So, I’d been wondering what to write about this week and then struck pay-dirt when I was having a conversation with a very good Twitter friend.

How do you go about creating characters for your book?

Personal Preference Disclaimer!

So, let me first stress emphatically that this is purely my own personal preference for how I like my characters. This is not me firing shots over the bows of any other writer. That’s the joy of storytelling. YOU tell the story in the way YOU want to tell it, incorporating the characters YOU want to write. Nothing wrong with that at all.

So, with that said…

I fucking hate characters who are written with an eye to them being ‘the best’.

Making a character the richest, or the strongest, or the chosen one… instantly kinda makes them a turn off for me. I can’t relate to people like that, hence I’m not that interested in reading about them.

Honestly, you can count me amongst the people who LOVED the twist in ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ when **spoilers** they made the reveal that Rey was a nobody. I adored that concept. That the hero could be someone that didn’t have a special, magical, chosen-one background.

(And, yeah, **more spoilers** it annoys the fudge-nuggets out of me that that was ret-conned in the latest movie! Grrrrr!)

Now, I don’t mind the ‘chosen one’ aspect if there’s a clever twist involved.

Harry Potter, for instance.

**Even more spoilers ahead**

Harry is effectively the Chosen One, but it’s such a quirk of fate. It could so easily have been Neville, and I love that concept. Also Harry, let’s face it, is a brave but bumbling idiot much of the time. It’s his relationships with his friends that makes him special. The Ron and Hermione friendship especially. Harry is not a magical god, he’s just a kid who gets lucky a lot and has a network of talented friends and allies. That’s why I LOVE him as a literary creation. Kudos to you, J.K.

It’s the old Marvel vs DC debate…

I tend to lean Marvel because I find their characters in general more relatable. I can empathise with a city kid who loses his parents and his uncle, is trying to make ends meet and find his way as a Spidery superhero, whilst also trying to get the girl. But I can’t relate to a multi billionaire who dresses as a bat to excise the demons of having lost his parents at an early age while his butler prepares his dinner for him in a mansion above his secret lair.

This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy both… I just know which I personally prefer.

Get back to the topic, Jon! You’re waffling…

Fine. Okay… I will.

So, how do I go about creating my own characters.

Well, it all starts with the Spreadsheet of Doom™ and my character builder. Let’s start with my main character in Hunters, one Gayle Knightley.

Condition Number 1
What makes him/her so bloody special anyway?

Gayle was my starting point in the story, and she was a character that was created 15 years ago in an online game called ‘City of Heroes’ (you’ll find much more about that if you follow this link to the relevant section on this website!), so her name, her look and her style were already set in stone.

From there, I just needed to detail her abilities. (In my world she’s a hybrid. Her father is human, but her mother is fae.) It was quickly established, that she would be a little special. For a hybrid, she’s pretty powerful with the ability to control all four elemental aspects.

But in that regard she’s NOT unique. I didn’t want her to be.

For starters, those powers are as a result of having a Fae mother in her parentage. Again, not unique. There are others.

Secondly, she’s one of three sisters and all of them have the same peak powers. She’s different because she’s a soldier, so she’s trained.

And even in that respect, she’s NOT unique. There are other soldiers with the exact same ability.

So…

Condition number 1: Character must be special…but not uniquely so.


So, she’s got the power.

Now what?

Well, what I give… I take away!

(You should all be watching ‘The Good Place’)

Condition Number 2
Love the character..it would be a shame if I BROKE THEM!

Yes, she has great power, but the rub is that she currently can’t use it. When you meet her, she’s a broken person. Grieving the loss of her team. They were lost at an event that happened recently, that she refers to as ‘Bloody Valletta’, a mission that went wrong!

Since then she’s not been able to use her powers without breaking into debilitating sweats and tremors. There’s a reason for this, which I won’t go into right now (you’ll have to read it!), but as a hint…think ‘addict going through withdrawal’…

Anyway…

Condition number 2: Break them!


But what about her character itself.

Well, I wanted her to have both likeable traits, but also unlikeable traits.

Condition Number 3
Everyone has a little good in them, right?

