Creating a character in your mind’s eye is like trying to imagine a new colour.
If you have children, nieces/nephews etc., think back to a time before they were hatched. Can you honestly say you could picture how they look now? It’s unlikely.
You probably had an idea; a hereditary chin or nose, a hairline like you or your partner. Even a voice that when you close your eyes, you mistake for someone else in the family.
But a clear picture is hard to dream up in real life. And it’s the same for your darlings.
I found (and still find) it to be one of the hardest parts of the entire writing process. You can have an excellent hook and a fascinating story, but it’s the character that will keep the reader turning the page.
But before I we go on; I will warn you that this article draws on a few of my personal experiences.
I began writing as a way to cope with a particularly difficult period of my life. In my mid-thirties, I found myself as the target of a group of bullies. And even as I write this, I still feel ashamed.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The whole experience allowed me to discover something about myself that I didn’t know existed. I found that I was able to redirect anxiety, anger, and fear, and put it to good use.
I used that negativity and turned it into something positive.
It became the foundation on which I built my first novel.
Drawing from reality
For me, nothing works better than seeing the “footage” play out in my mind. To do this, I place a known actor into the role and imagine that person with the traits of my character.
Doing this gives me real faces to use in scenes. In doing so, I avoid having to create story arcs filled with faceless people. It also helps me see how their faces react in certain situations and allows me to empathise with the character.
In my mind, Christoph Waltz played the role of my first villain (with my own modifications, of course).
Everything I needed are traits Mr Waltz exhibits in his movies. And he came to me almost instantly when I visualised my antagonist.
He comes across as quite a pleasant person. His small stature lets him blend into crowds, yet he’s unforgettable. But there’s something in his eye that suggests there’s a different side to him.
My protagonist, on the other hand, was much harder to picture. It took me weeks to find the right face.
Eventually, I thought back to the T. V show, Black Sails, and realised my MC was a lot like Captain Flint. But this is only thanks to the actor who brought the role to life – Toby Stephens.
He’s stoic, intensely focused, outwardly intimidating when he speaks, and there’s a simmering anger threatening to boil over. You can see him restraining a dangerous internal rage with every word.
I needed their visible prompts to maintain continuity as my characters moved through the story.
But it’s not enough to simply picture and modify a real person to play the part. You need to sprinkle some of your experiences on there.
This will allow you to connect with your character.
The Yin and Yang of Creating a Character
I wanted my protagonist to be the “other side of the coin” to my villain. But in retrospect, I now see that I was using my emotional state as a template for my protagonist.
Perhaps I sprinkled on a bit too much personal experience.
Without realising it, I put myself into the book with a subconscious hope of besting my own antagonists. (And to be clear, I’m not saying I see myself like Toby Stephens’ Captain Flint).
In my day-to-day life, I found myself in an impossible fight against some pretty horrible people.
They were grown men who were openly cruel to their subordinates. And worse still, because they were in positions of power, it felt like they were being protected by a higher management.
There was no one to turn to for fear of retaliation. It seemed like a real-life version of a conspiracy thriller. And not a very good one, to be honest.
I’m not being dramatic when I say that they tormented my dreams, stole my sleep, and made me dread the sound of my alarm clock. And this is why my MC is so damaged and dangerous.
But despite all that, they fuelled my imagination and made me dig deeper. Between the pages, I could write a person who was capable of facing and overcoming my adversaries.
The reason why I bring this up is because all stories need some kind of conflict.
It doesn’t always have to be good vs evil. But it does need to give the reader someone to cheer for. And you might face that conflict in your day-to-day life.
What makes a character unique?
So, what makes an engaging character?
Personally, I think it comes down to the small things that make them unique.
So, let’s explore that idea and “flesh out” a character.
Your character was born way before your first page. Even though you haven’t written it yet, they have a history. There is an unwritten journey that happened before your first page.
That history will have shaped your character’s personality and body language, and is what your reader (and other characters) will respond to.
Some of the first things we notice about people are their facial expressions.
Our micro-expressions are mini reactions we have to external factors and they make us unique.
Over the years, my wife has constantly pointed out my little tells. She often (to my annoyance), points out that I my head tilt when I walk. Or the way I smile with the left side of my mouth.
The reasons: as a child, I was a gymnast, and when running towards a vaulting horse, I’d tilt my head to assess my line. And I keep the right side of my mouth closed when I smile is because I lost a tooth in my teens. I have since had it replaced, but the habit of hiding it is still there.
These are things that I do. There are things that you do that you may or may not notice.
Now, take a look at your character and picture what they do. Also, try to associate those things with something from their past.
By anchoring those quirks in historical events, you will add an element of realism to their character development. You’ll also add a backstory that the reader will want to know about.
Try the following as a writing exercise.
Take your character, place them in an empty room with no windows. Take everything away from them so they have no distraction.
Now, make them interesting.
Can that character hold your interest for five thousand words or for a Short Story?
If they can’t, and you find yourself (or your beta reader) skipping sentences or scanning the words, you probably need to add more layers to their personality.
Give them some quirks, or a deeper psyche that can capture a reader’s imagination.
How interesting would that character be if they were in that room while suffering from claustrophobia? Would they kick and punch the walls to break free? Would they break down in a dreadful memory that triggered the phobia?
What if they were afraid of the dark? Or are they fine with their confines and just pass the time by thinking about a triumph or regret from their past?
Give us a reason to be in that room with them.
When I work away from home, I spend my nights in a room about the size of an average Premier Inn room. There, I’m on my own from around 5pm until 8am.
That’s a long time to sit in quiet self-reflection, and it’s something I use to my advantage.
I read everything I can to understand how writers describe their worlds, and everyone in them.
I also watch some excellent videos on YouTube by writers who enjoy sharing their experience and knowledge.
These days, I find reading, watching tutorial videos, and embracing loneliness helps me evolve as a writer.
And when I come home at the end of the week, I have a few more pages for my next book.
Creating a character requires self-reflection and a good understanding of what you want your story to achieve. You’ll also need to know how you want to tell the story. Check out THIS ARTICLE for some point to consider when planning your story.
If you don’t know where your character comes from, it’s likely that you and your readers will struggle to connect with them. And if your character is nothing more than a generic description, then your readers will soon lose interest.
Give them a history, give them traits that make them unique. And in doing so, you’ll find your writing becomes much easier.