I’ve put off writing this blog post for a long while, despite it being one of the more commonly requested topics. I've branched similar topics like How To Add Dimensions To Your Characters, but never quite delved into character creation. The reason being, everyone creates their characters a little differently. Some people prefer to just write and let their characters form - and that’s okay. Others, myself included, prefer to plan everything down to the last detail before they write the first word. Honestly, whatever gets your character on the page is just fine! There are, however, a lot of helpful things to say about character creation - not to mention a few guidelines that will make it easier to sell your manuscript to an agent. So, without further ado, here it is: “Creating Characters”.
Don’t make names long or hard to pronounce. If your main character’s last name is “Houshmandzadeh”, you are losing a lot of marketability!
Also, don’t give your characters similar names. I know it’s tempting, because that’s sometimes how it works in the real world. I get clients all the time who say, “But this story is about Jean and John, my cousin and her ex-boyfriend!” Well, in a screenplay, it’s a little bit more acceptable (though not by much), but in a novel, it’s going to be hard, especially in the beginning, for your readers to get a good image on your characters. If your characters are the same gender, that’s going to be even harder. To put things into perspective, my 2012 screenplay, Unformed, has been rejected more than once on the grounds that the names of the main characters were too similar. For the record, the names are “Jacob” and “Kaleb”. I kept them for that story, but since then, I’ve made a greater effort to vary the names of my characters - in part for the readers, and in part for the agents/producers.
Don’t use the names of real people without written consent. Whether you’re a casual or full-time writer, you’ve probably heard about the kinds of settlements that writers have to pay for this mistake. It’s not pretty.
Minimize alliteration in your character’s names. This is another one that happens sometimes in real life, but for whatever reason, including it in your story hurts your believability. The more you overdo it, the worse it is. If I see “Gabby Gutierrez” and “Sammy Smith” on the same page, there better be some great reasons for me not to put the book down. That said, don’t become obsessed with avoiding alliteration in all your characters. Bilbo Baggins is a wonderful name for a great character - just remember, the other names in Lord of the Rings weren’t Braydon Baggins and Gabriel Gamgee. If they were, the story would have been less believable.
Now, how to actually decide on a name for you characters. There are a lot of ways. I know a few authors who are constantly writing down interesting names for characters. I do that myself when a name really strikes me. Another way is to simply open a word document and keep writing out names until one sounds right to you. I often plan my story before I actually name my characters. As I plan, I’ll write “the main character” or a filler name like “Bob” until I have a firmer grasp on what I’m writing. Try to make it a unique name unless there is a reason for it to be otherwise. The more memorable the name is, the more your character stands out. Think: Neo, Katniss, Frodo, Gatsby et cetera… Also, make sure your character’s name fits your setting. If your character is an uneducated redneck renting half a trailer in Holly Springs, Mississippi, don’t name him Bertold Abberly. Apart from that advice, there’s really no recognized method of name generation. Like choosing the right word in a sentence, most of name creation is in how it feels.
Setting has far more to do with your character than the color of his or her hair, so omitting it would be misleading. Sometimes settings change the lives of everyone in them. In Tiny Instruments, the Cavanagh school is easily as important as any single character. It functions, not only as a crucible (something that forces characters to remain within the drama of a story) but almost as if it were a character in it of itself. There’s a reason, for instance, why there are so many popular stories set in high school. The more defined a setting is, the easier for the writer to manipulate the lives of the character. Need Jennifer to stay late after school? Give her a band recital or detention. A tight setting also makes chance encounters far more believable, which can be very useful in furthering plot. A person’s life and where they live are intertwined. Setting can come from character, and character from setting. Before you write a novel, be sure to take a little time and think about all the implications of the place they live.
This is where, as an editor, I see the most mistakes. There are a lot of gorgeous people in both literature and film with no flaws whatsoever, wonderful bone structures and bodies that could make an angel jealous. Yes, there are very few stories where traits serve as the defining element of the plot, but they do exist: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sleeping Beauty et cetera… The most important thing is that your descriptions work with the character you’re trying to create.
Avoid subjective descriptions like “beautiful” or “handsome”. You're much better off describing your character’s perky breasts or chiseled abs. Too many “tall” and “beautiful” have already popped up in pages of literature. If they’re beautiful, that’s totally fine, but let us see that from how the other characters in your novel react to them. Believe me, if your character is “drop-dead gorgeous”, we’ll find out soon enough. This goes to my second point.
Be realistic. Not every person in the world is a flawless sculpture. Your novel doesn’t need to star Quasimodo to be realistic. Let’s say your character is a beautiful, successful businesswoman in downtown Manhattan… Is there anything wrong with having her put a little cover-up on a blemish before leaving the house? Even the tiniest of blemishes could help you define who your character is. What if she hates a minor pock-mark on her left cheek, and does everything she can to hide it? That could go a long way toward showing her perfectionist nature, or even a small hint of insecurity buried beneath her successful exterior. Now, isn’t that more interesting?
Don’t go overboard. A lot of writers think that, in order to have a successful character, you need to describe their physical appearance in great detail. I completely disagree. I’m a minimalist with my descriptions. I rarely describe what isn’t useful for the story. I could go on for pages about how one character is slightly taller than another, or how another has thin, slightly discolored eyelashes… but honestly, who cares? If it affects their behavior or the way they view themselves, write it. If it doesn’t, leave it out.
Don’t force description. There is no rule that says that you must describe a character the moment they are introduced. If a secondary character is introduced as Robert is running away from a mob of zombies, then, dear God, don’t spend two paragraphs describing his “slightly unstable gait” or his distinguished nose.
Know the traits you don’t include. Just because your readers don’t need to know that Robert is 5’11” doesn’t mean that you, as the author, don’t need to know. Knowing these things makes it harder for inconsistencies to arise. If Lidia’s hair is brown on page 4, then it should be brown on page 204. The traits you should know include, but are not limited to: age, eye color, ethnicity, first language, hair color, hair length, life goals, height, personality flaws (and “none” is not an acceptable answer), make-up use, typical style of dress, style of shoes et cetera… How would they react if a transient stared them down in the street? If they witnessed a mugging? If their boss made an inappropriate sexual comment? You should know all these things and then some.
Give your character a complex personality. In an action movie, it’s okay if all your character wants is to get his daughter back from a group of kidnappers. In a novel, it isn’t. Don’t let one thing define who your character is. People aren’t just “moral” or “goal-driven”, they are nuanced and complex individuals. Occasionally a loving father will notice the body of a 16 year old. An otherwise well-organized person might have a messy car. It is nuance that defines many of the world’s best characters. Neo may be “The One”, but that doesn’t keeping him from doubting himself. Gatsby may be an incredibly loving man, but he was still involved in crime. It’s the alcoholic in charge of a fortune 500 company that interests us, not the pretty boy with bulging muscles who always says the wittiest thing he can say in any situation. Treat your characters like they are human, and your writing will flourish.
Send in the planning for your characters, and I’ll help flesh them out!