The following 6-point guide to character writing is comprised of two 3-point guides. The first three exercises should help you create a functional character. The next three should help you turn that functional character into a compelling one.
You know those lists of questions intended to help writers develop their characters? What is your character’s biggest pet peeve? Zodiac sign? Moral alignment? Eye color? Favorite ice cream?
Those are terrible.
Okay–walking this back a few steps–character questionnaires are not unequivocally terrible. Obviously, knowing your character’s hairstyle, eye shape, and birthstone isn’t a bad thing. These questionnaires are just a very bad way to begin developing a character that hasn’t yet seen the page or to patch a character you are struggling to write.
Let me put it this way: do you care about the birthmarks and physical ticks of a guy who hasn’t introduced himself yet? Do you care what tattoos he has if you don’t even know what kind of person he is and why he might have gotten a tattoo? Do you care how he takes his coffee?
Of course, you don’t.
Similarly, your readers won’t care about the most detailed character in the world if that character is not functional and compelling. And in my experience, a character with a strong foundation will spawn their own details as you write them.
Her overbearing mother made her self-conscious about the birthmark on her clavicle, so she deliberately goes to work in shirts that expose it. Her need for control causes her to wear her hair in a tight knot. Her former best friend gave her the scar above her lip. The memory comes back at night so frequently that she’s taken to drinking black coffee in an effort to avoid sleep. She and her closest co-worker share an inside joke about how much she likes strawberry ice cream, because she is, at the end of the day, able to open up and laugh with the right people.
The discerning reader will have noticed that the scar, the birthmark, and the hair here are not the important pieces of information about this woman; they each result from or symbolize something fundamental to her character. Her underlying character had to pre-exist these details or they would not have been worth mentioning. This is why questionnaires about characters’ favorite foods and physical appearance are dangerous. To start with the ice cream and coffee is backwards–like picking out shingles and siding before you’ve built the house. It is fun but structurally unsound.
(I realize that I just used an architecture metaphor in a post explicitly about character gardening, but I don’t care. We’re running with it).
Say you sunk a bunch of money (in writers’ currency, time and emotional investment) into those shingles, shutters, and pretty siding, only to complete the house itself and find that they no longer fit. The shingles don’t cover the roof, the shutters are too big for the windows, and that siding just… isn’t quite the right color. This has happened to me many times–not with a house, but with my books.
I don’t know about other writers’ experiences, but I’ve never written a relevant character whose personality didn’t change drastically as I wrote them. For this reason, I find it at best unhelpful and at worst damaging to fuss over details like a character’s fashion sense until I have a) a strong sense of their motivation and personality and b) spent enough time writing them to know how they operate on a scene-to-scene basis. A character’s quirks come, in context, as I get to know them better. If I try to plan too many details ahead of time, those details often end up conflicting with the characterization, themes, and visual symbolism in the final manuscript. They become the shutters that don’t fit the windows.
If the above does not describe your character writing experience, feel free to skip the rest of this post, as my methods probably won’t serve you well. If you have had a similar experience, if you’re a gardener of characters, like me, or if you have little writing experience, I have a set of three—and ONLY three—questions to kick off your character writing.
Building a Functional Character
By my estimation, there are three building blocks of a functional character—functional being the operative word here (we’ll get to the more difficult business of making that character compelling in part 2 of this post). For now, your character should have:
- A plot-related reason to be here
- A personality reason to be here
- A thematic reason to be here
A side character might get away with one or two of these. With a main character, I would shoot for all three, and for maximum structural integrity, try to make all three related.
Note that 1 & 2 can both fall under the umbrella of that critical character ingredient most just call character motivation, but I find it more helpful to break them into these two points, with 1 ensuring that a character serves the plot and 2 ensuring that they serve the scene-to-scene character dynamics.
- PLOT – Why is this character here?
This question is so important that it bears asking repeatedly. First, at the beginning—how did this character get here?—and then continuously after that—why is this character still here? The second, I think, is often more important and too often ignored. We’ve all seen those stories that keep a character around long after their plot relevance has expired. To keep a character from wearing out their welcome, you’ll want to give them something to do not just at the beginning of the story but throughout.
The revenge-seeker must not only arrive within the story but then also proceed with his vengeance plot. The forensic scientist can show up out of concern for another character and then sustain his presence in the narrative by helping to solve the main mystery. A civilian mom might arrive in an action-disaster scenario purely by chance but stay in the story because she has to find her kids.
