A Guide to Creating Interesting Fictional Characters
While plot, setting and theme are all crucial, creating a character can make or break your story. Think of them as windows to everything else in your narrative. It can be as vibrant and detailed outside as possible, but if the window is dirty, people are going to miss a lot of what’s out there and soon look for greener pastures. Inside you will find a guide to building an interesting character with convenient categories that will get you writing immediately.
Get the little things out of the way first:
It might seem trivial to write down hair and eye color, but this is one of those little details that will help you write faster when you finally do incorporate this character. It will also help to visualize the character and create a central description so you can always reference the profile and ensure consistency throughout your story. So while it may seem more important to focus on back-story first, think of the little things as the outline, or shell, of the character, and the deeper elements will be the details you paint in later.
Visual elements of your character also have the potential to imply deeper story elements. If he has a scar, the audience will immediately want to know how he got it, and the events that led up to the scar are now back-story that influences what your character is currently doing. The same can be said for dyed hair, outlandish clothing, or good luck charms.
Categories to know: Character Name, Hair Color, Eye Color, Weight, Height, Build, Age, and Clothing.
Mid-grade information can lead to deeper elements:
These are the details that you know you should have, but for whatever reason may have put off until later. Things like occupation, religion or even what sort of car he drives. Each of these traits can lead to deeper character development. For example, let’s say your character worked at a fast food restaurant for one summer then quit. It’s a small nugget of information but it branches off into so many different questions: What drove him to work there? Why did he leave? Which fast food restaurant was it? How was his experience while working there? What did he learn there that he can apply to what he’s doing now? From this simple statement about a job at a fast food restaurant, we now know countless other things about who he is. If you then incorporate some of this into the story, it tells us more about your character. Like, maybe he quit because he had trouble staying motivated, which would affect everything else he does in the story. Maybe he left the job because someone there was harassing him and this other character is now a new player in the current story. Countless plot points can emerge from a strong character’s profile.
Categories to know: Occupation, Residence, Religion, Ethnic Background, Personal Goals, and Quirks.
Deep elements don’t always have to be depressing:
If I were to ask any college professor to name off the deepest characters they’d ever read, I think that the result would be protagonists from some of the most depressing stories ever written. But this doesn’t mean that in order to make an interesting fictional character, they must have a tortured past. It does mean, however that their past and their personality must influence the present. For example, a character with a sheltered upbringing will be less likely to handle a crisis properly because they don’t necessarily have the experience. The same can be said if your character is shy versus outgoing. These traits are going to change how your character interacts with the world around him and staying consistent with those traits, while allowing room to grow, is the foundation of making a believable and interesting character.
It is also important to let your characters grow. Let’s go back to the character I mentioned above. He grew up with a sheltered life where nothing particularly eventful happened. His city gets attacked by aliens and he is thrust into a harsh environment. Sure, when it first happens, he’s going to struggle with it. He will probably refuse to believe it is happening and he might get his butt kicked for the first half of the story, but ultimately he has to grow. Living under these conditions would change anyone. Maybe, now that he sees the alien attack and accepts it, he is able to fight back. Being forced to defend himself would teach him certain skills and awareness. All of these factors change who the character is. Don’t think that by keeping the character the same that you’re being true to what you created. Yes the character is constantly influenced by the past, but they are also constantly influenced by the present.
Categories to Know: Likes/Dislikes, Family, Educational Background, Personality Type, and Brief Life History.
Don’t think that a blank slate is creative:
A number of writers believe that by creating a blank character the reader can more easily project themselves into the role and thus make the story more interesting. In practice, however, this just frustrates readers because the character isn’t doing anything. The most interesting stories are ones that accurately portray someone else’s journey. Think of it like a movie. Would anyone really want to watch a character with no face running around, being the victim of circumstance rather than standing up to do something for himself? Blank characters are just an excuse not to do the work. I guarantee if you take the time to give your character a history and a personality, they will become more interesting and more fun to write and read.
I’ve created a character template that helps me get moving when I create a new character. Now I make it available to you. In each of the sections above I’ve listed off what categories you should know about. These are all part of a template that you can copy and paste into a blank document and then simply write in the answer next to them. This makes it easier to get started on a new character because all you have to do is fill in the blanks. There are a few more categories that I haven’t included above. They are the following:
Character Story, Personal Item, and Future.
The character story is the one you are writing. What is happening to them right now? The reason for this category is so that you can keep track of which character is doing what. You might find that they have a bigger role to play in your story, or you can use this to track the character’s progression through multiple stories.
Personal Item is something that the character has with him that might say something. For a hero it might be their super powers, or a magical weapon. For a regular person it might be a leather jacket that has a great deal of history or a fake ID that gets them places in the story. In any case, it is something that has a story all its own and influences the character’s progression.
Finally the Future category is where the character ends up. This category is usually the one that is least likely to see the light of day. Sometimes your character’s end is portrayed in the story, but sometimes it’s not, but it is essential that you, as the writer, know this character from top to bottom. This not only includes their past, but their future as well. Do they live happily ever after or do they die alone in a cave? It’s a question that only the writer needs to answer in order to give the character that one extra ounce of depth.
See which of my characters made the cut in my first novel.
Some Additional Tips:
- Feel free to add categories to the character template to make it better fit your story's needs.
- Filling out the character template does not guarantee a well rounded character. It is meant to get your pen moving and open the door for deeper character elements to emerge.