How to Create Characters That Are Your Readers’ Best Friends

How to create a character is maybe one of the most tricky aspects of the storytelling business. It’s so very personal. Here are some pointers to get you started.

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

When it comes to creating characters, I find it always so difficult to give advice. Creating characters is a highly personal endeavour, with roots in the author’s personality and life experience. Indeed, some characters may work only for their author because there’s a sparkle that no other person can give to them.

Creating characters is a highly personal endeavour

But there are certainly a few pointers that can start the brainstorming process to create compelling and relatable characters.

Let’s have a look at them.

Physical looks

I’ve seen many authors, especially new authors, obsessing over what a character looks like. I’ve seen some of them putting just this in their character’s sheet.

Personally, I find this the least important of a character’s characteristics, unless we use the looks of the character in a suggestive way (for example, there may be a reason why a character only dresses in black), or if the character has some physical characteristic that greatly impacts their life (for example, if they miss a hand, or if they have eyes of different colours.)

Creating — and therefore describing — characters is indeed a very personal matter. For example, I tend to use minimal physical description, and usually, I describe a character physically if, by that description, I can suggest something that is not physical. If that is, the description may suggest personality or spiritual traits.
In one of my stories, I described one of my characters as trying everything she could to cover her freckles. I’ve done this not only because I have a friend who does just that (and so I know this is a realistic trait) but also to suggest a degree of self-consciousness and uneasiness that tights into the character’s position as an outcast.

Describing a character in detail or sparingly is a personal choice, but I’d suggest putting more into it than just physical looks.

Family

Family is a hugely important factor in creating the character’s personality and behaviours even when they don’t have a family.

Inside the family (whether it’s their natural family or a created one), the character will live their early life experience, form their early ability to relate to other people, and pick up their first sense of ethics and life values.

All this will impact the formation of the character’s personality in a very definite way. Therefore I’d suggest jotting down the character’s early experience, especially inside the ‘family’, even if you won’t use them in the actual story.

Family is a hugely important factor in creating the character’s personality and behaviours even when they don’t have a family.

What kind of relation did the character have with the parents? Does he/she have siblings? What’s the relation with them? Does this relation creates security and confidence, or is it one of deprivation and harshness?
These relationships will likely shape how the character relates to all other people outside of their family. Therefore, it will also shape the way he/she will make decisions in the story and treat the people they encounter.

In the end, we don’t need to describe any of this in our story. We may just suggest it, as suggestion is power in involving the reader. But we cannot suggest what we know nothing about.

Background

Background comprises many different aspects in the life of a character: education, but also culture, religion, political stance, philosophical views, and more. Usually, everything that is not innate but socially constructed is part of a character’s background.

We call it background because this is the ground that backs up, or sustains the character’s personality, behaviours and social attitude.
Most of what is in a character’s background depends on chance. Nobody can choose their parent’s social stand or the religious environment into which they are born. Even the political stance or the philosophical views — that partly depends on the character’s conscious choices — also depends on the culture and environment they are born into.

This is precisely why the background is so relevant: a great part of it doesn’t depend on the character’s choices, but it will greatly influence his/her life choices.
In the background, a character’s desires and fears often sink their roots, as do the lie the character believes.

Ultimately, no character lives in limbo. Characters, like people, are part of a land and of a social group. In these environments, they live, act, and make their choices.

Though this is part of worldbuilding, it also tights into the creation of characters.

Personality

I’m mentioning this last not because it’s the least important (it might as well be the exact contrary), but because personality depends in great part from what I’ve mentioned above.
Except when it doesn’t.

The character’s personality is where the author’s personal choices and values mostly come into play. We often create a particular background or a certain family relationship because we want a character to have specific personality traits.

But personality is also partly innate.
A character may be easy-going because their family has taught them to be. But he/she may be easy-going because they are innately so, and their background doesn’t factor into that.

In fact, everything I mentioned above has a bearing on the story because it impacts the character’s personality. The way background and innate traits intertwine is among the most relevant dynamics in storytelling.
Think about it. In the intersection between background and innate traits arise the character’s behaviours, attitude, and choices. But not only: desires and fear and how the character manages them are also born in this intersection. This will then impact the character’s emotional state — something hugely relevant in how the story moves.
Sometimes, background and innate traits are at odds, and I think here’s where the best stories are born.

Let’s make an example. A family raise their child by the value of loyalty in a society that praises loyalty as a high value. But for different reasons, circumstances force the child to betray someone. Betrayal might be the best choice in that situation. How will the character live this event? Their family’s upbringing, culture, and even personality will be questioned, which will impact the character’s emotional and even mental state.
Let’s now say that a family raise their child by the value of loyalty in a society that doesn’t consider it a value. Here too, the situation forces the character to betray someone. Removing the societal pressure will shift the conflict, but the emotional and psychological stress on the character will be just as strong.

Conclusion

A character’s ID is always critical, but it becomes a valuable tool when we go deeper than the surface. When we spend time intertwining different aspects and levels of value in our characters’ lives — that’s where the best narrative pressures are born.

Sarah Zama wrote her first story when she was nine. Almost thirty years later, she started working in a bookshop and discovered books addressing storytelling techniques and the story structure. She became addicted to them. Today, she shares what she’s learned from experience and from books about creative writing, hoping to make other writers’ journey easier and shorter than it was for her.
Visit her
Etsy shop for creative writing workbooks that make a difference.

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Storytelling as an experience for writers and readers. How stories work their way into our lives

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JazzFeathers

JazzFeathers

Author of historical fantasy novels set in the 1920s | Dieselpunk | 1920s social history blogger | Hopeless Tolkien nerd https://theoldshelter.com/

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