Creating an Original Character
by Maisha Foster-O'Neal
You've heard the old maxim before... 'a character can make or break your story.' Okay, okay, so you want to write an interesting character. You've got some plot ideas, you know a little bit about your world, but now you need your characters. And not just any old characters - no, these have got to be the most original, most interesting characters your reader will ever come across.
Ah yes, such is the desire of all writers. And yet, how is it that in classic fantasy we see the same heroes and villains generated over and over again? We've got the rugged wanderer who keeps to himself, the kid who's suffered amnesia and just happens to be royalty, the elf who despises the dwarf (and it's mutual), the reluctant hero who's handsome, brave, and self-sacrificing, the girl who's very beautiful but never gets along with the hero until the end of the story, and the evil overlord type of villain who cackles maniacally whenever things are going his way.
Enough already! We want to see something new for a change!
Before we dive into Creating Original Characters, I'd like to offer a disclaimer.
Disclaimer: I don't claim to know everything about writing. In fact, I don't claim to know very much about writing at all. I'm just a teen like a lot of you, with my own silly little ideas and a large collection of tips and tricks I've gleaned from just about everywhere. What I write should not be taken as gospel or absolute truth - it's just an organised way for me share with you what I think works. It's my opinions. I'm sure a few of my suggestions and drabbles will be shot down by readers, and that's fine. Take what you like, and ignore what you don't. I encourage you to add your own two-cents to this article. That's what the comment box is there for, after all.
Note: There is already an excellent tutorial about writing the Villain, so I won't make specific references to writing an antagonist. Besides, I'm not very good at writing believable villains yet! I highly recommend that you read the aforementioned tutorial, though.
The Basics of Characters
- The first thing about characters - They are just one facet of a good story. They are essential, but if you don't have a world for them to traipse around in and a twisty plot so that they can actually do something, then they're gonna get bored, and - worse - your reader will, too.
- Listen to them! If you manage to create a good character, she'll practically come to life. She will have her own opinions and demands, and if she doesn't want to fall in love with the hero, don't force her into it. She'll be unhappy, you'll be unhappy, and your story will seem contrived. She might even hit you over the head with a strong dose of Writer's Block for it. Your characters know who they are. Try to keep an open mind to their suggestions. Humour them.
- Exaggerate them. If he's egocentric, make him really egocentric. Real-life people are a mix of a lot of things, and their quirks don't usually go to the far end of extreme. In a story, though, your character will feel more real if he's actually less real. Like real-life, he should be a complex mix of more than one thing, but try to have one or two of those things super-sized. As a reader, we like to be able to label a character, and if they have one or two defining characteristics, it makes it easier for us - we just say 'she's arrogant' or 'he's lazy.'
- When I talk about characteristics and unique traits, I don't mean that she has a really weird birthmark or he has silver eyes. Other tutorial writers have said it, and I'll say it again: if you're trying to breathe originality into your character, strange physical attributes are a cop-out. No purple-haired humans or glowing birthmarks unless you can come up with a really, really good reason for them. If you're giving him blue hair just because it looks cool, you need to rethink your character. Instead, give him a crooked smile, lots of freckles, or really big ears.
- Don't let your characters be perfect. Ever. The hero can't always be brave and selfless, especially if you combine it with roguish good looks and a talent for swordplay. Characters need flaws. I cannot stress that enough. They need to be imperfect. They need to have quirks and fears and obsessions. They need a weakness.
- Let your character be special for who she is and what she does, not who she's related to or because she's destined to save the world. Her defining points should not be based on a condition - she's pregnant, she's under a curse that allows her to only speak in rhymes, she's deaf. She should be interesting for her personality and her quirks. If she's heading out on a quest to save the world, she should be doing it because she has the internal motivation to do it. If some blind old Seer makes a prophecy that says she's the only one who can bring together the warring races, she'll probably say, 'To hell with that, I'm gonna stay home and hope the whole thing blows over.'
- A note on fantasy races: If your unicorns are silvery steeds who can cure injuries with a touch of their horns and your dragons are temperamental and have a fondness for hording treasure and breathing fire, we've read it before. Why not make your unicorn have attitude issues because she hates being stereotyped as the gentle creature from children's storybooks? Why not have an elf who abhors trees and tends to trip over himself a lot? Let your dragon be sweet-tempered or afraid of heights. Allow your dwarves to have squeaky voices and a love of chocolate. Your werewolf might be a charming family guy when he's not covered in fur, and your vampire might like to wear bright colours and shape-shift into a bumblebee instead of a bat. Shake things up! Refuse to submit to the old, the overused, and the cliché.
Character Creation: Little Exercises
- Open up a phonebook and pick out a name, and write a description of that person based only on their name. Similarly, open up your highschool yearbook (or, better yet, someone else's), choose a face you don't know anything about, and create a personality for them. (This works well for non-fantasy writing, too).
