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Coming up with characters on your own

M. LeRenard

Is not French
Making characters....
Obviously this is pretty much the most important part of writing fiction. While it is possible to write good stories without good characters, it's harder to pull off, and in the end the story won't be as memorable to general audiences because it's going to necessarily be pretty much on the artsy side. So good characters make a story more relatable.

It sounds like a lot of folks have trouble with this aspect of storytelling, though.

Let me start by saying that I don't think it matters too much if your personality shines through in every single one of your characters. I think this because that's not something you can avoid. We're all limited to our own perspectives, and there's nothing we can do about that (unless there are true psychics amongst us who can read surface thoughts, but then this essay isn't for you). So if you find that your characters all have similarities, that's okay. There's only so much you can do.

I'm guessing that's a relief to hear that, right? People often worry that their characters are too similar. Well, I'm saying that's not ever a big deal, because that's the case with every author in existence.

But let's talk about how to work within these limitations a little. Knowing that all you have is your own perspective, how do you generate variety in your imagined characters? Well, luckily our personalities are all pretty complex, and we have these things called emotions that change frequently. In short, use that to your advantage.

Example time: you get woken up early in the morning to the neighbor's annoying yappy dog barking its ass off at a squirrel. It keeps this up for ten minutes, and with each passing minute you get more and more pissed off. Finally, you call your neighbor to complain. You chew this fucker out for a good chunk of time, insult him and his dog, his family, his friends. Then he apologizes and tells you his doctor told him the chemotherapy was affecting his hearing, and that this was a necessary side-effect so he could get rid of his pancreatic cancer.

So what goes through your head in those circumstances? It's a little different for everybody, and therefore is great character material. Maybe you think of someone who's short-tempered and quick to make harsh judgments about others. If you feel bad about the neighbor's explanation, you might make this character often regret snapping at people so much. If you're still annoyed even after the explanation, maybe this character is very proud, and resorts to self-justification when confronted in such a way so he doesn't feel like an asshat. Maybe it's something else entirely, and maybe it depends on what you're going through in your own life. The point is, take how you feel and run with it. Expand it.

Turn it into a character!

Now that's just one method, but it's been effective for me, and I think it'd work for most everybody else as well. So just one more thing: remember nuance. People are really complicated and difficult to deal with, and that's because our worlds are never black and white. So maybe this fellow you just thought of is quick to anger and proud, but he doesn't always have to be. It depends on the circumstances.

That's mostly a storytelling thing, though, so I'll leave it there.

Hopefully that gives people a good starting point for this thing. Feel free to post your own character-generation methods, or to tell me why mine doesn't work.


Impractical Fantasy Animal
I'm an analytical person, I like to identify personality archetypes by deconstructing other characters I see and then building up my own by adding original details. This is easier than it sounds. The process is:

1. Think of characters in two different tv shows, movies, or novels which have basically the same personality. We notice this kind of thing all the time without even trying. If you can think of a third or fourth character who is also basically the same, even better.

2. Make a little chart. Put each character's name at the top of a column. Think about each thing that's similar between the two of them, and what the small differences are. Are they both outwardly pretending to be one thing but inwardly something else? Are they both outcasts, both popular, or what, and why are they in that social position? What do they really want in life? What are they deeply afraid of?

3. Ok look at the parts where the two are different. Do you like one version better than the other? Think about why it is a more effective choice for that archetype. Can you think of any alternative that would be even better? Similarly, if there are any parts you dislike in both, you can think if there are any characters outside your comparison who do have a version you like, or if you can think of a better alternative.

4. Now put your half-developed character into the world of your story, and ask who they would be in that world and why. If you want to put your character in a world with superpowers, you may need to invent a superpower for them, and either a story of how they acquired it or a history of how they've used it so far. If you want to put your character in a world where there are racial tensions, you need to think about what race your character is, how they've been involved with other races so far in their life, and what their current attitude toward other races is. You may also want to think about what appearance would be both suited to the character's world and unique to their personality. For example, if you are writing a story set in the real world your character will presumably be a human, and beyond that you want to figure out what color their hair, skin, and eyes are, whether they are tall, short, or average, whether they are skinny, muscular, chubby, or average, what kind of clothes they wear and what kind of hairstyle they have, if they have any tattoos or piercings, etc. But if you want to use that same personality in a world where everyone is a dog-like alien, then obviously they need to look like a dog-like alien; some bits like height and weight may stay the same, but different skin or fur colors will be available, ears and tails become important to describe, they may not have hair to style, they may give cultural significance to some elements of decoration, etc.