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Five Things that Tell You Who Your Characters Are

May 25, 2011

When you start a story, there is no way you will have all your characters defined. Maybe crazy Aunt Lila has a personality and appearance that will stay exactly like you first imagined them, but crazy Aunt Lila only appears in one scene and says one line. I could be wrong, but that’s usually what happens to most of the writers I know. This is why characters are so wonderful, because even though you can control them, even though you are their creator, they still have the power to grow into wonderful people or terrifying criminals.

Still, having an idea of who your characters are going to be before you begin to write is sometimes a good idea. After all, the characters are the ones who carry out the actions that make the plot. Hence, knowing them, at least briefly, can make writing a much more smooth experience. Some–possibly most–of the characteristics you define for one character before you start writing will change while you write, or while you edit. Still, some characteristics will stay, and these can be crucial.

There are many ways you can get to know your character before you start writing. You can create a character sheet which lists every aspect of your character that is important, or not so important. You can write a whole scene with your character in which you describe him or her and his or her history. And I’m sure you know other ways.

However, in my opinion, all that you need to know about any character can be divided into five categories: name, appearance, purpose, history, and personality. Every character, even crazy Aunt Lila, who only appeared in one scene, has these characteristics. It’s your choice whether you will write them down or not before you start your story or just get to know these things while you are writing, but knowing such things about your character can help him or her come to life. Here’s how.

1. Name:

Well, if it’s a minor character that just yelled “Shut up!” to your main character while she was  standing on a table, singing and dancing drunk, it’s quite possible you won’t need a name for this person  or you won’t need to know anything at all about this person, except for what he yells. However, the reason why names are important is quite obvious. Names can say a lot about a character, or they can say nothing at all. Before you start the story, you should at least think about what kind of name you want to give your character. Do you want it to be a foreign name? Do you want it to mean something deep? Do you want it to be a common name? Do you wanted it to be a ridiculous name that your character hates –something that her parents made up and that she can’t figure out how they ever thought it was beautiful?  You don’t have to have the right name before you begin writing. The name may come later. Actually, call her MC101 or something for the moment. The right name may come while you write, but if you know what kind of name you want, you can start deciding how this name will affect your character or if it will not affect her at all, hence, you can start defining this character’s personality.

2. Appearance:

It’s helpful to have a list of your all characters physical characteristics for when you start writing or to write these in a separate piece of paper/ text-document as you go along. This way it’s easier to avoid confusion. You won’t have to go back in the story to see if Melissa has blond or black hair. You can simply look at your notes.

Try picturing your character and taking note of all the aspects which stand out of his appearance. Is he tall? Does he have blue eyes or brown eyes? How is his hair? Does he have any scars or tattoos? How does he dress? Just write down all you think that is important, even if you are not sure if it will affect the story. Of course, when you start writing your story it’s possible that some of these characteristics may not show up. For example, you might decide that you don’t need to say that your main character’s girlfriend has small ears. Yet, for the time being, if you picture her with small ears, write it down.

3. Purpose:

What does your character want out of life? Or what are his or her short-term goals? It’s good to answer both of these questions. The more you know about the character the better. Yet, the most important question in this category is: what role does you character play in the story? The depressed teenager? The lonely wife? The serial killer? The comic relief?

4. History:

Again, the more you know about the character the better.  Think about all the important events that happened to your character before the story started. When was he or she born? Where? What’s his or her ethnicity?  If you think these things will be significant make sure you know them. If you’re not sure they’re going to be significant but they come to mind, then know them. They might mean something later. Or not.

Yet, like in the previous category, there is one question that you cannot avoid answering: what happened that led your character to his or her purpose in the story? Even crazy Aunt Lila has a reason for being crazy in that one scene she appears. If you know this reason, and you let your reader know this reason, you can make your character sounds more real. Now, don’t stress so much about reasons first. Again, reasons may most likely come to mind while you are writing. However, keep in mind that all your characters have a history, and that this history will affect their actions.

5. Personality:

Now here is the big one. The one that will affect the character the most. How does your character react to the world you are creating? Well, you won’t easily know this before you actually write. After all, characters tend to surprise us. However, some of your character’s reactions may remain constant throughout the story. For example, maybe Andrew always balls his hands into fists when he is nervous. But, also, you can probably develop a lot about your character’s personality by simply looking at the previous categories. Think. How does your character act because of these categories? Maybe Likamarysta is a resentful daughter who hates her name. Maybe Josh has low self-esteem because he is extremely skinny. Maybe Rose always cries at night because she wants to leave her boyfriend for someone else and she can’t do so because she made a promise to her dying father that she would marry her boyfriend. In fact, if you are still planning, for this part, the most important thing to consider is how your character reacts to or because of the previous categories. The little details come later, just remember to take a note of them.

Of course all these facts can sometimes seem overwhelming to consider, but, hey, if you are writing a novel that task alone seems overwhelming. The truth is that all will come little by little, either while you plan, write or edit. What matters is that by keeping these five categories of characteristics in mind you can make your characters closer to reality than to fiction. I mean, look back, all that is listed above are aspects that we as human beings hold.

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One Comment
  1. May 26, 2011 12:48 pm

    I don’t plan out my writing in advance, so characters kind of just “show up” in a scene when they’re ready to play. This is fun sometimes, but other times it’s just plain annoying, especially if I have no idea why the character decided to show up at that particular time. I’ve found that my characters rarely show up without a reason, though, so if one does happen to pop in unannounced, I’ll usually let him or her explain their purpose and relevance… but only after they tell me their name and buy me a coffee first; once they’ve done that, we can get on with the other bits that allow us to get to know each other.

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