Let’s talk positives first…

She loves her friends, and her team. She adores her family. Dotes on her father. She’d pretty much do anything for any of them, to the detriment of her own well-being. Without hesitation.

Loyalty is everything to her. Which is why the loss of her team hurt so badly.

She also has a certain amount of humility, realising when she’s fucked things up and acknowledging that fact quickly. Which happens quite a lot due to what we’ll talk about next. But in the meantime, let’s add this condition to the mix…

Condition number 3: Lots of lovely good traits to make the reader fall in love with them!


Condition Number 4
But everyone has a little bad in them too, don’t they?

Yeah, nobody is perfect, are they? Not even in fiction.

So, Gayle is a maverick that rubs her superiors up the wrong way simply because she loves to do stuff HER WAY.

She swears like a trooper (which some might find endearing, I suppose!) and can be abrasive.

These two traits cause issues when she is paired up with Michael. He’s the calm Texan gent, and she’s the abrasive foul-mouthed Brit. She’s also not above using her fae abilities to manipulate pheromones to get her own way.

All in all, she has a habit of screwing things up…usually for selfish reasons.

So…

Condition number 4: Make readers conflicted about condition 3 by introducing a bit of bad.


And then we need one more little thing…

Condition Number 5
The skeleton in the closet!

Lastly, she needed a secret issue.

Now, like all secrets hers will be revealed eventually…but I want all my characters to have a skeleton in the closet.  Something I can drop subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) hints about. There needs to be a sense of some mystery to them in some way.

So, Gayle has a secret. Something that she alludes to from time to time, but never outright says it. Her sisters know about it…but the reader won’t know until much later (unless they figure it out…the clues will all be there!)

All this gives us…

Condition number 5: Dirty little secrets. A person with some mystery!


So, there you have it.

That’s how I come up with my characters.

Now, because Songbird is a huge sprawling multi-character epic, I have about 10 main characters to keep track of, roughly another 10 secondary characters, and then around 40 supplementary recurring characters.

Yeah…it’s a chore.

So hence the Spreadsheet of Doom™. Here’s an example of what part it looks like…

Keeping them organised like this means that I can keep track of their physical characteristics, their character traits and their secrets. It’s important that each one is distinctively different to me. I want the reader to be able to read different characters and get different things from them.

Whether I’ve succeeded or not is up to the reader, but that’s the aim.

So, how do YOU do it?

This is just my method.

I’ve never been taught how to do it, this is all on me.

And I’m definitely NOT saying that this is how other people should do it.

There’s not just one way to skin this particular cat, and there are many different character archetypes that can be plotted for. Maybe you want your character to be an unattainable fantasy figure. After all, books ARE escapism. Maybe you want to cater to a reader who wants to be taken to a place where perfect people live.

Horses for courses! One size does NOT fit all.

For me, I just like my characters grounded and relatable. They need to have all the same character flaws that make us human, whether they be good or bad. In some ways, I don’t care whether you love a character or not…as long as you find them interesting.

That said, I wouldn’t fill my book with a bunch of characters that are hateful…that would make for a tough read!

So, this is where you lot step up and give me your comments. You’ve just read how I do it, so now I want to know YOUR secrets!

How do you guys come up with the concepts and traits for your characters?

Tell me how you do it, because I’d love to know!

And tell me what makes a character compulsive to read?

Over to you gang!

Love & books

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25 Comments

  1. Melina

    Reply

    I am with you. I prefer characters I can relate to when I’m reading. That’s not to say that I don’t like fantasy because I do. But the characters I enjoy most are regular people who have good qualities and flaws.
    I really envy those who can write good fiction. I have never been great at it myself. I love to read it, though.

    • Jon Ford

      Reply

      Most of all I like my characters in fiction to be someone I can relate to.

      I mentioned Harry Potter in the blog. He’s a kid, who’s new in school, isn’t one of the cool crown when he arrives, doesn’t excel at his school work and hates one of his teachers… Sounds like my school years!
      I can totally relate to Harry, even though I was a 30-something year old when I started reading those books.