- PERSONALITY – What does this character bring to the group dynamic?
A good character has a personality that fills a niche in the group dynamic.
Have you ever read a good story where all the characters had the same personality, spoke the same way, had the same traits, and agreed on everything? Neither have I. An office full of straight men can’t do much without an outlandish personality to react to. A compassionate person isn’t particularly meaningful in a world where everyone is nice and nothing goes wrong. An agent of chaos isn’t fun in an anarchical setting where no one attempts to enforce any rules. Every cast of characters needs opposing and complementary forces of personality. Make sure your character brings something to the table in this regard.
Maybe the revenge guy is a straight man within a cast of weirdoes, thereby providing relatable and humorous reactions to their absurdity. Maybe the kindness that prompted the forensic scientist to get involved in the plot helps him serve as a conscience to his companions. Maybe the mom looking for her kids is funnier than the humorless survivalists she travels with and provides comic relief.
I can point to characters in both my most recent books that I promoted from B-Team to Main Character simply to solve tonal issues within the core cast. In all cases (Setsuko and Kwang from The Sword of Kaigen and Kente from Theonite) the character in question was chosen to counterbalance darkness with their goodwill, optimism, and humor. Since my protagonists skew angsty, I often find the tone of too many scenes tending toward the dower when I want them to be fun. I almost always end up filling that happy/fun niche with a late-comer to the plot whose personality is more malleable than those of the mainstay characters.
- THEME – What idea(s) does this character represent?
If your story is dealing in themes (which I think any worthwhile story does, whether the creator thinks it does or not, but that’s a different discussion) then you probably want the arcs of your relevant characters to say something about one or more of those themes. This is where it’s important to know what you want your story to say to your reader about life, the universe, and everything.
A classic to the point of cliché example of this is the revenge-seeker, whose arc is used to comment on the themes of vengeance, justice, and forgiveness. Most revenge stories ask one or more of the following questions: is vengeance justice? Does the pursuit of vengeance corrupt a good person? Does vengeance ease the pain of loss? Does forgiveness? Or neither? Whether you want to answer these questions directly or ambiguously, the way the revenge-seeker’s arc plays out is crucial to communicating that.
Let’s take apocalypse mom. Set against a cast of rugged loners, she might represent parental love or family in general. Therefore, what happens to her—whether or not she finds her kids and succeeds in keeping them alive—says something about the role of love and family in the apocalypse. If themes of love and family aren’t central to your story, you could rework her arc to center on something else. Loss, freedom, independence, courage? Whatever your story at large is trying to explore.
I brought up Setsuko, Kwang, and Kente in the context of filling a personality niche. But the reason I chose them from among a myriad of optimistic and funny side characters is that their arcs had thematic resonance as well as the potential for plot-related expansion. Of all the side characters I might have pulled into the main cast, they were the ones with the potential to hit 1, 2, and 3 on this list.
If your character doesn’t hit all three (or at least two) of the above, I would either put some effort into filling them out or consider dropping them from your central cast. A character who does nothing to serve your plot, tone, or themes is dead weight. If you can answer all these questions with some degree of clarity, you have the basis of a strong character worth pursuing.
But does this take us all the way to a compelling character?
Well, let’s test it. Whether or not you’ve read my Theonite books, I want you to have a look at this graphic, featuring the core cast of Theonite: Orbit.
As you can see, I have effectively (if briefly) addressed all three of our functional character building blocks. However, if you’re familiar with Daniel, Joan, Fiki, Izumo, and Kente, you’ll recognize that this graphic doesn’t present a very meaningful look at them. If you’re unfamiliar with Theonite, you probably don’t feel like you know these characters at all—certainly not well enough to write them yourself. “Hey,” you might say, “those aren’t good characters. Those are archetypes.” And you would be right.
Now, I could try to remedy this by expanding those little character profiles, but even if I were to add the fifteen paragraphs necessary to explain the plot, personality, and thematic relevance of each of these kids, we would still be missing something. Each would still be just a collection of narrative functions–a lovingly-crafted game piece, not a fully realized character.
So, once you’ve ticked the boxes for plot, personality, and thematic relevance, how do you push your character past the archetype stage into something meatier?
