Guest blogger of Creating Characters in Your Fiction Writing, Amelia Connell, is a University of the Sunshine Coast student. She’s completing a Bachelor of Creative Industries, majoring in Publishing & Creative Writing. Amelia is currently undertaking a 208-hour internship with Gail Tagarro.
The Heart of the Story
Characters are the heart of every story. No matter how experimental the prose or how speculative the subject of the story, without a character there is no story. I’m the kind of writer who sometimes wakes up with a fully formed character walking around in my head. But I have no story to slot them into! They’re rarely perfect and they usually need an attitude adjustment before they’re ready for the world of fiction.
If your brain is the opposite and comes up with a plot first, fantastic! I’m jealous.
If, however, you’re struggling to create a character for your amazing plot, or you think there’s something missing from your characters, you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s start with a steadfast rule: do not mould a character so perfect for your story that they surpass any plot complications without breaking a sweat. Trust me. Your readers will be bored.
The basics of character creation are their appearance, their personality, and the flaws, quirks, and habits that make them who they are. Include all three in your characters to avoid creating ‘flat’ or ‘two-dimensional’ characters. A flat character is an uncomplicated character who is easily interchangeable with another and who doesn’t develop or grow throughout the story. Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby is a flat character.
Your character’s appearance includes their basic physical attributes. Are they male? Female? Nonbinary? Are they tall? Short? What colour is their hair? Their eyes? Their skin? Delving deeper, you could include scars or injuries, weird birthmarks, body modifications (including piercings, tattoos, and other mods), and other unique physical traits. Describing your character’s appearance is even more important if your character is non-human. How do they differ?
If you’ve already established the appearance of one character, comparing two characters can help create an image in the reader’s mind. In Jennifer L Armentrout’s From Blood and Ash, Hawke’s height is described relative to Poppy’s, the main character.
When including details of your character’s appearance in your work, avoid having your character look in a mirror and describing everything they see. If you’re writing from first person (or third person close – using he/she, they/them, focalised through a single character) perspective and the character looks in the mirror, describe a few pertinent details, like their hair or unique eye colour.
The best approach to constructing your character’s appearance (and in most descriptive scenarios) is to avoid listing everything all at once. Include the essential details of your character’s appearance when they’re first introduced. Sprinkle other details through the story, like seasoning to enrich your story’s flavour.
Borrow a few personality traits from people you know in real life, but be sure to keep things original and cohesive. Don’t just insert real people in your narrative. Your characters’ personalities will be the backbone of their journey in your story. Without a solid personality, they will flounder. By ‘solid’, I don’t mean a strong – mentally or physically – character, rather, a consistent one.
A sudden change in your character’s behaviour without an explanation to your reader can be off-putting and distracting. You can have a shy, gentle character who saves the world or defeats their bully, but you need to show their growth in your plot. Consistency is key in this instance, both in their personality and in their growth (and subsequent change in behaviour) throughout their character arc. For example, Rhysand in Sarah J Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series is, if not the antagonist, at the very least an aggressor in the first book. As the series goes on, the reader receives more of his backstory and an insight into his character growth to explain his change in behaviour in the subsequent books.
Keep your plot in mind when designing your characters. You want to create some form of conflict between your plot and your character, as this will add to the story. Often, the most entertaining storylines are the ones with a reluctant hero, rather than one who wants to save the world.
Flaws, Quirks, and Habits
Giving your characters flaws and personality quirks is an excellent way to make them unique, or to add tension to a story. A character flaw is often any regular personality trait taken to the extreme. For example, a character might refuse to apologise after their persistent, misplaced stubbornness. When this results in another getting hurt, it adds complications to both the plot and the dynamic between characters.
Personality quirks, on the other hand, are usually less detrimental. Your character could have an obsessive need to organise things in alphabetical order, or refuse to use contractions when speaking.
Establishing habits for your characters is another way to make them more solid. Perhaps they feed their cat every day at six pm, or they go for a jog every morning at eight am sharp. An interruption to this routine could signal the toll a plot point is taking on the character.
When incorporating character flaws, quirks, and habits it is especially important to remember the adage ‘show don’t tell’. If your character is anxious, and they have an established nervous tic, show the emotion through that tic. If they work with their hands, describe the effect their work has had on their hands.
When creating characters, it’s important for the writer to have a clear image of them in your mind. Their appearance, their personality, and their flaws, quirks and habits need to come together and form a solid, well-rounded character. On a longer work, it’s a great idea to keep a record of each character, their appearance, age, quirks, and so on.
And remember: avoid creating a perfect character who too easily overcomes your plot challenges. Create one who fights for them. That’s where your story will emerge.
Armentrout, JL 2020, From Blood and Ash, Blue Box Press, USA.
Fitzgerald, FS 1925, The Great Gatsby, Collins Classics, England.
Maas, SJ 2015, A Court of Thorns and Roses, Bloomsbury Publishing, USA.
Photo credit Lulia Mihailov Unsplash
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