Monday, September 12, 2011

7 Essential Elements of Character Creation

Last week Nikki Jefford requested a post on developing characters. There are many different approaches toward developing characters for a story. Last year I wrote a post on different ways to get to know your characters which might help anyone getting started. The techniques I included were the use of visual aids, character questionnaires and family trees. Each author needs to find the technique that works for them.

No matter what method an author chooses to adopt, there are a number of elements that are essential to include in the creation of every character:

The name: Many writers will start with a name and build on the character from there. I can easily spend hours searching for the right name. I’ll often look up a name’s meaning to give a subtle extra dimension. Back when I didn’t plan my stories, I changed a character’s name midway through the manuscript only to discover that the changed name also changed the character’s personality which in turn changed his role in the story. A name can reveal a lot about a person. For example, it can reveal their family’s country of origin.

The appearance: There are a lot of factors to consider for the appearance of a character: their height and build, how they project themselves, if they have any scars or tattoos, and so much more. A character’s appearance will reveal their origins, their education, even their frame of mind. These details, when offered in a sprinkling of information rather than a flood, can engage the reader and make the characters feel more real.

The motivation: The easiest way I get to know my characters is to find out what drives them. What are their passions, and what’s the reason behind their actions?

The use of language: The way a character speaks can be enormously revealing. For example: whether or not a character uses slang, expletives, a certain dialect, abbreviations. The character’s voice can make a reader love them or hate them.

The flaw: Every character must have flaws to make them more believable and well-rounded. The flaw will also give the main characters room for conflict and change through the storyline. You can find more on that subject in a previous post on The Character Arc.

The past: The past, our environment, and our experiences shape us. Because of this, many writers will build a thorough history for their characters to get to know them. While that history may not always end up in the pages of the novel, it’s good to know

The likeability: A main character in particular must be likeable for a reader to journey with them through a story. This doesn’t mean the character has to be nice all the time. We can like mean characters as long as they are interesting in some way. 

Which elements of a character’s creation do you spend the most time on? What are the factors you like most about any given character?

I was recently tagged by Tiffany Garner. I am meant to post 10 random things about myself. Being the rebel that I am, I will post 1 random thing: I have been mobbed like a popular celebrity (or a strange curiosity) in a remote village in India. I took the photo I used for this post from a bus window. I boarded the bus to hide from this crowd because I was so different--white skin, blue eyes and glasses. (Probably a good thing I wasn't blonde as well).


Sarah Tokeley said...

Oh, the name thing! I changed what happened to a character halfway through and his name didn't fit him at all!

DEZMOND said...

I reckon creating characters is the most fun while writing a book :)
I like strong and believable characters.

DEZMOND said...

PS the story on the photo is super exciting!

WritingNut said...

I've recently changed one of my main character's names and I'm STILL having a hard time adjusting! Great advice :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

For main characters, the name comes first, then I focus on the motivation and past. And likeability is something I'm still working on, since I made Byron borderline unlikeable at first.

Old Kitty said...

Oh wow!! You're famous in India! How lovely!! Awwwwww yay!!! I love the pic you got of these very excited and happy faces (of mainly male peoples?!!?)! Yay!

I think I spend most time with the character's dialogue. They have to speak a certain way to go with what I have in mind for each character.

Take care

Lauren F. Boyd said...

Hey, Lynda! These are great points about writing characters. I especially like your suggestion to build a character's background in order to better understand and know him/her, even if that part doesn't make it into the story. At least it helps you as the writer to be consistent and true to your character throughout the entire manuscript.

And thanks for your comment on my blog! It's great to see you!

J.B. Chicoine said...

This post actually addresses one of the issues I've been working hard on recently, in a new WIP.

My character's motivation and thier past are biggies for me--all the other things seem to fall in line when I have a good grasp of them. The trick is getting all that outlined in my easy feat!

Pam Williams said...

Very helpful information to me right now as I am reading through a friend's very first novel. I want to be as helpful as possible so these are good tips to keep in mind. Thanks!
Pam at

Christine Rains said...

I'm guilty of spending too much time on names too. Usually I'll have a character personality in mind before I have a name. Sometimes I want a unique name, but then they'll name themselves and I can't win the fight to change it to something else!

