On the subject of character creation, a majority of writers across the Internet will advise you to start from a blank character sheet. You’ll be instructed to envision the character in your mind to determine what they look like, what they sound like… You’ll need to come up with their age and occupation, as well as hobbies and favorite foods. Finally, you’ll be told to jot down adjectives that describe the character’s nature. Is she kind? Is he honest?
That’s great. It’s important to understand the type of person your character is, but the one thing I can’t fathom is how you’re expected to list out all of these qualities for someone you’ve yet to meet.
Other writers will tell you that you need to first determine what your character longs for. What will their main character arc be for your short story, novella, novel, etc?
How on Earth can you come close to truly knowing what your character wants without having ever been introduced?
My process for the creation of a character is very much different than the typical advice listed above.
When the idea for a novel comes, whether it be the dream-like tendril of a soft caress upon my mind or a slam-dunk, freight train of a whopper that hits like lightning, the first thing I do is determine what sex of protagonist I wish to create for this fiction. This helps me to focus my internal camera–just a smidge, mind you–upon the former blob of a character I had just a moment before.
When I’ve determined that, I picture the ordinary world in which my character currently belongs.
For this example, just to make it easier to follow along, I’ll say my novel idea revolves around a commune in the 1970s. The leader of the commune is suave, personable, yet enigmatic. My protagonist will be a fledgling reporter, who has found out a secret about the leader and wants to infiltrate the commune in order to get the story.
In the few seconds it took me to come up with that premise, my mind is already whirling with ideas. Writing about a working-class female, especially in the 70s, would be something I could definitely get on board with. I’d love to explore the gender differences of that time period, as well as use my female character’s wiles in order to go undercover and solve a puzzle.
What do I know about my character at this very moment?
She is a female. She is a reporter. That’s it.
I don’t know her age, her personality, her looks, nada. I don’t know whether or not she works at a large newspaper or for a small-town print.
I would never consider to assign her personality traits at this point. Why? Because we still haven’t met. Don’t worry, I’m about to introduce myself.
At this point, I’ll open up a new document or pull a fresh sheet of paper from my desk drawer. I bet you think I’m going to start a list, don’t you? No. Lists are for groceries and baseball coaches. We’re writers so… let’s do what we do.
My character is currently sleeping. What happens when her alarm clock goes off? Does she even own an alarm clock? Perhaps she lives out in the middle of absolute nowhere and wakes up when the rooster crows. Her options at this point are limitless.
I begin to write. Flash fiction at it’s finest right here. This is how I breathe life into my character and allow her (or him, or whatever pronoun I’m using) to reveal themselves to me. What happens when she wakes up? Does she make her bed or leave it messy? Is she a shower or a bath girl? What does she eat for breakfast and who does she talk to while she does it? Does she live with anyone or by herself? Why? Does she have a tendency to dally and have to rush to get off to work or does she stick to a self-imposed schedule and make sure she’s at her job on time?
I will continue this piece of prose until I’ve come to the end of her day. Does she creep into her bed clad in risque lingerie or does she flop into the unmade mess, clothes from the day still upon her frame?
This is how I meet my character.
At some point throughout the writing, the hazy blob I had at the beginning will start to focus. Like she’s standing in front of a lens being shifted millimeter by millimeter, her outline will come into view. I’ll realize that she’s a waif of a girl, with long, stringy blond hair reminiscent of the top of a cornstalk. (She is from a rural area but did indeed own an alarm clock with no cock-a-doodling within her hearing range.)
She is soft-spoken and intelligent. She lives in a boarding house on the outskirts of a medium-sized city. She lives by herself at the young age of 22. Her parents were–and still are–members of a organized cult in Iowa. That is where she grew up. She fled at 16, a victim of sexual abuse and indoctrination, to Wisconsin where she now goes by a false name.
She began her career at the local newspaper as a night-shift janitor. In her spare time, she began to pen the memories of her life within the cult and realized she had an aptitude and love for the written word. She procured her current position by leaving poignant articles covering the town’s current events on the editor’s desk nightly before she left at the end of her shift. (She makes her bed every morning and, at night she climbs in gently, wearing an old t-shirt and loose-fitting shorts, by the way, not a negligee. Also, she has to wear socks at night or she gets too cold. Wisconsin, am I right?)
At this point, I have envisioned how she holds her fork, how she takes her coffee (black, it’s the cheapest), how she gets to work, how she reacts to co-workers, her typical lunch and what she wears as she goes about her day. My character is real to me, not a white sheet of paper on the desk labelled CHARACTER SHEET. I can envision the beginning of her arc but I would never–louder for those in the back, NEVER– lock her into such growth. She has so much more to show me.
You learn who your characters are by writing about them. Allow them to speak to you through your typing (or frantically scribbling) hands. I swear on the Girl Scout Handbook, if you allow your character to find their own voice instead of assigning them one, that character will spit things out you never dreamed of.
Give your creation–your characters–the ability to make magic. You’re not the puppet master here; picking up strings and dropping them to make your characters move. You’re the stage.
Let them dance as they will.