to do some work in the planning stage to get to know them.

Round and flat characters

The level of detail you need to know about each character depends on their role. For example, you will need to know your protagonist in depth and they will have multiple layers but you won’t need to know anywhere near as much about supporting characters. Three-dimensional characters that are illustrated in detail are called ’round’ characters. Round characters have the ability to surprise the reader; they have contradictions and many sides, like real people. The opposite are called ‘flat’ characters. Stock characters and stereotypes are flat characters.

The level of detail you need to know also depends on what length/type of work you’re writing. For example, I find that if I’m writing a short story I don’t go into anywhere near as much detail on my characters in the planning stage as when I’m writing a novel.

Character sketches

I’m a big believer in making notes on my story’s characters before I begin to write. This helps to get their attributes straight in my mind and gives me something I can refer to throughout the writing process. So without further ado, here are 3 ways of approaching the character sketch. 

  1. You can make notes on the categories shown in the following table. 

Note that the first letters spell out ‘PERSONAL’. (exception = take the N from Interiority). This is a useful mnemonic to remember it.

CategoryDescription
ParticularsName, age, job, education, background etc.
EmotionsFeelings, moods, disposition, loves, hates etc.
RelationshipsSpouse, siblings, parents, friends, neighbours, colleagues etc.Also, how they relate to and interrelate with others.
SpeechHow they speak, what they say and how they say it.
Outward AppearanceFace, hair, physique, clothes, how they walk, carry themselves, mannerisms etc.
iNteriorityThoughts, attitudes, opinions, perceptions, reflections etc; but also self-awareness.
ActionsWhat they do, how they do it; their behaviour.
LocationTheir home, their neighbourhood, the places they hang out, and their relationship to their setting(s)

   2. If you use Scrivener, there is a character template in there which is sufficient for my needs for writing a short story. For a longer work I’d need more detail. 

   3. Here is a basic character worksheet:

For even more in-depth character worksheets, see for example these from The Novel Factory and Epiguide

That’s all on character creation!

Let me know your approach to character creation in the comments below!

How to create great fictional characters. Character creation.
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