Challenge accepted, Air! At last I am here to give my take on character creation. This topic is huge and varied and potentially overwhelming. It also happens to be my absolute favorite part of any storytelling. RP video games, D&D, novel writing—doesn’t matter. I. Love. Making. Characters.
I’d never really considered before what my process for character creation is. Since Air’s post I have really started to pay attention when I come up with someone new, and I’ve realized I do it differently almost every time. Helpful, right? But I did notice a few things that I stick with consistently when it comes to making a character for a novel, specifically. LET US BEGIN.
1. What’s my story?
My first step in coming up with novel characters is almost always to figure out the kind of story I want to tell. Is it modern-day? Fantasy or sci-fi? A light, fluffy adventure or a dark mystery? This kind of structure is super helpful to figure out what kind of character could even exist, which helps narrow down “This Character Could Literally Be Anything” to something more specific.
For Camp NaNoWriMo this April, I wanted to write a story based on the legends of Robin Hood in a typical Robin Hood setting. That told me my main character would probably not be a cyborg, for example. (But man, can you imagine Robin Hood flinging back his hood to reveal a single, red robot eye that shoots lasers? What a twist!)
2. What’s their gender?
Is the character male? Female? Non-binary? Transgender? Does it matter in your world? Gender doesn’t have to be blatantly stated in a story, but it will help form who your character is and how they identify with the world and people around them. This one can be tricky, too, because sometimes you think your character is one thing, and halfway through the story they tell you they’d like to be something else instead. Sigh. This is also one of those subjective steps in building a character that probably won’t matter to some people, but is very helpful to me.
In writing my Robin Hood story, I knew I wanted my character to be a Merry Man. But—I asked myself—what if one of the men was actually a woman in disguise? Thus, I knew I wanted to write about a girl in a man’s world. What does this mean for her? No one takes her seriously as a threat, she has expectations like marriage and family placed on her rather than strength and prosperity. Little details that shape who she is come out of knowing how she relates to her world.
3. What’s their personality? / What do they look like? / What’s their name?
So this is the part of character creation that gets a little muddier. I have multiple questions in this step because sometimes I figure out my character’s appearance based on their personality, but sometimes I learn what they’re like because of their name, BUT some other times how they look determines what people call them. Usually it’s just a big swirling blend of all three working off each other. This is especially true for me when it comes to D&D character creation, where how they look and act is my first stop in making a PC (player character).
Sometimes I really just want to write about someone different from me in some way. This is how I decided on my character for my current D&D game. I’m fairly tall in real life, so I decided my character would be a halfling—short. Her name and personality developed from there—spunky, lively, sneaky, open-minded, etc. I named her Tryk because it’s quick and sharp, like her. And then I came back to her appearance, putting in details based on the kind of person she is. She’s curious and compulsive rather than patient and fastidious, so her hair is always a mess. That sort of thing. Ancestors protect you as you try to figure these things out with my less than organized advice on this one.
4. Let them show you the rest.
This is something Air mentioned as well. It’s the weirdest, most vague step in the character creation process because you just have to let your character get into scenarios and see what they do. This is where your character grows the most and becomes something more than your initial concept of them. It’s also the hardest, because, well…
They’re not real. Everything about them comes from your squishy little brain parts. But if you’ve got the first bits of their character down, it really is like watching a character do their own thing, and it’s absurdly fun. Put them in impossible situations. Buddy them up with someone they can’t stand. How do they react? Let them naturally evolve into someone who feels real. And be patient—sometimes they work themselves out in a matter of pages. Sometimes it takes an entire draft. Eventually they will emerge from your brain cocoon and turn into something pretty cool.
Overall, just enjoy the process! Sometimes your characters turn out like a paper dolls—flat and poorly colored in—and you have to start over. But sometimes the characters take on a life of their own to the point where you can’t believe they came from your brain. Either way, you’ve created a person where before there was just empty space, and that is pretty freaking cool.