Suze said...

'Many writers will start with a name and build on the character from there. I can easily spend hours searching for the right name. I’ll often look up a name’s meaning as well to give a subtle extra dimension.'

I can so relate to this!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Sarah, I think only writers understand the importance of a name :)

Dezzy, strong characters are the best. They are so likeable. Re, the photo story, it might sound exciting but it was amazingly unsettling at the time lol. No one else was on the bus at the time and all those boys gathered at the window where I sat so I had to hide behind a thin curtain. Never experienced anything like it.

WritingNut, changing a character's name can be one of the hardest things to do hehe.

Alex, well, I liked Byron and his 'tude. A lot.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Old Kitty, famous is probably not quite the right word ;) I don't think I could have looked more strange to them than if I'd sprouted a second head.

Lauren, yes, and I think consistency is hugely important.

jbchicoine, no easy feat at all, but like you said, once you get a handle on it, its easier.

Pam, so glad it helped. :)

Christine, haha yep, sometimes the characters have their say on how things go--including the name.

Suze, I'm beginning to realise that many writers can relate to this ;)

Crystal said...

I think I spend the most time on the character's personal background - that gives me a lot of clues as to how he/she will behave or react in certain situations. Also, creating characters, to my mind, is the most fun part about being a writer!

Hermana Tiffany Garner said...

Great post here! And great random fact as well :) What you said about names is so true. When I started my WIP, I knew the basic outline of what happened to my MC (pretty much just the beginning and end...there's so much in the middle that's come out on its own!) and I had her name. About halfway through the novel, I realized the name wasn't working right. As soon as I changed it, everything fell into place, and I had to rewrite some previous scenes for her personality to be consistent.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters' backgrounds, whether or not it's included in the story. I love knowing where they came from and why they have certain ideas or views. I also love knowing the little things about them, like their favorite childhood memory, that really aren't important to the plot. It makes them so real to me and in doing so I can write them in a more believable way.

Thanks for the link! :)

Claire Lachance said...

Those are some great tips!

Luanne G. Smith said...

I think I spend the most time on discovering what a character's internal conflict will be. Trying to figure out what they want most, what they are most insecure about, and then challenging them on those points.

Lydia Kang said...

I love picking the name! It's so important for me too. Great post!

Jamie Gibbs said...

Great tips :) I tend to obsess about the name until I feel it's just right. Character history is also really important, since it tends to shape the rest of the character throughout the story.

Samantha Sotto said...

Likeability is challenging because it's so subjective. What's likeable to a writer may not be likeable to a reader. I'm still working on this. Great post!

Maeve Frazier said...

Lynda - I love picking the name. Creating the characters are my favorite part of the writing process. Thanks for the great tips!

P.S. I have a blog award for you over on my blog.

Matt Larkin said...

My characters are characters from mythology, so choosing the right character tells me a lot about them.

If I decide to change the name, it really is changing the whole character.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I have a vague picture in my head and I flesh out the background, passions, motivation and inner conflict issues ( according to the kind of story I want to write) and then write diary entries. The name is very important to me but it's the thing that takes me absolutely ages to decide on!

Anonymous said...

I wish that I could develop my characters before I start writing a story but I usually write a story and then develop a character as I go during the first draft.

Jess said...

I think the use of language is the one I spend the most time on. Giving a character a distinct voice, both in external dialogue and internal thoughts is something that's been on my mind lately. Great post!

Shallee said...

I always spend a lot of time on my character's motivation and flaw. I try to put those two things at odds with each other so it strengthens the inner conflict.

Great post, Lynda!

Carolyn V said...

Awesome post Lynda! I have to work on knowing the character's personality so I can get the voice right. ;)

Carol Riggs said...

I love naming my characters! And I could probably do more thinking about their background and flaws. Good point that the flaws can give room for conflict and change. :)

Ben said...

Good points. Finding a name for your character is so important. An appropriate name. Make all the difference in the world sometimes

Laila Knight said...

Main characters are fun to create. Although I'm guilty of identifying with at least one of the characters in my writing, I have the best of luck coming up with male characters. Just go with what makes me hot. And I've changed all my characters names several times now. :)

J.L. Campbell said...

