How to build a character that works

First step: Don’t try so hard.

No, really. I mean it. For every character I tried to “pre-build” through character bios, interviews, and the like, I have found that such things are only so much procrastination. They can be fun, sure. I wouldn’t tell someone not to play with writing toys. But don’t rely on it like filling out fields is going to somehow lead to a printout of a fictional person. It doesn’t work like that.

I’m sure someone will argue with me. There are probably tonnes of people who have a sheaf of examples of characters that they feel were very strong and complex, all born from ages of filling out reams of tedious data. That’s a place where I have always separated from most (usually young) writers. I prefer to think more like Nabokov, who famously said that he had tight control over his characters. None of this hand-clapping fairy-loving nonsense that they are real people who take the reins and insistently “tell their own story”. “I am just a chronicler” is the surest way to get me to punch you in the face.

Of course, as much as I like to think like Nabokov, I also am not much for planning ahead too far. I get character surprises.

Okay, enough of the argumentativeness. We’ll take our next step from that grey blob that has so recently (and deeply) irritated me. That way I can totally tag this as a rant.

Second step: Don’t make Desmond.

But that’s putting it too simply and in a weird parlance. Desmond Miles is a character that does not work because he has no definable features. Archetypes may feel cliché, but they are a good place to start. If you can call your character by a tagline, you have already succeeded at this step. Desmond is not The anything, except maybe The Audience Proxy/Insert. Boring. Peppering up a character with a tagline and at least a few quirks is almost as good as having a motivation or fear in mind. Even the Sims got those eventually.

Heck, the Tomboy has enough inherent character to start with. And leads us to another step, as if I’m even planning further ahead than the next four words.

Step three: Expand the character. This part is probably where all of those bios and field-fillers come from. Building a character should be exactly that–but the thing is, you don’t have to do it before you start writing. You don’t have to think of anything for your character before you start. Observe.

Mina sat in front of the mirror, sucking on her burnt finger. Curls were far more trouble than they were worth. Behind her, her dog Wheezer gallumphed onto her bed, announcing his rights to his name loud enough to make her own chest ache in sympathy. She got up from her dresser to go and scratch him behind the ears. He sneezed on her jeans. Drool and dog snot mingled with the pink sparkles. All attempts to heave him off the bed merely met with playful wrestling.

That’d be enough to begin.I’ve already talked about weak characters before. A character who is defined simply by not being anything, rather than not being something specific (e.g., I’m no rat, I’m not brave) it’s best to have “not blank but blank”, and at least hobbies. Give me two bland characters and I’ll forgive the one who collects baseball cards over the one who just does nothing.

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