Building a Character from Scratch

As you develop your idea into a story, you might need to work through vague plot elements and story structure, and in doing so, you’ll fill the roles required with vague “placeholder” characters. At some point, you’ll look at your notes or outline, and realize that characters called “Villain” and “Love Interest” just aren’t going to cut it.

So you’ll have to build that character. But perhaps all you have is the role that the character plays, and a general sense of what they need to do in the story. How do you create an entire character out of that?

Character creation is a complex and individual process, with every writer approaching it a bit differently. And every individual character requires different strategies to bring them to life—sometimes they appear fully formed, sometimes they come to life in the draft, and sometimes you need to drag them out of the ether one word at a time in revision.

There’s no one right way to create characters, and this is hardly the most thorough of approaches. But it’s the system I’m going to use to fill in one of my major placeholders.

Get the “Sense” of the Character (Picture Them)

You may know this character is the villain, and you may know what their evil plan is, but what do you picture when you think of them? What sort of “aura” do they have? What does their “presence” feel like?

The “sense” of the character is a vague feeling for their shape and appearance, and it’s usually the first thing I look for when developing a character’s details. It can be an actual image of the character, or it can be more of a feeling for their personality and expressions. The stronger you can visualize the character in whatever way makes sense to you, the easier it will be to develop details later on.

The first thing to watch out for is a character who is clearly just a copy of someone else’s character. To a certain extent (and with enough of an original gloss), this is okay; the uniqueness of your character will grow as you actually write them. But if the character’s personality and actions depend too much on qualities that are borrowed from their inspiration, such as a similar childhood or occupation, then no matter what you do they might scream rip-off. Be especially careful of elements which are extremely unique or dependent on the original worldbuilding, as “emulating” them will always be a red flag.

The second thing to watch out for is diversity. Growing up in our current culture and community (Western/American Midwestern upper-middle-class suburbs for me), I can’t help but default to the ubiquitous “white” characters that we see in almost every movie and book. This means when I sit down to think up a character, they tend to show up white unless I deliberately challenge them to be different. I hate this, and I’m working to change it, but I can only do so much with the indoctrinated processes of my subconscious.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I shouldn’t make every attempt to bring diversity into my story through a variety of characters of every identity. If this comes naturally to you, then that’s awesome; if it doesn’t, challenge yourself to include characters of different races, genders, sexualities, religions, classes, ethnicities, nationalities, abilities, etc. Sometimes different worlds may not include current cultural elements, but that doesn’t mean your world shouldn’t have a variety of cultures and identities. Just try to watch out for a world which is homogeneously white and Western, when it has no reason to be (and “historical accuracy” is both flat-out wrong and also not applicable).

Any diversity at all is a step in the right direction. Well-researched and complex diversity is even better, so try and invest your characters with more than just a surface-level diversity. This is an incredibly complicated issue with a lot of sensitive pitfalls, especially when writing as a member of a privileged group, and more than I can address in this post. But with the internet, there has never been a better time to do proper research on all facets of the human experience, so do your best. 🙂

[This will undoubtedly come back to haunt me when my own attempts at diversity fail miserably or even offend in ways I can’t anticipate, but I will always at least try.]

Choose a Name

Some writers may feel you need to wait until you know more about the character before naming them, and if that works for you, then do that. But I have been burned before by developing a character’s details and then being unable to find a name for them. I go through baby-naming books, I think and I try, but nothing feels right for the character and I just get stuck.

So for me personally, I try and choose a name as early as possible. Sometimes it’s even the first thing I do, especially if the character is minor enough. For the major characters, though, I try to get a sense of the character first so I can choose a name that feels appropriate to them.

Most of the time, I’ll start with a letter and a vague sense of what I want the name to look or sound like, and then I’ll comb through the books to find it. If I still struggle, at some point, I just take a leap and choose something. You can always change it in revision.

Give them a Relationship

Sometimes, a character doesn’t quite come to life for me until I see them interacting with someone else. The boring guy is suddenly adorable when he has a wife; the wealthy nobleman is so much more interesting when I know his butler’s personality. Finding a relationship for even the most minor of characters, whether romantic, familial, friendly, work-based, or otherwise, can bring them to life and make them more interesting. It also has the effect of making it feel like even the most minor of characters has a rich, full life of their own.

Look at their History

Blaming your childhood for the entirety of your personality is a bit clichéd, but the fact is that our histories inform most of who and what we are. When developing your character, think about their backstory—but be careful not to give everyone melodramatic tragedies in their bio. Even a relatively boring and peaceful childhood can still give a character shape if you take into account where they lived, their experience at school, their relationship with parents and siblings, their childhood hobbies and dreams, etc.

Sometimes picturing those few small childhood memories, even if your character has an idyllic history of frolicking in parks and loving parents, can make them feel more real. Did they visit Grandma every Christmas or Hanukkah? Did they go to summer camp? Did their parents drag them to church every Sunday? Did they wrestle with their brothers until puberty made it weird? Did they have to get up early every morning to help on the farm?

Don’t worry too much about making it dramatic, and don’t try too hard to make everything connected and explained. Their personality traits don’t all have to be traced back to specific childhood events; few defined traits are caused by single experiences. Look for repeated patterns, natural inclinations, and the people around them and how they might have influenced your character over time.

Picture some Specifics

This is the final vague trick I have for building a character from scratch pretty quickly: picture them in some specific scenario. You can use character profiles to do this more extensively, but sometimes, just thinking of one song that your character loves is enough to bring them to life. Or think of their one favorite outfit, the way they talk to their pets, where they’d like to go on vacation, etc. Just like picturing specific moments of their backstory, picturing specific details of their present—the most mundane, unimportant, and irrelevant details—can make them feel real.

And once a character feels real, even if you don’t know everything about them or their history, they become an individual in your story and not just a placeholder.

It’s not everything, but it’s a start.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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