How I Write Characters

You get bad character writing sometimes. You know, the plot’s chugging along and here comes a character you think you’ve got a handle on, but they do something that makes no sense. You know. Out of character. Because, well, plot.

Or you have the narrative telling you “this character is X,” when, in fact, they are demonstrably not-X. (This applies to many “brilliant tacticians” and skilled fighters in stories, and incidentally to pretty much every self-described “nice guy” IRL.)

This generally happens because of plot-needs. The brilliant tactician has to suffer a tactical defeat in order to come back or something. Or maybe it’s a case of the author not understanding what brilliant tactics look like.

I mean, I probably don’t. So I try to avoid having brilliant tacticians who have to prove it.

There are loads of methods for character building that help an author avoid this, you know. Character sheets, templates for which abound with a simple Google. I’ve seen people talking about taking personality tests for their characters, which I have not done but plan to start because – hey, cool. There’s more, but…

I’m not going to say I’m great at this, but here’s how I do it:

I have to see my characters in action first. I put some barely sketched people into a situation and see what happens. This is not quite the same as letting the plot drive the events, but it is fairly indistinguishable.

After a few things have happened, I take stock.

I look at what this character did, how they reacted. I hope it is consistent so far. If it is, I figure out what it says about the character. Extrapolate that to determine how they will react to some other event.

This way I build the character as I go. It’s a lot like getting to know someone. I don’t start out knowing who they are. I don’t have the internals figured out, just the most basic of the external.

Often, before I get into any internal stuff, I’ll look at other character’s opinions. I love to write a worthless drunk, a crazy bitch, a lazy stoner, a heartless robot … and then get into that character’s head and find the stuff that contradicts the external perspective, that demonstrates characters are more than (or completely different from) what other people think of them. In these cases, I start with the other character’s opinion and deliberately build against it.

Either way: the first couple scenes with a character happen before I define the character. I let those scenes define the character, and then I try to explore what’s been suggested.

After that, I have the beginning of a template. Each new element has to be held up to the rest to ensure it fits, and the template grows over time. I get to know the character better and better, fleshing out those most basic motivations with backstory crafted to fit the initial reactions and later reactions crafted to fit the established character.

I have to say: I have definitely fucked this up. Badly, and more than once.

However, it’s what works for me and I think it’s a great method. Revision is super important, as ever. And you have to check everything a character does against your evolving understanding of the character, but don’t you kinda need to do that anyway, regardless of your method? I dunno, go ask that brilliant tactician over there.

An example, before I go.

In Revolt on Vesta, I introduce Ekaterina Miranova with a physical description. I usually don’t with characters, but I wanted her to be physically unique: she’s had herself genetically modified to grow a tail. (I swear I wasn’t even thinking about furries at the time)

So, why?

Then, Katia’s position as administrator of an asteroid colony is threatened. She’s basically being fired by the home office, but she ain’t having it.

Okay, so what’s her justification?

A subordinate murders the person who is charged with removing Katia from her office and sending her home. She could react a number of ways to this, but what she does is accept the hand this subordinate has dealt her. She decides to steer into the skid and launches an open rebellion.

Okay, what’s that say about her?

The tail: she recently visited another asteroid colony, where tails were all the rage. From that, I get that she’s trendy and fashionable. So I build that into future scenes with her. Not to the point of absurdity, mind you. It doesn’t need to be mentioned every time she enters a room. But here and there, an appropriate moment presents itself to remind the reader that Katia is fashion-conscious. It’s a minor background detail, but it remains consistent and thus makes the character more real. (I also get to avoid the typical body-language cliches. She’s got a motherfucking tail, guys. It lashes side to side when she gets angry.)

The position: she’s been a successful administrator. So in future scenes, I demonstrate how the colony has prospered better under her than under her predecessor. Ideally, I put her in a position to demonstrate through action on the page that she’s good at running a colony. She is knowledgeable in her field and competent at her job, so whenever something comes up I have to make sure her actions/decisions reflect that.

The decision: she’s a good businesswoman, sure, but she can be dreadfully stubborn and will take a bad option – even a criminal one – over one she doesn’t agree with. This can be explored as a major flaw, and it will definitely have extreme consequences.

The second and third items there give me a source of conflict for the character. She’s great at running the colony, but turns out to be awful at running a rebellion. She gets people killed. A lot.

This gives me all sorts of questions to look into: How do her people view her, and does it change when the rebellion goes poorly? How does her self-image fare through all this? What form do her doubts take? And, ultimately, how can she redeem what really feels like a terrible mistake in that very first scene? Will she ever be able to translate her management skill into something useful in this new situation? Or will she have to learn an entirely new suite of skill and expertise? Or, will she fail to do so and thus pay the price for her earlier hubris?

When I created the character, I had no idea where she would go. But that first scene gave me everything I needed to start finding out.

And that’s how I build characters.

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