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"Rob Parnell is the World's Foremost Writing Guru" - Writers Digest Best Writers' Site - Critters #1 Best Writers' Info Site 2010 - 2011

On Character Creation

Rob Parnell

Many new writers get themselves into a pickle with character creation. They seem to regard it as some mysterious black art that might be beyond them.

Either that or they fall in love with the process of creating three dimensional characters - to the detriment of their writing time.

There are three ways to approach character creation, all equally valid, as long as you don't obsess over them - or get so bogged down in the processes you forget the bigger picture.

Characters are a means to an end. The story is what matters. Yes, you want characters that your reader will love or at least identify with - but without a story, a character is just an idea, an empty vessel that can do nothing outside of context.

No amount of description of a character - whether they're 'deep' or 'rounded' or 'sympathetic' - means anything much until you can see them in action, as it were.

Approach One:

You start with a simple outline of an imaginary person, with certain characteristics:

1. Gender /Age

2. Profession / Calling

3. Location / Environment

4. Agenda (what they truly want)

5. Finally, a name.

That's it. This can be a good starting place for any story. You don't have to go into too much more detail, unless you really want to, which I know many writers do. Perhaps because they just get off on it!

But remember that the more you flesh out a character before you start writing, the fewer plot turns you will have access to. This is because stories are essentially character driven. Therefore, if you have a strong three dimensional character set in stone, there are only so many convincing plot options you can apply to your character's personality.

In effect, it's harder to make a overly developed character 'fit' into your plot if they always react in a specific pre-determined way - that is, determined by you - too early on in the writing process.

Approach Two:

Many writers start with a sketchy idea of a hero then brainstorm the possible plot permutations a story might take depending on the personality of the character. This is good.

You might find after the brainstorming process the character, her motivations, foibles and agenda can be enhanced to better reflect - that is, make more believable - the twists and turns of the story.

This is a common process in screenwriting. Once you have the entire story down, you go back and tweak the character to make them entirely consistent in their actions, reactions and general 'raison d'etre.' 

It's an important process in movie making because an expensive actor will be the first one to say, "I'm sorry, I wouldn't do that." Not something the average Hollywood director wants to have to deal with when shooting a film costing $1000 a second!

But character consistency is just as important in your novels and short stories because you never want you reader to feel that your hero does something 'out of character' and is therefore unbelievable.

Approach Three:

You start with nothing much decided.

You start writing and let the character and his / her personality, agendas and even his/her name and appearance come to you over time.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach - many writers do it, including the likes of Stephen King - so it can't be at all bad.

The main problem with this approach is that it can lead to a lot of editing and reworking of a story - especially a novel - after you've written it. And if you've ever had to 'fix' a hero in a novel, you'll know that rewriting this kind of character can take way longer than you spent on writing the novel in the first place!

So you need to be careful you don't make your writing life too hard!

Clearly, a sensible combination of the above approaches is what is required, depending on the project and the needs of a particular story.

I know that some writing instructors like to perpetuate the myth that character creation is complicated and laborious. They might suggest pages of notes or an 'interview' with your hero that takes days to complete.

I've seen writers show me ridiculously complex bubble graphs of inter-relating characteristics and infinite permutations of possibilities based on the (largely false) premise that the 'deeper' and more 'human' the fictional personality, the more credible he/she becomes.

The fact is, your fictional characters will never be 'real' in the sense of 'human'. That's not their purpose.

Real people are such a mess of conflicting emotions, agendas and often diametrically opposed points of view that they cannot possibly make good models for fictional characters.

Overdevelopment of fictional characters can often become a largely self indulgent exercise that serves little beneficial purpose. Better to focus on the needs of your readers - who prefer clearly definable heroes and supporting characters that propel the plot rather than bog it down with unnecessary - and often confusing - detail.

Start simple.

And keep it simple.

Develop where necessary - to uncover the 'truth' about a character for instance.

But don't overcomplicate things, my friend. Not just for the sake of it, anyway.

You need your precious writing time to be productive!

Keep writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write


"Every new writer is but a new crater of an old volcano." Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Article: "Inspiration"
Writer's Quote by Viktor Frank

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