How do you turn your Functional Character into a Compelling Character?
The simple-stupid answer is write them. Getting to a fully realized character is like getting to know a real person. You have to go on adventures with them and see how they operate–and the more adventures you take with them, the better you get to know them. But it can be difficult to know where to start writing a character.
The obvious approach is to start at the beginning of the story, but it can be uncomfortable and problematic to proceed directly into your outlined plot with a character you don’t know. As I’ve mentioned, my characters often change so much throughout one draft of a book that I have to completely rewrite their earlier scenes in subsequent drafts (you don’t even want to know how many times this happened with Theonite; I’ve been working on that monstrosity since I was twelve). While some heavy rewriting isn’t the end of the world, I’ve recently developed a strategy that works much better for me:
Before I start writing from my outline—sometimes before I make an outline at all—I’ll write what I call test-runs. These are scenes that may or may not have any place in the final manuscript; that’s not what they’re built for. Rather, they are designed to get me as far into the character’s head and heart as possible. For me, these test-runs are the quickest way to push a character past the archetype/idea stage into someone I can write with ease.
Because I seem to be obsessed with lists of three, here are my three favorite test-run prompts, which we might call…
The Three D’s:
- THE DAY AT WORK
Take your character through a day of doing what they do best—be it baking, espionage, party planning, conflict moderation, arson, military command, sports, whatever. What is their process? How do they feel about what they’re doing? Do they take pride in it? Shame? Satisfaction? Walk through it with them and figure it out.
- THE DETRACTOR
Drop your character into an argument with someone who questions their views and/or way of life. For maximum effectiveness, the detractor must be your character’s intellectual equal or superior. No easily dismantled straw men allowed!
This is the quickest way to figure out not only the finger points of your character’s ideology but also how they deal with confrontation. How secure are they in their views? How willing to defer to authority? Are they aggressive in argument? Calm? Snide? Do they project? Are they quick to question themself? Willing to question themself at all? How articulate are they? Do they stay that articulate when frustrated?
This one is a gold mine that never runs dry. I use it all the time and you should too. Don’t limit yourself to one detractor. Have your character engage with anyone who might shine a light on a new facet of their personality—or their culture, for that matter; something I just recently discovered is that this test-run doubles as an excellent world-building tool. I’m currently working out the details of my world’s religious denominations by having practitioners of different religions just verbally go at each other. It’s so much faster and more organic than trying to take pages of notes ahead of time.
- THE DRAGON
(by ‘dragon’ here, I just mean a monstrous antagonistic force that might appear at the climax of any story. Honestly, I just wanted to preserve the alliteration)
This one is simple. Put your character in a high stress, high stakes situation— dangle them off a cliff, dump them the day before prom, drop a car on their family—and let them deal with it. This scenario can be lifted from a potential climax of your story or from somewhere else, like Titanic, the Hunger Games, or a sitcom, whatever kind of pressure feels relevant to the questions you’re trying to answer about the character.
Something I try to do is attempt my planned action climax early in the character development process, so that I can figure out where the holes are. For example, a couple weeks ago I test-ran the final boss fight in my next Theonite spin-off, fumbled when I realized that my girls did not have the hero/villain chemistry I had hoped and then ran back to Functional Character Building Block 3 to get them thematically aligned. Tried it again last week and it went much better. Most of the climactic fights in The Sword of Kaigen were written multiple times to similar effect, though I hadn’t refined the process yet.
While this test-run can be very effective, I wouldn’t recommend running it until you’ve taken a swing at the first two.
Please note that the above test-runs will probably not work unless you commit to writing them like real scenes, at full intensity. I will say as many times as I have to: you do not know a character until you’ve written them, so write like you mean it.
Part of the reason I had trouble finishing this post in a timely manner is that I’ve been burning through test-runs for a new character in that next Theonite spin-off. So far, she’s argued with Joan and Fiki from Theonite, Matsuda Nagasa from The Sword of Kaigen, some monks, some gods, and her own dead mother. She’s also fought multiple test duels with the Matsuda brothers, Daniel Thundyil, Kinoro Wangara, and a myriad of side characters, so I can figure out how her powers work and how her ideology manifests in her fighting style. I already know that most of these duels and conversations will not end up in the actual plot, but I can’t get to the plot until I know my protagonist. And it’s going to be several more test-runs before I really know this kid.