When we speak of
characters from a structural standpoint, there are very specific
guidelines that determine what is a character and what is not.
But when we think of characters in every day life, they are simply
anything that has a personality, from your Great Aunt Bertha (though
some might argue the point) to the car that never starts when you're
Looking back through time,
it is easy to understand how early humans would assume that other
humans like themselves would have similar feelings, thoughts, and
drives. Even other species exhibit emotions and make decisions,
as when one confronts a bear face to face and watches it decide
whether to take you on or find easier pickings (a personal experience
from my recent hike on the John Muir trail!)
But even the weather
seems to have a personality by virtue of its capricious nature.
That's why they call the wind Mariah, why there is a god of Thunder,
and why the Spanish say Hace Color, when it is hot, which literally
means, "It makes heat."
So while, structurally, to
be a character an entity must intend to alter the course of events, in
the realm of storytelling a character is anything that possesses human
emotions. In short, structural characters must have heads,
storytelling characters must have hearts. When you put the two
together you have entities who involve themselves in the plot, and
involve us in themselves.
When writing a story,
then, from whence can we get our characters? Well, for the
moment lets assume we have no plot. In fact, we have no theme,
no genre - we don't even have any particular subject matter we want to
talk about. Nothing. We have absolutely nothing and we
want to create some characters out of "think" air.
Try starting with a name.
Not a name like "Joe" or "Sally" but something
that opens the door to further development like "Muttering
Murdock" or "Susan the Stilt." Often coming up
with a nickname or even a derogatory name one child might call another
is a great way to establish a character's heart.
What can we say about
Muttering Murdock? The best way to develop a character (or for
that matter, any aspect of your story) is to start with loose thread
and then ask questions. So, for ol' Muttering Murdock, the name
is the loose end just hanging out there for us to pull. We might
ask, "Why does Murdock Mutter?" (That's obvious, of
course!) But what else might we ask? Is Murdock a human
being? Is Murdock male or female? How old is Murdock? What
attributes describe Murdock's physical traits? How smart is
Murdock? Does Murdock have any talents? What about
hobbies, education, religious affiliation? And so on, and so
We don't need to know the
answers to these questions, we just have to ask them.
Next you want to shift
modes. Take each question, one at a time, and think up all the
different answers you can for each one. For example:
Why does Murdock Mutter?
1. Because he has a
physical deformity for the lips.
2. Because he talks
to himself, lost in his own world due to the untimely death of his
parents, right in front of his eyes.
3. Because he feels
he can't hold his own with anyone face to face, so he makes all his
comments so low that no one can hear, giving him the last word in his
4. Because he is
lost in thought about truly deep and complex issues, so he is merely
talking to himself. No one ever knows that he is a genius
because he never speaks clearly enough to be understood.
You get the idea.
You just pull out all the stops and be creative. See, that's the
key. If you try to come up with a character from scratch, well
good luck. But if you pick an arbitrary name, it can't help but
generate a number of questions. If you aren't trying to come up
with the one perfect answer to each question, you can let your Muse
roam far and wide. Without constraints, you'll be amazed at the
odd variety of potential answers she brings back!
That was easy, wasn't it.
But now, think of Murdock in your mind.... Picture Murdock as an
18 year old, a 5 year old, an 86 year old, and at 37. Changes
the whole image, doesn't it! You see, with a name like Muttering
Murdock, we can't help but come up with a mental image right off the
bat. It's like telling someone, "Whatever you do, don't
picture a pink elephant in your mind." Very hard not to.
The mind is a creative
instrument just waiting to be played. It has to be to survive.
The world is a jumble of objects, energies, and entities. Our
minds must make sense of it all. And to do this, we quite
automatically seek patterns. When a pattern is incomplete, we
fill it in out of personal experience until we find a better match.
So, when you first
heard the name, "Muttering Murdock," you probably pictured
someone who was in your mind already a certain gender, a certain age,
and a certain race. You may have even seen Murdock's face, or
Murdock's size, shape, hair color, or even imagined Murdock's voice!
Now ask one more question
about Murdock - What is his or her vocation? Try out a number of
alternatives: a school teacher, a mercenary, a priest, a cop, a
sanitary engineer, a pre-school drop-out, a retired linesman.
Every potential occupation again alters our mental image of Murdock
and makes us feel just a little bit differently about that character.
Interesting thing, though.
We haven't even asked ourselves what kind of a person Murdock is.
Is this character funny? Is he or she a practical joker?
Does he or she socialize, or is the character a loner? Is
Murdock quick to temper or long suffering? Forgiving, or carry a
grudge? Thoughtful or a snap judge? Dogmatic or pragmatic?
Pleasant or slimy of spirit?
Again, each question leads
to a number of possible answers. By trying them in different
combinations, we can create any number of interesting people with
which to populate a story.
As we said at the
beginning of the Murdock example, this is just one way to create
characters if you don't even have a story idea yet. But there
are more! In our next lesson we'll explore more of these
Pick a favorite book, movie, or stage play. Make a list of all
the principal characters.
For each character, list all the key bits of information the author
reveals about that character, as if you were writing a dossier.
Do a personality study of each character, as if you were a criminal
profiler or a psychologist.
For each item you have noted in your dossier and profile, create a
question that would have resulted in that item as an answer. In
other words, play the TV game Jeopardy. Take an item you wrote
about a character like, "Hagrid is a large man, so big he must be
part giant." Then, create a question to which that item
would be an answer, for example, "What is this character's
Arrange all the questions you have reverse engineered in an organized
list to be used in the Writing Exercises.
Use your list of questions from the Study exercises to ask information
about this character.
Come up with at least three different answers for each of the
Pick one answer for each question to create a character profile.
Read over the list and get a feel for your new character. Then,
swap out some of the answers (character attributes) that you included
in the profile for alternative answers you originally didn't use.
Keep swapping out attributes until you arrive at a character you
really have a feel for.
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