A Different Class of Character

Apologies for the recent post drought, I have been beavering away (sort of) concocting some ideas for a fantasy novel before I launch into Alith Anar (and project Ssh) so my brain’s been taxed by other things lately. Said work on the speculative novel has given me a few ideas, tied to Perius’ comment on character creation, which I am going to share.

Roll 4d6 and Pick the Highest…

There’s no such thing as character creation. Of course, authors talk about creating characters all of the time, but I think the term is misleading. It gives the impression that there is a process a writer can go through whilst planning a work which will see a fully formed character. The idea of character creation puts me in mind of roleplaying games, where a player will sit down and roll a bunch of dice, use a points system or utilise some other mechanism to create the character for their game. In reality, this only provides the framework for the character, the character is actually created when the player sits down and actually plays. The same is true for characters in fiction. Characters aren’t created, they are expressed.

A writer may well spend an eternity coming up with the back story, physical properties and emotional motivations for a character and yet completely fail to convey that in the work. A character is a dynamic, an evolving motion of action and personality. The audience only know a character by what the work actually tells them – through their words and deeds.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t be putting effort into working out who your main characters are. I’ve recently re-read Screenwriting 101 by Neill D. Hicks, and it has some great advice and exercises for discovering the characters of your work. Although the book deals with screenplays, much of what Neill says about characters holds true for novels and even games. Through reading the book again I examined my own character-creation process from a different perspective.  It’s also good for dealing with the essentials of plot and structure and I’d heartily recommend it to any type of writer – though bear in mind that some of the conditions for a good screenplay aren’t the same as those for a short story or novel.

Discovering Character

Armed with this rediscovered attitude towards character I have spent a few days working on the primary character for the fantasy novel. I already had the most basic structure of the story in mind, so I decided to sit down and write a biographical piece concerning the character. Rather than being a synopsis of the events of the book – what the character sees, does and says – it is an emotional and psychological study. Sounds impressive, eh?

I began, as recommended by Mr Hicks, with the backstory. This was a statement of the character’s emotional position and psychological state at the beginning of the novel. It talks about his aspirations, fears and other motivations, and how these are being expressed by his current actions. There is no detail here in regard to events that may well be examined in the novel, just a creation of context for the character so that the story can begin.

I then impressed upon the character the first catalytic event of the plot. This is what Neill D. Hicks calls the significant change – the event that propels the character from their everyday life into a conflict that gives rise to a story worth telling. As with the backstory, I didn’t write about the details of the event itself, but instead concentrated on the reaction of the character and its affect, if any, on his attitude, beliefs and emotional state. This is the first part of realising him as a character because it is through his behaviour from this point on that the reader starts to find out what sort of person he is.

In doing this, I also began to invent other characters he needed around him – friends, families, antagonists. As a real person, his changing behaviour is affected by and has an effect on those around him.  I had started out with a single protagonist and now I was developing a cast of characters to help him tell the story. The details of these characters were also kept brief, expressed only as they exist in relation to the main character and their role in his story and development.

I continued to do this with the other major events of the story, the trials and victories the character will face, always through the lens of how the unfolding plot determines the wellbeing and mind-state of the character, and how the changes in his goals and attitudes reciprocate in pushing the plot.

I feel sorry for the poor chap, it’s an emotional roller coaster. Without having decided a single thing about exactly who does what and how, I have already told character’s story. So far the piece is just shy of 2,000 words in length and may expand further as I go back to some sections and re-examine them, or incorporate the relationships of other characters who appear later in the biography but would in fact have an earlier role to play.

Recipe for Success

Sometimes writer’s view this sort of biography or planning work as a blueprint. I prefer to think of it as a recipe. I have a ‘list’ of character ingredients and a mechanism by which they will be incorporated together. Now that I have discovered the character, I can approach the creation of the synopsis with this already in mind. I know the emotional and developmental journey he will undertake, so I can concentrate on the other aspects of the story – plot, setting, etc – knowing that it is built on the solid foundation of a strong, developing character. The bad guys may end up as strange tentacle-beasts or savage cat-people, it doesn’t matter. In terms of the character’s tale, I have already discovered the role and impact they and their actions will have upon my character.

With that in mind, when I come to write the story itself I now have a frame of reference for the character’s state of being. I can actually dig out the document and remind myself whether he would be feeling sad and lonely, excited or angry. He’s already told me how he feels throughout the story, now I can concentrate on expressing that personality through his thoughts, words and actions. And, hopefully, readers will also understand where he’s coming from so that those actions seem utterly coherent with the reader’s expectations.

Mr Hicks says that we discover characters rather than create them and I couldn’t agree more. By engaging with this character in the manner I’ve just explained, I could examine the causal progress of his story from a purely character viewpoint, uncluttered by other considerations. Whatever the eventual detail of the plot throws at him, I know not only what effect it will have, but that the progression of his story has a consistency and verisimilitude that will hopefully make the story believable.

So, next time you sit down to ‘create’ a character, follow through the process to the conclusion of the story not the beginning. Take into yourself the character’s thoughts and emotions so that the character will tell the tale, not the author. I think richer, more rewarding characters will be the result.


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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I found this quite inspiring to read. Working as a conceptual artist and Illustrator it is really interesting to see different views on how characters evolve into fully fledged stories in themselfes…


  2. !mpact ?


  3. This is no doubt a silly (and shallow) example, but when I read this post I was reminded of Doom (the movie). Although an undeveloped and flat piece (imho), each character in the movie had a fleshed-out backstory that guided his/her actions, dialogue, & destiny.

    I also keep this movie in mind to remind myself that simply developing characters and rounding them out does not create a well-written piece.


  4. […] – bookmarked by 5 members originally found by swkjra on 2008-11-06 A Different Class of Character https://mechanicalhamster.wordpress.com/2008/07/10/a-different-class-of-character/ – bookmarked by […]


  5. […] understandable, perhaps even predictable behavior. Put them into a given situation – what Mechanical Hamster refers to as a catalytic event – and they will take action…. Perhaps action their creator did not expect. We must ask […]


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