In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway notes that characters must be “interesting, believable, and engaging.” Writers need to make readers feel invested in what characters go through. The two most basic characters are a protagonist and an antagonist. In a nutshell, the protagonist is the main character and usually the most compelling in the story; the antagonist is the one giving the protagonist trouble.
How to form a character?
One common way to build a character is to model him or her on someone you know. This requires changing the real person in several ways, fictionalizing him or her beyond recognition to avoid defamation lawsuits. Another strategy is to reflect on your own shadow. You can spot your shadow when you answer the question: What person or kind of person bugs you the most? Describe that person in detail (but not by name) and then add in one or two saving graces to fictionalize him or her.
Drawing or sketching characters can be useful, as can finding pictures in magazines or online, cutting them out and creating a page for each character, so you have a word picture source handy. Watching people out in public (be discreet) is another way to find character models, as is reading stories in the newspaper or watching TV.
Naming characters is essential and can be a lot of fun—choose a name to hint at the character of the character, if you can. For example, look at Dickens’ characters: many of them have colorful names that fit their personalities like Bumble and Scrooge. Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort sounds like a villain just from his name. Google “baby names” to help out here.
As advised in Creating Novels & Short Stories (52-56) giving a character an occupation is important, too. Plus of course, characters need a personal life, family and friends, hobbies, appetites, addictions, etc. Each character needs at least one unusual aspect—a gesture, a physical feature, a verbal expression, etc.
Another method to create a character is to write a “4color introduction.” This can give the character a backstory: what does he or she desire in life? Plan? What actions has he/she taken to get what was wanted? How have these actions turned out?
Reading the seven short essays in Part 1, CHARACTERS, of Crafting Novels & Short Stories will deliver more ideas on how to create characters. Googling this topic, as well, produces plenty of online sites on building characters, each with devotees and critics! However, most writers pick and choose from the plethora of available craft advice. My view is that each writer teaches him or herself how to write. By writing. And getting feedback. And rewriting. Repeat. If you can’t quit, you know you’re a writer.
Play with creating new characters rather than those you may have already come up with.
EXERCISES FOR THIS WEEK
ONE: Choose at least four approaches from those noted above. Use these approaches to sketch at least one protagonist in words, followed by a similar sketch for one antagonist that might be causing trouble for your protagonist. (Create just two character sketches, but use four of the approaches for each one of the character sketches.)
TWO: From your favorite published writer, investigate how he or she creates characters. Share how and where you learned about their methods. Follow one or two of their methods to create a second set of protagonist/antagonists. (Two more character sketches.)
THREE: Read what other writers in the course came up with, and Post Reply in the Forums what you learned from them.
Points and due dates for Delta students are in etudes CourseMap.