Where do fictional characters come from, and, more important, how do you build one from scratch? For some writers, characters whisper in their ears or appear in their dreams; for others, building a character requires as much effort and forethought as constructing a house. Though the method will vary for every writer, there’s no wrong way to build a character. But before you begin fleshing out this imaginary person, it is useful to visualize her as real, vivid, and alive. The more real your character is to you, the more real she will be to readers.
Here's a recipe for character building, especially if you’re not quite sure where or how to start.
1. Pick a Point of View
You simply can’t separate a character from your chosen storytelling method, or point of view (POV). To define it simply, POV is two things:
- It’s a storytelling device that allows a reader access to your characters’ inner lives (emotions, thoughts, sensory experience).
- It’s the way you share a unique character’s worldview and the events he experiences in the world (opinions, philosophy, observations).
Only through POV can a young Caucasian girl in Nebraska learn the perspective of a Native American shaman or peek into the mind of a prisoner who regrets his actions. POV is the magic that helps translate character experiences for readers.
Naturally, it’s important to consider the POV you’ll use before you begin writing your character, or at least before you get too deep into your draft. This is because POV is also the lens that focuses the story for your reader. Do you want your protagonist to share deeply intimate insights, so that the reader is privy to his every thought? Then you might find that first-person POV fits your needs. Do you need the freedom to roam in and out of multiple POVs and to offer information the characters don’t know? You might choose the omniscient POV.
Making an informed decision about your story’s POV is also important because you don’t want to write one hundred pages of your manuscript and realize that the POV you picked on a whim isn’t working for you. Believe me: Speaking from experience, it’s no fun to single-handedly change the POV, line by line, for several hundred pages. For that reason, I recommend writing some character sketches or a few test-run chapters in several different POVs. For instance, write a scene in first person in which your character does something that makes her feel guilty. Write another scene in third-person intimate in which she experiences a happiness she’s never known before. Try a third scene in the distant and versatile omniscient viewpoint in which she discovers a painful secret.
2. Select a Verb Tense
Verb tense is a detail many writers forget to consider in advance, but it plays a vital role in determining the intimacy level between characters and readers. Tense refers to the conjugation of the verbs in your novel. Nothing interrupts a smooth reading flow faster than inconsistent verb tenses—and you want to make absolutely sure that when you submit your manuscript to an agent or a publisher, you’ve corrected any inconsistencies.
The two most common verb tenses for fiction are present tense and past tense.
- Present tense: Verbs are in the now: “I go,” “he sees, “we touch.” This creates immediacy, even urgency. When combined with first-person POV, this tense creates hyperintimacy, a style used most commonly in young adult fiction and more contemporary novels. Some readers say it is “too present”; they prefer the small amount of emotional distance past-tense verbs provide. Depending on how old you are, you may either love this tense or detest it.
- Past tense: While these verbs are formatted so that the action is in the past—“I went,” “he saw,” “we touched”—the story might still take place in the present. Only the verbs themselves differ from their present-tense forms. The past tense puts a little more distance between characters and readers, and softens the sense of immediacy. It’s a common and useful tense, and a perfect choice for many books.
3. Craft a Flawed but Sympathetic Person
All great fiction introduces us to people who are flawed but sympathetic in some way. A character must be relatable: She might mess up or mess around, make bad choices, have a bad temper, speak before she thinks, or forget to file her taxes. And yet she must also be able to elicit sympathy; her flaws should be forgivable. They should serve to make the character human.
A sympathetic character doesn’t have to be a likable one, and he definitely shouldn’t be perfect. A “perfect” character is much like a robot: someone without flaws or foibles, who tackles every obstacle without resistance, who never doubts himself or makes mistakes. And reading about a robot isn’t compelling or engaging (unless your character is a sentient robot that goes rogue).
