How to create a character

In this article and the associated free character map I’ll show you how to create characters who are strong, convincing and memorable.

“What a character!” is a phrase we hear to describe real people. It can be meant in both a positive and negative way. But when we hear those magic three words, we know what the speaker means. We know that the person they’re talking about is memorable. Furthermore, you can bet there are some interesting stories attached to that person. Probably the next two sentences will be, “He/she was always such a [description of habit or behaviour]. There was one time when he/she…”

When a tribute is being paid, you might hear someone talk about another person’s depth of character. Those three words tell us immediately that everyone knew what that person stood for, and that they held those beliefs strongly.

In either of the above instances, the character in question would be one whose behaviour would be predictable in certain circumstances.

Do you see the underlying truth in those two examples? The character came before the story: stories are attached to character. You could have the best plot in the world, but if the character isn’t up to it, the story will fall flat. Indeed, without the character, there might not even be a story. The story of Christ in the New Testament is often called The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s such a powerful and compelling story that 2,000 years on around 1.2 billion people adhere to a religion founded upon it. In this instance the entire story is the character. A similar belief-system based on love existed in the Sixties, but without a strong central character it was short-lived.

Define your character before you write the story

Strong characters do two basic things – one for the writer, and one for the reader.

For the writer, they help drive the story. You often hear writers say that “The characters took the plot to places I’d never imagined.” Define character first, and you’ll make the plotting the narrative arc that much easier. If you need a high or low for the character, you know what you must have them do. Give them a strong enough motivation and they will undertake a tortuous journey that will test their character to its limits.

For the reader, it’s all about empathy – the characters are humans they can identify with; they care about them. If you keep your character within their range of capabilities, you continue to suspend the reader’s disbelief. For both reader and writer there’s a wonderfully perverse pleasure out of seeing the character be put under pressure in situations that you know will test his or her personal limits. If a reader doesn’t care about a character, you’ve lost them.

This character map will help you develop full-on characters – characters who will help you write your best fiction. In all my years of writing fiction I would start with the protagonist. Unwittingly, I’d stumbled on a technique I was to be given in the first lecture of my MA in Creative Writing under the novelist and broadcaster Harriett Gilbert. We were asked to choose a picture of person, then to write down key points about them. Our first assignment was to write a short story which brought out those key character traits.

Formalising a character map appealed to me. I developed the idea of a comprehensive character map to ensure I’d cover everything and make me think at an even deeper level. As part of my journey as a stand-up, I spent a great deal of time learning improvisation. That’s another story, but I learnt that audiences love strong characters, who change.

Let’s take two examples of strong, well-defined characters. I’ve chosen them from movies, rather than novels, because the chances are greater that you’ll have seen both.

Indiana Jones is one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. You know Indie’s going to get into trouble. You also know that he’ll get into even deeper trouble because his strong values mean he’s always going to do the ‘right thing’: he’ll put his own life in peril for that of some pain-in-the-neck secondary character because he’s a stand-up guy. You also know he hates insects and snakes, so you know he’s going to be tortured by over-exposure to them at some point. The Indiana Jones stories are basic, predictable, action-adventure plots – but the audience loves the character so much they came back for sequels in droves. Indeed, he’s been voted second-greatest hero of all-time (between Atticus Finch and James Bond, since you asked).

In the Heat of the Night, based on John Ball’s 1965 novel, won five Academy Awards. Sydney Poitier’s police-detective character is deposited in 1960s Mississippi to investigate a murder. The racist chief of police played by Rod Steiger tries to fit up Poitier’s character for the murder. Poitier’s character is in serious danger – this is 1960s Mississippi – and he could be killed at any time. However, it was Rod Steiger’s character that won an Oscar. Why? The racist character played by Rod Steiger changed. Thus, there could be no true sequel. Poitier’s character did go on to do two other movies, but they were clichés (so-called Blaxploitation movies).

In both examples, character has driven the plot to a greater or lesser extent. Indie’s character pulls us through a weak plot and delivers popular entertainment in buckets. Any awards will be for special effects. By contrast, Poitier’s and Steiger’s characters create the story. Steiger’s racism puts Poitier in danger. Poitier’s resolute character brings justice and drives the change in Steiger’s character. Indeed, the movie itself is believed to have helped a massive elicit a social and political change in the real world – this is power of character-led story.

Make your characters recognisable

You also need all of your characters to be easily recognisable. If a character has a particular way of speaking, we know a speech belongs to them. If they have a particular way of dressing, the protagonist or narrator can pick them out in a crowd. They may talk in a specific way – think about the buffoonish Deputy Gurie in DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-winning Vernon God Little. She says “Stuss-tistically” and has the verbal tics “Gh” and “Gh-rr” which reinforce the idea that she’s of low intelligence.

A multi-dimensional character map

The character map I developed covers everything you need to know about your character in advance of your story. It will provide you with:

  • Traits that give them a unique voice and make them identifiable
  • Flaws that make them human, vulnerable and likeable
  • Habits that make them identifiable – and get them into trouble
  • Beliefs and values that give them believable motivation
  • Backstory to give you a range of sub-plots, and to explain the strength of their motivation

The time you spend on creating your key characters is the most valuable you can spend on your novel or screenplay. And, yes, I did say characters plural. What use is a strong hero without a strong villain?

Download the free character map here.

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