Very useful post. I spend a lot of time on my characters qualities. That way I know how they will respond to the challenges I throw at at them.

Oh boy, I bet being mobbed was an unnerving experience.

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks for the great advice, as usual.

(Oh, BTW, have you ever heard of the 7x7 Link Award? I received it last week and mentioned that I would like to see you do it, too. Something to think about because your posts have inspired me a great deal.)

Theresa Milstein said...

Thorough list. I also look up names for subtle meaning. The Internet is a great resource.

M Pax said...

I think you got them all. :) I probably spend the most time on their psyche and what makes them tic.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Crystal, character creation is a fun part of writing. It's like discovering new friends :)

Tiffany, isn't amazing how much a name will impact on the characters and the story? :)

Claire, thanks

Luanne, yes, that is what matters most about characters in stories too.

Lydia, thanks

Jamie, character history is also fun to develop ;)

Sam, that's so true.

Maeve, thanks for the award :)

Matt, now that's cool :)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Pat, it's nice to know other writers take ages picking names too :)

Liz, there's no absolute rule. As much as I'm a planner, I sometimes the characters refuse to be preplanned ;)

Jess, finding the distinct voice for each character isn't easy too, but makes a huge difference to a story.

Shallee, yes! I do think that's crucial.

Carolyn, and the voice can be so tricksy too ;)

Carol, I love your character names. Good choices.

Ben, it does :)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Laila, haha you made me laugh out loud. It's a good method.

J L Campbell, and makes them more believable. And yes, it was very unnerving.

Nancy, ha, thanks so much. I'll see what I can do.

Theresa, I don't know what I'd do without the intertubes.

M Pax, the psyche is the most interesting part of characters.

Trisha said...

I love that photo and the story behind it. Very cool!

Names are very important to me. I've been following a Chrysalis participant's stories about a princess this year, and recently he opted to change her name... It's hard for me to adjust. I had an image of her as Caitlin in my head, and now she's Catrina. Hehe.

McKenzie McCann said...

And that is precisely why I never, ever change my character's names. No good can come of it. I don't like changing my titles much either...

Carrie Butler said...

Look at you, Lynda! You're a rockstar! ;)

I like to think about the "walls" my character builds, why they're there, and who I can use to crack them. :) Great post!

Jemi Fraser said...

Love the photo and the story behind it! :)

Great tips here. For me, the first spark of character comes with an emotion - usually from the crisis scene. The spark builds quickly into a full blown person :)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Trisha, cool yet scary ;) Ha, interesting how close the new name is to the old one. I'm wondering what the reason behind the change might be. And yes it does take a while to adjust to name changes.

McKenzie, hahaha. It's a shame that sometimes it's unavoidable.

Carrie, HAHA...yeah...fame is overrated ;) Sounds like you are MEAN to your characters (good one!)

Jemi, yes, that's a great way of developing a character.

Sarah Ketley said...

I love to plan names, when i do my historical fiction name planning, i love trawling through the old census lists from the time.

Gladys has such a different connotation to Elizabeth doesn't it?

Change to Martha and you have a different personal all together.

Then if you get a Constance...well...

anyway great post and i'm glad to see a picture of The Doctor's Lady by Jody Hedlund on your site. She is AWESOME :-0

Sarah Ketley

Susan Fields said...

Wow - now that I know the story on that photo, it's amazing! At least they're all smiling. My blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned sister spent two years in Thailand with the Peace Corps and she was considered quite an oddity with the people there.

I like what you said about a character not having to be nice to be likeable, as long as they're interesting. I just read Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall, and at the beginning the main character is definitely not likeable, but she is interesting and compelled me to keep reading.

Anonymous said...

Now that is a unique story behind your picture. I would have never guessed that was taken from a bus window! I like when a character has a quirky habit.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post, Lynda. I have a vague image of my characters when I start writing. As the words pile up the characters become stronger and stronger. I like my characters to have flaws and a quirky nature.

Crystal Collier said...

I actually dream most of my characters, so several of the blanks are filled in. All I have to do from there is assign a name and flesh out their background a bit. See how much my subconscious loves me?

Toyin O. said...

Thanks for sharing.

