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.
Condition number 1: Character must be special…but not uniquely so.
So, she’s got the power.
Well, what I give… I take away!
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’…
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.
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
P.S. There is now a PART 2 to this Blog Post all about my ‘Spreadsheet of Doom™‘. Click here to go check it out!