      Hopefully I can write characters others can relate to. That’s the plan. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting Melina! 😀

      • Melina

        Reply

        I loved the Harry Potter series. I know what you mean when you say that Harry is just an ordinary kid. Sure, he’s a wizard. Sure, he survived a deadly curse. But there isn’t much that really sets him apart from his schoolmates. I love that Ron and Hermione have to use their strengths to help Harry in his quest. It makes the story more realistic, even if it is set in a magical world of its own.

    • Sean

      Reply

      What are your favorite types of characters, Melina? Just normal people leading normal lives, or normal people caught in situations that you don’t see a lot of in real life?

      I’m asking because I’m always looking for input into what people like to read. If I want to sell what I’m writing, it’s not just about what I like anymore, but what others like.

      As for your last question Jon, a character that you I can’t stop reading about is one where I don’t really know what their next action or thought might be. A person who keeps you guessing. I’m working on a character now who plays a bit part in the book, but he (she?) is relevant to the whole story while being a bit out of the mainstream that the other characters fit into. That what makes the character kind of a wild card.

      • Jon Ford

        Reply

        Absolutely. This is totally what draws me to the characters.

        In my latest blog I talk about my early influences on my writing, and I mention Star Trek as being one of them. The original Trek that is. You can kind of draw parallels between that and Harry Potter. The thing that drew me to Star Trek as a story was the fact that while Kirk is (arguably) the main character in the show, he can’t do everything without Spock and Bones. It’s that little trinity that makes the show/story work.

        Likewise with Harry, Hermione and Ron. The story NEEDS them.

        I’ve tried to put this into practice in my own writing. I don’t want an uber-genius-solves-all-issues-themself kind of character. I want a leader who extracts the most of an emsemble.

  2. Jim

    Reply

    I write my characters to fit the story as it is at that point. I feel what the story needs right then and there to help move it in the right direction, and I get busy with it.. For me though, I have had access to so many different types of people through the years and, in the back of my mind, I have always wondered if I could tweak their personalities and mannerisms into a character for a book.

    Looking back, I remember what I can about my childhood best friend and realize he would make one hell of a character.
    At this point though, he wouldn’t fit into anything I’m writing, so………he’ll just have to wait.

  3. Robert

    Reply

    Great topic Jon. And a great write-up as well. As usual.

    If a character isn’t interesting to me, then he or she will not be relatable to the reader. For example, if I have a character who is a mechanic, he better have more qualities than just that because he will bore everyone to tears if he doesn’t.

    I like to give my characters little quirks that make them unique, but not so unique that the average person can’t relate to them. Like taking the proceeds of a picked nose and sticking them to only one edge of a shop table, versus catching butterflies for the sole purpose of burying them.

    There’s relatable unique, and there’s unrelatable weird.

    • Sean

      Reply

      You have a fancy way of describing mundane, on the edge of gross, acts Robert. LOL

      I understand what you’re saying though. Get too quirky and you’re skimming the edge of science fiction. Or something else not really of this society. I haven’t found that in anything I have read though. I was watching a movie the other night though that didn’t seem very realistic. I could tell that the screenwriter was probably very new at storytelling because the premise was interesting, the storytelling was not however. The actors were doing things that were not realistic.

      I took from that movie a little lesson on how not to write characters and scenes.

  4. Robert

    Reply

    I’ve seen a few movies like that. From time to time, I like to search for unknown names in movies and books. You never know when you’ll find a gem hiding in the mine. I’m counting on people like me to find me when I start publishing.

    What was the plot of the story/movie?

  5. Sean

    Reply

    The plot was that two young men were going to rip off the mob in their town. The acting was okay, but it was not written well at all. I learned the importance of keeping acts within a story as realistic as possible, thus making the story itself realistic. This story was not.

  6. Simon

    Reply

    I love your spreadsheet for keeping track of characters. Keeping track of them all must be a challenge. Do you have some way to keep track of characters’ interactions and conflicts with one another? I imagine that’s also difficult to keep track of with so many characters at play. Also, how well do you develop each character?

    • Jon Ford

      Reply

      Good questions both.

