Building a Character – They’re Not Characters, but People

In the interest of variety, I thought it might do us all some good to forgo the usual inspiration post this week and talk instead about the writing process. Now I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on writing fiction – I don’t think anyone is. Creative writing is a wild horse without a master, and I don’t see it being tamed anytime soon. That being said, there are certain tricks of the trade that I’ve employed over the years that have served me well and I thought I would pass some of them along.

Let’s start with what I think is one of the most important aspects of a story: building a character.


Tip #1: Don’t Think of Them as a Character

The worst thing you can do for the development of a new character, any new character, is to think of them as a fictional being. They are, and should be, so much more than that. If you sit down and start creating a character with the thought This is the comic relief character, or She’ll be the popular girl character, or especially They’re not real, so I can do whatever I want!, you are almost certain to fail.

Never write to an archetype. If you’re creating a character to check off a box, that’s a bad start as it is. Every character, even if they do end up filling an archetypal role in your story, needs to be much more than just an archetype. Archetypes are flat; they have to be. No character, major or minor, should be flat. Maybe she ends up being the popular girl, but she sneaks away from every campus party to go LARPing or something. Maybe she’s popular but doesn’t realize it. Maybe she’s a popular girl who wants to be a popular guy.

Why does your character have to be round and not flat? Because even if you know they’re fictional, the audience is supposed to believe they’re real. Real people are round. Fiction writing, like the theater, rests a lot on the principle of “suspension of disbelief”. What this means is that your audience goes into the experience of reading or watching your work with the knowledge that it’s not real; but they are going to willfully pretend that it is real, if only for a few hours. Anything that threatens to pop that bubble of suspension of disbelief is dangerous. If the audience hasn’t been convinced that a plot twist is supported, or a character would make a certain decision, then they’re forced out of the illusionary world you’ve worked so hard to create.

Photo by Thomas Szynkiewicz
Photo by Thomas Szynkiewicz via Flickr

Just because characters aren’t real people, or may exist in settings that aren’t real, doesn’t mean they can act any which way. They must be consistent to themselves and the environment they exist in. It doesn’t make sense for the character who’s been nurturing sick dragons back to health to have no problem torturing songbirds. Real people aren’t that contradictory. No character will always be sweet, or nice, or good though, either because, hey, real people aren’t that consistent all the time. The lady who helps her neighbor clean up after kids egged his house might have been out egging houses herself the week before.

They key here is to listen to the characters. Now, if your fictional characters are literally talking to you, you might want to see somebody about that. But as you’re writing, you’ll come to certain points where you have to make a decision about what a certain character should do. Should Captain Reptar fire on the listing ship because it represents a potential threat or should he go on board to assure no one is still alive? If one choice isn’t more obvious to you than the other, try writing out both scenes. I can almost guarantee you that one will feel more natural, more right, to you and to the character than the other. It’s no crime not to know right away either – sometimes our characters can surprise us! In fact, I think that’s where some of the best moments in writing come from; when our characters start to take on a life of their own and make decisions that shock even us.

Photo by Pellethepoet via Flickr
Photo by Pellethepoet via Flickr

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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