- Write down occupations (you know, like Firefighter and Musician and Doctor) on scraps of paper, and on another set of paper write down personality quirks (such as Kleptomaniac, No Sense of Humour, or Superstitious). Pair the occupation with the quirk by drawing them out of a hat, and see what sort of person you come up with!
- Write up a profile for your character. There's a wonderful Character Creation Form in one of the other tutorials, or you can find other ready-to-use profile forms on the internet. If you like, write your own. Make sure to include the date you started the form. I like to print them out and fill in all the data at my leisure, and I keep separate folders with forms and notes for each story.
- Interview your character. Sit down with him and ask him questions. Keep asking until he starts giving you answers. Find out why he's afraid of spiders and what his deepest desire is. It's fun to write up a questionnaire and fill it in. If you can, explain your character to a friend and then ask her to answer the questions as she thinks your character would.
- Draw her. Even if you are a terrible artist, drawing your character might inspire you to keep writing her. This is particularly helpful if you feel like you're coming down with a case of Writer's Block. Sometimes drawing your character or a favourite scene can kick your brain back into gear, and suddenly you'll be hammering away at the keyboard again.
- Take an online personality test (such as Meyers-Briggs or Enneagram) from the perspective of your character. I have a friend who loves Enneagram and always defines her characters with numbers based on the Enneagram system. Months later she can return to a character and know just who he is by the numbers she's written down.
Types of personality flaws
These are just a few of my favourites to give you an idea of what you can add to a character. There are loads more out there, and everyone has their favourites. Use more than one. A character can't just be a kleptomaniac... let her be clumsy and sarcastic, too.
- Sarcastic or cynical. Maybe it's just me, but I'm a sucker for guys who are constantly insulting everyone in a very funny way. Try to decide why the character is sarcastic, though... What makes him moody or bitter in his humour? What happened in his past to make him insult everyone now? Is he afraid of relationships or wary of trust?
- Egocentric. Let the character think she's better than everyone. If other people can do something, she can do it better. She's also much more intelligent than everyone, and, of course, the most beautiful. She's fun to write and fun to read, because you love to hate her.
- Easily fascinated. I just love a character who will stare at balloons forever and delights at a passing butterfly. They're flaky, they're shallow, they're generally useless, but they're so funny to watch. They spout off the randomest pieces of knowledge and don't know when to shut up.
- Fierce or hot-tempered. This one is becoming a bit overdone, but I still enjoy a girl who's more likely to knock you out than allow you to rescue her. If you go for the gender-role-reversal thing, a fierce girl is a lot more fun to write than the usual damsel-in-distress. Hot-tempered guys can be great, too - he may be easily provoked or loses his temper at the mention of his father. But don't overdo it. How many people got really annoyed by Harry's constant angst in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix?
- Mysterious. You have to be careful with this one, but sometimes it's interesting to have a character who you can't predict and who's thoughts and actions you don't understand. It can get annoying, though, if the character knows more than the reader. So be careful.
- Hyperactive or flamboyant. A character that never seems to run out of energy or questions can be amusing. Maybe he has an obsession with trying to get the other characters to dance with him. This is a fun one if you like gender-role-reversals. Guys who are easily excitable and like to give big sloppy kisses don't come along too often, and we love to laugh at their antics.
- Melodramatic. The drama queen (or king). This is a character who exaggerates everything and makes tiny events seem like huge catastrophes. She's fun to write and even more fun to read. This is the character who jumps to conclusions and thinks everything is way funnier than it is.
- The bully. Personally, I like the guy that pushes everyone around. He thinks he's cool, but maybe he's secretly really insecure. A good example would be Sirius Black and James Potter from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
- The nerd. Okay, so it's fun to have a girl who rattles off physics equations in the middle of battle and tries to predict events based on scientific calculations... espcecially if she's wrong or no-one ever listens to her. Another variation of the nerd is the kid who's rather the swot and always likes to be right.
- Accident prone. She screws things up because she trips over her own feet. She's clumsy. She gets in the way, and she can't be stealthy no matter how hard she tries. She drops things.
- Forgetful or absent-minded. He's sort of dim, gets teased a lot, puts his shoes on the wrong feet. Perhaps he's brilliant but can't remember more than two things at once. He can't remember why he's in the kitchen or where he put his glasses.
- Compulsively lies. She rarely tells the truth. Lies are so much more interesting - and it's not really lying, it's just a form of acting. She may give her companions wrong directions and after awhile they may not trust her very much. Useful if you like the boy-who-cried-wolf type of story, where she doesn't tell the truth until it really matters, and then no-one believes her.