      Answering in reverse order…

      I LOVE the way TV has leaned into long form story telling rather than simply the procedural episode of the week. I’m a Trekkie by nature and while I loved the original Trek and The Next Generation, for me things got REALLY interesting when DS9 came along. Suddenly we were in the realm of story arcs that went on for whole seasons and beyond. One of my fave TV shows of all time is Breaking Bad. I loved Game of Thrones. I Could go on, but the point is that I feel that those long arcs give characters time to breathe and grow. So that’s what I wanted to do with the Songbird saga. It was never intended to be a standalone book, always planned at 7 books. (And I have all kinds of plans for prequel series to put up here and a YA series that runs parallel! But more on that another time!)

      But 7 books gives me plenty of room for the character to grow. To establish relationships. To get hurt and to heal. To get themselves into situations that will teach them something about themselves and their nature. A wide cast of diverse characters also gives me opportunity to have different characters interact and provide different dynamics. Gayle for instance… she’s fought the different vampire breeds all her life, so what happens when she meets one under totally different circumstances than the heat of battle? Is her treatment of them coloured by her training? Her experience?

      Which circles us to your first question… how to keep track.

      SPREADSHEET!!!! LOL

      In addition to a chapter listing and synopsis of each chapter, I also keep a spreadsheet for each character and their personal arcs and the characters they meet along the way. It helps me keep continuity straight and plot relationships. I kid you not when I say the spreadsheet is HUGE!!! 😀

      • Simon

        Reply

        I love it when we get to read about the same characters over time. Will your series span days, weeks, months, or years? I love how the Harry Potter series spanned several years. It allowed us to see how the characters grew and learned over time through their experiences.

        Do you already know what will happen in your future books or will it come to you as you write each one?

        • DesireeS

          Reply

          Exactly! That is what captures me and makes me want to keep reading. Who they are over time! Watching the character learn and grow with each thing he learns.
          I don’t like to read about characters that are given everything right in the beginning. I like for them to have to earn it (by just doing).

        • Jon Ford

          Reply

          I have all the books in the series planned. I know exactly what each character goes through from book to book till they reach the end. I’ve tried to factor some growth into all of their journey’s.
          Book 1 is written, Book 2 is almost done… and I have a complete outline for exactly what happens in Book 7. The middle books are a little more fluid at the moment.

  7. Jim

    Reply

    I agree that T.V. shows have taken on a different life lately. Take Shameless for example. I think that show is up to 9 seasons (I don’t know if it has been discontinued yet) and that whole block of seasons could very well have been a book or 3 in its first life. As a person who wants to write many books, I like the idea of having those stories materialize on the screen eventually.

    Maybe I should take a course on screenwriting?

    • Jon Ford

      Reply

      Oh my god yes! Having my books translated to the small screen would be the DREAM!

      I’m not sure movies would do my books justice, I feel TV would be better to create the long form story telling I’m going for. Not that I wouldn’t love movies, but I’d like the characters to have room to breathe and grow, and I think TV is the perfect medium for that.

      So much so that I’ve been casting my perfect TV show cast on the website! 😀 Just for fun!

      Songbird – Casting Call

      And if you do take up that Screenwriting course, I’d happily collaborate on said TV show with you. 😀

    • Jon Ford

      Reply

      Okay, so little behind the scenes knowledge.
      When I originally thought about Songbird, I had decided that it would be like Harry Potter…each book would span a year.
      However, when I started to plan out HUNTERS (Book 1) it was pretty clear that that was not going to work. I couldn’t for instance have the Zarra storyarc run for a year… that would be a long hunt! LOL
      So it got significantly shortened. Book 1 now covers roughly 42 days, or about 6 weeks. Book 2 will be slightly shorter, maybe 3 weeks or so from cover to cover.
      The entire series is planned… I have it all in my master spreadsheet. From the start of Book 1 to the end of Book 7 will be roughly a year.

      I’m also planning to do some prequel books based of Gayle’s ten years prior to HUNTERS, which will give a lot more background detail on some of the characters. These will be much shorter than the main books (maybe 30k words or so) and I’ll likely put them on the website for free.

      And then for further depth, I’m also writing a series of YA books set in the academy during the events of Songbird, but written from the students perspective. These will follow their own story, but be interwoven with the main story arc.