“Perfect” characters usually seem annoying, narcissistic, or unstable. Fiction’s purpose may be to entertain, but it also helps us connect with difficult aspects of the human condition. It validates and explains the complex array of emotions that color our experiences and our lives. (In fact, researchers at The New School of New York conducted a study, published in the October 2015 issue of the journal Science, that revealed that fiction readers show an increased capacity for empathy and for experiencing compassion for people vastly different from themselves.) The more surmountable flaws your characters have, the better readers will connect with them.
Here are a few examples of flawed characters who transform their flaws into strengths:
- Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games series can be stubborn and self-sacrificing. This flaw eventually translates into honesty and integrity that allow her to speak hard truths and stand up for the underdog.
- Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books often blurts out information like a know-it-all, but she has the actual knowledge to back up this flaw, and this trait becomes valuable to dozens of other characters over the course of the books.
Sometimes the character’s situation at the beginning is more compelling than the character. For example, think of the kid who is forced by his cruel aunt and uncle to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs, while his cousin is given every comfort. This character has an interesting situation that keeps the reader’s attention focused on what happens next. And while we eventually come to love the character of Harry Potter based on his merits and flaws, it is his initial situation that hooks us from the start.
4. Introduce a Problem
To make a character’s life interesting enough to sustain a plot, you need to give her a problem so tremendous that it will force change in her outer life as well as her inner reality. This problem also must be big enough to create ripples of consequence throughout the story. It should elicit conflicting feelings in your protagonist and affect the lives of others. Christopher Vogler, a plot specialist and the author of The Writer’s Mythic Journey, calls this problem “a call to adventure,” but I like to add that it can also be “an unwanted change.” Not everything that happens to a character is, at first, a matter of choice. While many characters do choose an adventure, in other instances change is thrust upon them. Think of stories in which a character receives a negative medical diagnosis, suffers the death of a loved one, loses a job, receives divorce papers, or is forced on a quest based on an ancient prophecy. The key to a strong problem is that it forces your protagonist to rise to the challenge, even when she doesn’t want to.
Other problems—I think of these as the “bait and switch” variety—involve a character who accepts a call to adventure that turns out to be different from what she expected. Or perhaps the adventure is more complicated than she initially thought.
A story problem must press, test, stretch, and challenge your protagonist, forcing her into the darkest depths of her flaws and into the brightest light of her strengths.
The best stories are those in which the problem is indelibly linked to the character herself. For example, in one of my favorite trilogies by Deborah Harkness, which begins with A Discovery of Witches, the protagonist, Diana Bishop, is a modern American witch who refuses to learn how to use her powers because magic, in essence, killed her parents. Unfortunately, magic has other plans for her, and when she unwittingly pulls an enchanted book from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, it awakens her magic powers and sends all manner of strange and dangerous creatures—and plot problems—her way. In the first book, the problem is introduced when Diana accesses the magic of the dangerous ancient book. However, this problem arises directly from her own character—her unwillingness to learn magic. If she had honed her magical skills, she would have known how dangerous the book was and what she should have done with it.
Of course, the problem in your story can be grounded in reality rather than fantasy. For example, a character’s refusal to consent to an arranged marriage might lead her to escape her home, or a character’s choice to pursue his singing career might put him in the midst of a sketchy group of people. There are endless possibilities and problems to choose from.
Jordan Rosenfeld is author of Writing the Intimate Character, A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Make a Scene, and Writing Deep Scenes (with Martha Alderson), all Writer's Digest books, as well as Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life (BeijaFlor Press, with Rebecca Lawton) and the novels Women in Red (Booktrope), Forged in Grace and Night Oracle. She is a former contributing editor to Writer's Digest magazine, and her many publications include Alternet.org, Creative Live, Mental Floss, the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, XO Jane, The Writer magazine, and many more. Jordan presents and speaks annually at writers conferences and clubs. She regularly teaches online writing courses through her own website, as well as through Writer’s Digest University and leads a series of Plot & Scene retreats with Martha Alderson though their website: www.writerpath.com.