If we’re creating the right kinds of characters, they will feel like real people.
They would have a clear description, a consistent personality, strong objectives, bad habits and body odor. But where do we start when it comes to creating them?
I don’t think there is one right answer. But if you’re looking for inspiration, or you want a clearer picture, consider this list:
Top Ten Ways To Find Inspiration For Your Main Character
1. Pick an Archetype In the beginning of your creation consider looking at basic tropes often used in fiction.The archetypes are generally defined by their role and their basic reaction to the story. You know these. You’ve recognized these from books and television shows. A good writer doesn’t just stop with them, but fleshes them out to become more three dimensional. This is like taking a standard recipe and tricking it out. It’s like choosing a template or a paper doll and then creating your own thing from it. Here are some links that you can use to find good archetypes.
2. Basic Description Let’s say the character you want to create sits down across from you and hands you his resume or CV. Every bit of information you can get from that encounter could be qualified as the basic description. You have to major sources of information: what you see and facts on the page. Does this gangster have a smashed nose? Does your heroine have a faint mustache? How do they look at you? Do they fidget? Create your character by listing everything that you see. Then think about their history. Your smashed-nosed mobster didn’t go to Harvard, he didn’t grow up in the suburbs, and he didn’t have Swedish parents. Or maybe he did? This list is an extremely helpful when it comes to listing your character’s basic description.
3. Characterization This is my favorite part. Let’s say you don’t have an archetype and you don’t have face to go with, but you do know that this character has specific drives, like they want to be the center of attention, or you know what their emotional state is, or they have dysgraphia and didn’t hold a pencil until they were 12. I believe that the best characters are the ones whose inner life has been fully displayed in the story. How do you figure that out? There are so many ways! Start with the Meyers Briggs Personality Inventory. Then move to the Four Temperaments. Then look at something like this quiz from Psych Central. I also recommend the Emotional Trait Thesaurus. Don’t be afraid to write backstory, explain their fears and desires, or predict what they’re looking for in the love interest!
4. Desires As much as I love an emotionally rich character, I think desires are really the most important part of your entire character. By understanding what your character wants, then you can put them into the conflicts that will either give him those things or hinder him in the pursuit. And this is the thing about desires: what we say we want and what we really want are often not the same thing. Let’s say your character wants to be a world famous opera singer, and maybe they’ve got a decent voice, but what if they don’t actually get to be one. What is it that they are pursuing anyway? Are they pursuing financial security? Fame? An identity? Acceptance from their musical parent? What is it that is really driving them? Your desires are the biggest things that make you. And you have levels of these desires. I like to go to my good buddy Abraham Maslow to think about characters’ desires. And it helps me to understand how my character can have conflicting desires and what they need to do with them.
5. The Anti-Antagonist This is probably the most backward way to develop a character, but sometimes we need to do whatever it takes. Say you don’t know your protagonist very well, but you know your antagonist REALLY well. So write your protagonist as an antagonist to them. Are you confused yet? Your bad guy is allergic to dairy, so your hero has a milk gun. Your bad guy wants to rule all of North America and your good guy is the buffest Canadian Mountie superhero that ever walked. How to do this? Make a list of everything your antagonist is and counter it with the opposite force. Ta-da! A good start in your protagonist’s character development.
6. You This is where you write what you know. Base your character, at least in the beginning, on yourself. Then tinker with it. Make her ten years younger, a blonde, a high school dropout but still you. You know yourself well. I also recommend this method if writing is new to you and you just don’t know how to fully flesh a character out. Whether we do it consciously or not, we put ourselves into our stories. I say do it deliberately to get started and then see what happens. You can always change things around and I recommend you do. You don’t want to finish Attack of the Killer Zombie Bees and have your grandmother if it is an autobiography. But be careful. You could wind up a Mary Sue.
7. That Crush you once pined for. When I look back at the silly crushes I had in college, I don’t even know what I was thinking. I must have liked him for some reason. You had a crush too. Go back there in your mind and even if you have to exaggerate, even if you have to resist the urge to look them up on Facebook. You are writing about the fantasy in your mind, not of middle age spread and mortgages. Recreate the crush, that moment you talked behind the school, that time it rocked your world. Go there. Change the names, but this could definitely be a character you could get excited about.
8. The Fan Fiction favorite. This is probably the easiest way to get inspiration for a character. Pick a character from one of your favorite TV shows and keep writing them. Ship them with the person you’ve thought all along that they had great chemistry with, put them in more interesting situation. But then, because you’re a novelist and you’re excited about what you have to say, change their names, the setting, give them a few different traits and you’ve got yourself a new story that can be unrecognizable as the original idea. You can get excited about this because you already know the character, you already kind of know the story you want to tell and you know what is next. Even if this comes to naught, the idea that you can create something on the back of another writer isn’t a bad thing. I’m not talking plagiarism, but I am talking about finding inspiration in something you love already.
9.The Secret. We all have something that we would be horrified if someone knew about. Go to Postsecret.com or Humans of New York and find a secret. From that secret, what can you tell us about a character? What would they want eventually? What would be the consequences if someone discovered it? I think this is a great place to build a mental protagonist and from there you may have your story.
10. The Fear. What is the weirdest fear you have ever heard of? What kind of character would have a fear like that? What kinds of conflicts can you put a character in who would have an irrational fear of bananas? Use this list for a broad look at various fears. Does this inspire you? Do you have a potential Indiana Jones who can’t stand snakes? This could be a great inspiration for your character. How does he deal with his fear? How does he overcome his weakness? How does he ride the wave of conflict, how does he reacts, how does he solves problems, how does he communicate this fear to the other characters in the story? Many people keep their fears a secret, some however would declare them publicly. What does your character do? What difference does it make to him or her if the whole world knows that he is is afraid of something? Use fear to make your character even greater.
Got another idea? I’d love to hear it. Leave a comment and maybe I’ll be inspired!
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Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community.