  8. Jackie

    Reply

    You have a ton of characters in this story. How long is your book? Is there time to get to know the characters well or are there too many for that? I really like it when I get to know the main characters in a story well, almost like I’ve become friends with them while I’m reading. How do you decide how many characters are enough versus too many?

    • Jon Ford

      Reply

      Okay, so the book is loooooong. Current word count on edit 20 is 138,020 words. In it’s 1.5 spaced format it’s about 418 pages. So yeah, it’s pretty big.
      It has 82 chapters (including prologue and epilogue) and while it has many characters, the focus is on only about 5 in Hunters, with other characters playing more ‘supporting’ roles.

      What I’ve tried to do (and my readers can judge whether I succeeded or not) is try to jump into the story with fully rounded characters and then drip feed you incidental character notes along the way. The characters are more often than not paired up with other characters in each chapter, rarely do I write a solo chapter. I LOVE writing dialogue. It allows me to bounce between characters as they talk between themselves, and I get to show character traits and emotion. You get to learn about the characters from their dynamics with each other.

      At least that’s the theory.

      Book 1, admittedly, has a lot of heavy listing to do as it has to build a world, introduce characters AND make you fall in love with them. To get you invested as a reader in the series. I’ve tried hard to do that. To create characters that have real depth to them, while still giving a little mystery to unravel in the following books. And because it’s planned as a 7 book series (with prequels and spin off potential) I have plenty of room to develop those characters and watch them grow. Hopefully you as a reader will enjoy watching them grow too.

      That’s the plan! 😀

      • Nikki

        Reply

        As an honoured member of your beta team, I want to go on record as saying I think you executed the relationship between reader and characters very well, Jon. Your tactic of going into it with fully developed characters works nicely and attachment to them forms quickly. (Side note – right now I’m torn between Gayle and Zarra as my favourite!)
        The way you wrote it helped me, as a reader, fall right into step with them from the first page. Obviously, you’ve also written in some mystery and intrigue and I am looking forward to getting more answers and details as the story progresses, but that’s one of the many things that has me hooked on the series as a whole.
        Write faster – I can’t wait to read the rest of it!! 😀
        xoxo

        • Jon Ford

          Reply

          I’m so glad you’re enjoying it! **Squee!**

          It’s funny you should mention favourites, because as I’ve been writing it my personal feelings on characters have changed from time to time. Considerably in some cases.

          I knew that Gayle would be my favourite, she is my oldest creation (dating back to 2005!), so I’m heavily invested in her. Yet as I wrote word after word about the other characters I started to feel attached to the other characters. Now…I kinda love them all. LOL

          There was a conscious effort made early in the book to set up the ground rules for the characters, to establish who they are. From that point forward the reader joins them on their journey as they make their way through the story. As the book is the first in a series of 7, I’m also trying to layer in clues and mysteries (some of them very very subtle!) to lay groundwork for the future books.

          I’ll write as fast as I can! Stay tuned and I’ll get you to Beta-Read book 2 very shortly!

  9. Olga

    Reply

    I really love the tips that you gave on how to create characters. I could not agree more on the importance of creating bad traits for the characters as you should always make your characters relatable to the audience instead of just creating some perfect and unreachable characters. Most characters I create have some back stories that will be revealed at some point of the story but I also like to have, probably one character from each story that he or she is always mysterious to the readers as I hope to create more space for imagination. And I believe how the readers perceive the characters also hugely affects the emotions and feelings while reading. That’s why I wish to create more flexibility for imagination, which might be able to pull the characters and the readers closer in a way. I don’t know, this is just what I have in mind haha!

  10. Jack Evans

    Reply

    Your spreadsheet is brilliant. I hate to admit it, but I’ve never been very organized when it comes to writing. I just dabble here and there though.

    • Jon Ford

      Reply

      I found that it was the only way I could keep the story straight and keep the characters consistent from book to book. It’s a bigger endeavour than I imagined, and with the amount of characters I’m juggling, it’s hard to keep a mental track of who is doing what and what has happened to who historically.
      The Spreadsheet of Doom™ is invaluable to me to track all that.

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