How to build a character from scratch

Story is about a character who has to fight harrowing odds to achieve the one thing he wants desperately. This means, in a nutshell, your story is all about a character in conflict. Conflict is what makes your character interesting and readable. We don’t have to like your character but we need to want to spend three hundred pages with him. Likeability in that sense could come in the form of empathy or respect.

Perfect characters are uninteresting characters. And no, a scar on the chin of your hero does not make him imperfect. It only means he has a blemished chin. Imperfection must be shown in his behavior, attitude, reactions, thoughts, and treatment of self or others.

Growth and change deepen your story-people. Logically, humans, and by default, characters do not endure crisis or trauma or loss (or even success or victory) without changing in some way. Most stories open showing the main character in his Current World, and he should be dissatisfied (assuming he’s going on a positive-arc journey).

This placement allows you to put him through a series of troubling events that force him out of his comfort zone. He is desperate for his heart’s desire, that thing he wants, which is the only reason he’s willing to suffer. For this to work, the obstacles you put in his way need to align with his objective. For example, if your hero wants to embark on a treasure hunt to find the Golden Llama, obstacles strong enough to divert him could be a broken leg, his team abandoning him, his girlfriend kidnapped by the antagonist.

Characters need to be plausible and they need to behave and react in keeping with their personality markers. Even though they are changing and growing along the way, there has to be the right kind of motivation for them to act out of character. A timid heroine suffering from agoraphobia may be able to fight her fears to save her daughter from a lunatic because the stakes are high.

Building a character doesn’t happen in one shot–at least, not the unique, three-dimensional characters. Deep, believable, get-you-in-the-gut people that drive story are so rich and complicated they burn, smolder inside you. How do you infect readers with your characters?

Starting with a character idea

Maybe you’ve been inspired by a scene in a coffee shop, or your eccentric great-aunt, or a line of dialogue you overheard, or a quirky personality marker—whatever that initial figment is, try to expand on it to see how it develops into a character. Add detail, trouble, setting. Don’t be discouraged if that first figment fades away underneath the layers of more enticing figments. That is normal and only means your character is blossoming. Thriving under your touch.

WRITING HAZARD: Don’t force the original figment into the story if it no longer fits. Let it go. Perhaps you only needed that glimmer to launch off into wider territory. Keeping an ill-fitting detail that you love can damage the credibility of that character.

Spend time in your head and on paper to capture as much as you can about the character. Research interesting features that come to your mind, for instance, maybe he’s a small-town Midwestern boy who went to summer camp in Florida–what kinds of things would he have encountered that might test him on different levels?

Physical details are just as important as social and emotional ones. You will follow some rabbit trails that lead nowhere. This is normal as well. Once you realize you’ve been Alice for a bit, return to the point where the character feels strong and exciting to you. Then try again.

When you're building characters from scratch, you will follow some rabbit trails that lead nowhere. This is normal. Return to the point where the character feels strong and exciting to you.

How to Catch Yourself on a Rabbit Trail

A great way to make sure the details and information you’re gathering for your character actually fit the story you want to tell is to run a character check every so often.

-is your character true to himself (in terms of personality, opinion/thoughts, behavior?)

-if your character strays from being true to himself, is there a solid reason for it? This points directly to motivation according to the events in the story (and not YOUR needs or preferences).

-are your character’s goals and drives appropriate to himself and to the story?

-will your reader be able to follow along the character’s arc and understand why he’s acting the way he is—based on the plot and conflict and other characters involved?

-is your character consistent in terms of mannerisms, habits, speech, attitude, overall style and look?

-is your character original in his own right? In other words, when he speaks could we identify him without dialogue tags? If we get his point of view (without knowing it’s him) would the things he thinks and observe align with what we’ve learned about him so far?

I like to run a character check every couple of days during my Discovery stage, then again when I’m actively writing the story. I take additional notes when I run these checks.

Character Mapping

A character is a world. Just like human beings have grown and developed and shaped over time by events and people, the same is true of your character. Does your reader have to know absolutely everything about your character? No. Do you have to know absolutely everything about your character?

Yup.

This is a tricky balance: How much information to provide the reader without overwhelming her or boring her.

First things first. Map out your character, both inner and outer qualities. You could start with a typical day-in-the-life scenario and write down everything that might happen to your character and learn how she might respond or behave. Include details like clothing, hairstyle, body language, nervous tics, likes/dislikes, allergies, childhood injuries, relationships, hobbies, financial status, academics, sleeping habits, foods, idols…you get the idea.

Below are some approaches you can take to map out your character

  • List format
  • Character interviews
  • Day in the life
  • Scene work
  • What if questions

Try them all to help you access your character from all kinds of routes. I highly suggest not sticking to just one approach. For example, some information won’t be accessible through a list format but might reveal itself through scene work.

Once you’ve mapped out your character (using multiple approaches) decide on some events in your story. If you haven’t worked on your major turning points or three-act structure, now is a good time to do that.

Basically you’ll be lining up events along with what you’ve learned about your character. Kind of like a mix and match game where you figure out what character markers and background information belong in your story based on the plot events.

Compile all your story material in one place to act as as a main resource of information.

Begin your Story Encyclopedia

Organization of detail and information is really helpful as you begin breaking into your story world. If you’re in need of a system, try categorizing your story by major elements and keeping it handy in a three-ring binder.

I am telling you now—don’t throw anything away. I know some writers are beyond the point of knowing what stuff to keep or not keep, and that’s fine. But if you’re still navigating your writer self, your writing world, then just keep all your ideas until you feel more seasoned.

Divide your Story Encyclopedia into categories such as: Character(s), Conflict, Plot, Three-Acts, Scenes, Lexicon, Research—and any other category that suits you.

I prefer the old-fashioned storage of paper and a three-ring binder because it’s easier to get a bird’s eye view of my story this way. If you’d rather keep your organizational system digital, by all means do! You need to work the way it is best for you.

Regardless—keeping all the stuff you know about your story in one place will help you feel more efficient, more in control, and more professional. If you act like a writer, then you’ll feel like a writer.

In terms of all that character information that doesn’t make it into the story—don’t throw it away either. You may not think you’re putting it directly into your story, but some of it may be necessary for you to remember as the author. Lots of times that kind of detail informs you as you write the story. Unless you have a steel trap for a memory bank, why risk ditching details on a story you’re actively working on? That’s just my opinion, and  you have to, again, decide on a system and approach that suits you.

What is your favorite approach to discovering character? And if you’re a lifestyle blogger, how do you decide what pieces of yourself to present to your readers? Hit me up in the comments!

 

8 thoughts on “How to build a character from scratch”

    • Oh yes, Jill, I love getting in deep with my characters like that. I will often “take them out” for coffee or wine and have conversations with them. Keeping notes of our chats is really helpful because, you’re right, plenty of gems arise to the surface.

  1. I use a physical story “bible” and add things to Scrivener’s research section. Also, Evernote, although I don’t really use it to its full potential. Trying to keep myself organized!

    • Organizing creative output is a job, isn’t it! I find it difficult to keep track of the ideas that come to me when I’m not at my desk, with my tools at hand. Admittedly, some things get lost if I’m not able to jot them down right away, but I try to reassure myself that if it’s a lost idea it wasn’t meant for this project. Evernote is cool–I have that too, but like you, I don’t use it to its full potential.

Leave a Comment