- Awkward. He's nervous and a little paranoid and doesn't know what to do with himself when a girl is in the vicinity. He may trip over his own tongue or be fearful of revealing anything about himself.
- A hypochondriac. She's convinced she's dying. A splinter becomes life-threatening, and she cannot travel if she has bruised her knee. Occasionally she crashes into hard surfaces 'on accident' and sustains grievous injuries. She always thinks she's ill or coming down with something contagious.
- A kleptomaniac. He compulsively steals things. His companions don't understand why their shoestrings and coins seem to disappear. Most of the time, he doesn't, either.
- A pyromaniac. It doesn't get much better than a fire-obsessed girl who likes to experiment. Whoever knew that the hero's boots burn such a strange shade of blue? Or that unicorn hair won't burn unless you douse it in beer?
- Anything that ends in -iac. Noticing a theme, aren't we?
A note on Romance
It's okay to not have any romance in your story, but if it's expected it can be sort of a letdown if nothing ever happens between any of the characters. Don't feel like you have to pair off all of your characters - it's okay for some (or even most of them) to remain single. Forbidden interracial relationships are becoming a bit overdone lately. Your human doesn't always have to fall for the untouchable elf, and the werewolf doesn't always have to chase the human. It can be just as sweet and unexpected (if not more so) to reveal that your two boy characters secretly love each other. But if you don't go for homosexual relationships, or your character doesn't, it's okay not to write it. Just recognize that it's a possibility.
A note on Character Death
'...and they lived happily ever after.' Happy endings don't always occur in real life, and they can get boring to read. Personally, my favourite endings are the bittersweet kind, where one of the protagonists dies or the lovers must be separated between different worlds or times. (My favourite examples are the His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien). If you don't dig death, though, don't write it. If your character dies, the reader is gonna want some sort of compensation - the world had better be saved because she sacrificed herself, or the other characters are delivered from imminent doom. Unless, of course, you're writing tragedy, à la William Shakespeare, in which case everyone can die and the world can fall to ruins and everyone thinks it's wonderful.
Clichés: What NOT to do
- The classic hero (brave, handsome, and has a tendency to save kitties from trees. Bonus if he's good with swords and used to be a farm boy.)
- The classic damsel-in-distress (beautiful and completely useless. Has no idea how to do anything for herself. Submits woefully to her downtrodden position.)
- The princess (beautiful, docile or snobby, and likes elegant gowns. Bonus if she has blonde hair.)
- The prince (snobby, handsome, brave, or sweet - no matter what guise you put him in he's still a prince)
- The loner (rugged, silent, and tortured by his past... we've read him a million times.)
- The amnesiac (especially if she's royalty, a powerful mage, or fulfils a prophecy)
- The orphan (especially if he's royalty or the one to fulfil a prophesy)
- Royalty (We're just tired of royalty, okay?)
- The Woe-is-me ('mummy just died and daddy wants me to be just like him but I just can't because I'm afraid and what will I do and I think I'm gonna cry...')
- The seductress ('you are rugged and handsome and even though you have a wife at home I will tempt you with my sex appeal because I am beautiful and like to wear leather thongs.')
- The Fallen Angel ('I've been cast from Heaven, my wings are broken and I will despair.')
- No emotion ('Blink. Blink.' Volkyns and Elves are particularly good examples)
- Villain's sidekick (he falls for the hero and betrays the villain. Or he's an idiot who always screws things up but is forgiven every time.)
Some authors have made entire books that purposefully break all the rules - damsel in distress, handsome farm boy turned hero, a dragon to slay and a king whose rule is failing. What these authors have done, though, is to make fun of the whole fantasy genre by writing absolute stereotypes into their stories. Other authors write pages and pages simply to kill the old clichés - the princess wants to hang out with the dragons because castle life is boring, the hero is an ogre, and the orphan is absolutely, totally, completely useless.
Books and authors who tie up fantasy and tickle it:
- Patricia C. Wrede- Dealing with Dragons series
- Terry Pratchett- Discworld series
- Piers Anthony- Xanth series
- AJ Jacobs- Fractured Fairy Tales (from the Rockie and Bullwinkle show)
- William Goldman- Princess Bride
- Shrek- okay, so it's a movie, but it still kills clichés
Adding quirks and originality to your characters can be a challenge, but it is definitely worth the time it takes. So, my readers, go forth and write! Spend sleepless nights tapping away at the keyboard, write notes to yourself on your arms in permanent pen, daydream in class. Do what writers do. Write your characters, listen to their suggestions, and allow them to murder as many clichés as they care to. It's okay to use some clichés (I must admit that I am quite attracted to a lot of them... there's something enticing about a derelict old cliché when you feel like it might be shiny if you can just rub off all the dust), but the best ones are those you can turn on their heads and twist into unexpected shapes. Be crazy, be beautiful, be you.