Jeff Beesler said...

I go to the baby names web site all of the time to find the perfect fit of a name for a particular character in mind. If that fails, I look to my character's abilities, traits, or in the case of superhero fiction powers, and go from there.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Sarah, love your examples--it's so true.

Susan, your sister must have had an amazing experience over there in Thailand.

Lynn, yes, giving characters quirky habits also helps to make them more unique.

Rachna, it does take time to develop characters, but it's so much fun.

Crystal, oh how lucky is that to be able to dream your characters.

Jeff, and thank goodness for the ease of baby name web sites :)

Charmaine Clancy said...

Great tips. One of the writing workshops I do with kids is on creating characters and we look at gender, age but that's as far as the descriptions go. The rest is about their motivations, their flaws, their skills, secrets and fears... oh and who or what they would die to protect. This gives us a good spring board to come up with a story for them.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Unknown said...

Lynda, I love letting my characters do seemingly insignificant but power actions that shows the true character.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

I think I spend about the same amount of time on each of these elements. Each can be challenging in its own way.

I loved what you had to say about how a name reveals so much about a character. Amazingly true.

Donna K. Weaver said...

I had to change a couple of minor characters' names, but fortunately they held true to their previous natures. =D I'd never considered that possibility.

Likability is huge. I had one character who was supposed to end up with a playful relationship with the mc, but all he did was tick people off. I really had to work on his likability.

colbymarshall said...

Great post! For me, I often know a few things about a character at first and flesh out from there. I try to create detailed profiles on all, but inevitable know most about MCs. One of my favorite things to decide about my MCs is what they'd eat for breakfast. I think it tells me a lot.

Myne said...

I think the part I work the most on is the character flaw, it seems so opposite to likeability that one has to find that balance and still make it realistic.

Shari said...

I spend most of my time on motivation and flaws. Excellent post! I particularly love the random fact. :)

Bob Collins said...

Hi, Bob Collins here. To be honest a couple a the things you wrote in the post surprised me and I got a few more things I think about when I dig into my characters. I'll just list them off in case anybody gets any value out of them. All of them are related, and I think in a good character each of these should be seemlessly integrated into the personality.

1) core needs - a set of unchangable traits
2) desires - a sort of motivation
3) feelings
4) thoughts
5) physicality
6) self-perception
7) as perceived by others
8) judgment of self
9) judgments of others
10) experience/past
11) Well, this one is a secret ingredient. :)

What I think is great here is the way any of these attributes can be played off one another to create conflicts between characters and internal conflicts.

How did I arrive at these attributes? I don't know, seems like everybody I meet does these things to themselves and each other.

I never think about likeability or "the flaw". I don't care if a character is likeable or not. If a character is designed well, his personality will naturally have strengths and weaknesses. We as readers can admire the strengths and mourn the weaknesses. I don't consider the weaknesses flaws. They weaknesses are only weaknesses in a context. For example, a very practical person may be able to solve many of the problems in a suburban drama (in this context a strength); but this same practical person might have a difficult time doing anything effective in a story set among abstract theories.

There's really so much more to write. Maybe I'll write my own series of posts.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Charmaine, sounds like a great workshop. It's good to start the kids in the right place.

Clarissa, yes, those subtle things are a great way for the readers to get to know the characters.

Cynthia, you are so right that each can be challenging in its own way.

Donna, you were lucky with the name change and yes, likeability can be a real challenge.

Colby, ha, I love that method--working out what the MC would eat for breakfast. Love it. I'll have to give it a try next time.

Myne, the flaw is so important too.

Shari, yep, motivations and flaws are truly what makes a person interesting in a story.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Hi Bob, thanks so much for your indepth comment. I tried to keep it basic for this post, but you are right, there is a lot of material to cover when discussing character creation. I do believe what you've added will help others.

As for the flaw, I think it's a tendency for new writers to create characters who are 'perfect' in their appearance and their reactions to external influences. You are right, characters need both weaknesses and strengths.

Thanks again for your comment :)

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of different things I try to find out about any character. I have a questionnaire 100 items long that I try to fill out if I can!

Thanks for posting this, from a fellow Campaigner!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Kelworth, wow, that's a lot of questions :)