It is a generally held concept that the best on-page characters originate from the author’s detailed knowledge of them. How can this be when, in most instances, they are not real people? That is the question this article aims to answer. Of course, characters may be based upon observations or even people the author is aquatinted with. In the latter case, unless they wish to expose themselves to possible litigation or the wrath of those they know, authors should develop the character to the point of not being recognisable with the originating template. Whatever the situation, an author needs to have a more than cursory, surface, knowledge of their characters. To achieve this it helps if they create a character persona to determine a variety of constituent elements.
Some may ask why bother? Why utilise their valuable time in such an exercise? Why not let the character develop themselves on the page? To achieve the best connection for the reader a character needs to be relatable. They need to have personality, depth, and clear motivations. It is hard to achieve this without more than a passing understanding. Yes, it is time consuming but, taking the time up front, will pay dividends later. The author will not have to hesitate mid-flow to determine what their character will do in the situation they have created.
As with real people, a character’s persona constitutes several elements. The primary ones are Background; Physicality; and Personality.
- Parents; Siblings; Partner; Children;
- Where born; Where brought up; Current home;
- School; College; Grades;
- Nature of job; Work Place; Colleagues;
- Language; Accent;
- Hight; Build; Stature;
- Hair shade; Eye colour; Complexion;
- Scars; Tattoos; Imperfections;
- Health: General and current;
- Kind; Rough; Inconsiderate; Caring;
- World view;
- Motivations and Goals;
- Fears and Joys;
- Anger triggers;
- Blind spots;
Of course, none of the above lists are exhaustive. There are always other aspects that may be included and each may be drilled down to infinite detail. The author’s aim should be to make the reader feel as if they: have met the character; have grown close to them; love or perhaps hate the individual. In other words to create a tangible relationship. Some advise authors build case files for their characters which include:
- A primary interest;
- A couple of core values;
- A discernible flaw;
- A unique ability.
A point about flaws: No one is perfect and each has at least one flaw. If the character is to be believable they should also have at least one. Perhaps they have a quick temper, or perhaps a secret; or a prevailing embarrassment; or opposing values; or a problematic blind spot; or an unpleasant habit, etc.
The idea is for the author to know and be as familiar with their characters as they are with the real people in their life. The truth is, when writing about any topic, authors only use a small percentage of their overall knowledge. Estimates, especially when it comes to character representation, are that only ten percent of knowledge is utilised. However, having the other ninety percent available enables the creation of a fully rounded, believable, and engaging character.
Once the author has all the above, and more, to hand they are in a good position to formulate their tale. The following are some structural elements which may be based upon the information gained:
- Driving goal and motivation.
- Voice and point of view.
- The conflict.
- Relevant backstory.
- Physical appearances.
- Character reactions.
One piece of sensible advise the writer has seen is the suggestion authors imagine a character’s life from the character’s perspective. Obviously this will require a mind change, setting aside the author’s own viewpoints and prevalences. However, it is unlikely to be impossible because intended or not, consciously or sub-consciously, most of their characters, especially the protagonist, will encompass some of their own traits or preferences. Not in all cases of course, but if they have taken the time to prepare a character persona, and the fact they have lived with the character throughout the duration, should combine to make the task less onerous.
Developing character personas, not just for the protagonist, helps authors provide a rounded, interesting, and relatable story for their readers.
It may be time consuming and frustrating to set time aside from the primary writing but having all the information and knowledge upfront will pay dividends.
Naturally, the above process may be more intuitive for a plotter but whether the author is a plotter or pantser both need some rudimentary understanding of their characters.
This topic can be expanded upon ad infinitum and no doubt readers will have more ideas and suggestions. However, the primary purpose is to simply provide a usable overview.
Related article: The Purpose of Backstories