Characters from the Ground Up

In our third episode of Firsts in Fiction, Steve and I talk about how to construct characters from the ground up. Here’s a few ideas to help you pull your characters from the ether and rivet them together into unforgettable friends (or enemies). Special thanks to Nathan Sawaya for making such ridiculously awesome LEGO artwork. Please be sure to check out his site at brickartist.com. You can download this week’s episode here, or listen below.

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brickartist.com

Check out Nathan Sawaya’s LEGO artwork at brickartist.com

CHARACTER SKETCH SHEET:

I like to use what I call a “character sketch sheet.” It’s a document I’ll fill out for stubborn characters. Going through the process of finding answers helps me figure out who my characters are and what makes them tick. Think of it like a biography for your characters. While most can be answered in a few words or a short list, I find it most useful when I approach many of them as mini-writing prompts. For example, I might write a short page on a time where my character’s weakness is exposed. I’ll also write a paragraph or two detailing the worst thing he or she has ever said. Maybe another page on their most embarrassing moment, or how they got a scar. These don’t have to be perfectly written. But, once you put them on paper, you’ll know your character in a more intimate way, and have a better sense of how they’d react in a given situation.

On the Character Sketch Sheet, I answer the following prompts:

  • Full Name
  • Birthday
  • Birthplace
  • Current Location
  • Heritage
  • Hair Color
  • Eye Color
  • Distinguishing Physical Feature
  • Major Strengths
  • Major Weaknesses
  • Fears
  • Life Goals
  • Dream Profession
  • Actual Profession
  • Favorite Meal and/or Drink
  • Is the Character Attractive?
  • Habits (good and bad)
  • Favorite Movie or Book or Show etc.
  • Tattoo(s) and/or piercings?
  • Quirks and Mannerisms
  • Favorite Saying
  • Number One Regret
  • Nickname
  • Scars?
  • Most embarrassing moment
  • Greatest achievement
  • First Love
  • Worst thing he/she has ever said

After I’ve written my scenes and answered my questions, I play a little game called “Liar!” This is a tip I picked up from a class I took with Bret Anthony Johnston. The idea is this: your character has lied to you about the answer to one of these questions. Which one? Why? Write another page explaining what they’ve lied about and why. Doing so helps you better understand in a deeper, fuller way.

 

NAMING YOUR CHARACTERS:

Steve wanted to know how I came up with names for the characters in my books. The process, for me, isn’t too tough. I make sure I’ve got Google handy, and I’ll look up popular baby names in the year my character was born. From there, it’s a matter of making a choice. To find surnames, it’s back to Google. I’ll look up common Germanic surnames, or common Irish surnames, depending on the heritage of my character.

It’s important to remember not to use names for characters that are too similar. For example, I once had a couple characters in my fantasy series Hand of Adonai who had the names Kara and Erica. One of my Alpha readers mentioned the similarities between the names made him confuse the characters often. And so, Kara became Lauren. In the same way, in a book I recently co-wrote, I had a character named Emily and one named Ellie (and a record label named Ellington). Too many Els, I think. So, Ellie became Steph, and Ellington became Ninecore.

But how do you find fantasy names? There are several random name generators online that are free to use. I’ll play with those for a bit and improvise on the results. Sometimes I’ll look up common Latin or Roman names. For the most part, if I’m coming up with names myself without assistance from the internets, I’ll try to balance the number of consonant and vowel sounds. However, I also come up with a few “rules.” For example, elves names are a little heavier on the vowels, dwarves are heavier on consonants. These create the sounds that I want to embody my characters.

Steve likes to combine names. To come up with the names of his protagonists in his book, he took familiar American names (and words) and, in some cases, twisted them a bit, and in others, combined them. For example, Edelric is the combination of Edward and Eric. The name is familiar, noble, and strange. For Festle, he chose an “evil-sounding” name. The similarity between it and fester is clear, but not obvious. Their last name, Kilusion, is a hybrid of several words (kill, illusion, collusion), all of which play to the sinister side of the brothers.

 

USE A PROXY:

Many writers make use of themselves as models for characters. This can be problematic, in that we often write about how we WANT to be, and not how we are. If you’re honest, and you focus more on your weaknesses than your strengths, this isn’t a bad choice. However, pulling too much from yourself can have serious consequences, most notably the similarity between your protagonists.

Instead, other writers use their friends and family as models for their characters. This can lead to legal battles if not done well. Instead of taking the entirety of a friend or family member, take the qualities about them that intrigue you most and develop those. Perhaps its their sense of fashion, or their snide sense of humor, or their self-deprecating wit. Highlight it, but put it in a different body, maybe with a different emotional palate.

F. Scott Fitzgerald champions this method. If you pull from someone you know (or knew) well, you have the advantage to understanding them in a way most writers won’t. It takes much less imagination and work, and can have solid payoffs. He says, “Begin with an individual, and before you know it, you have created a type; begin with a type, and before you know it, you’ve created–nothing.”

This is why it’s important not to try to write a stereotypical character. Start with someone a little more original.

We hope you’ve found our ideas useful. And, as always, good writing.

12 Comments on Characters from the Ground Up

  1. i have never gone into so much detail about my characters before this. This gives me a whole new perspective on how to forma character that is memorable!

  2. Jonathan Davila (Spartacus) | August 27, 2013 at 8:25 am | Reply

    I too also have trouble naming my characters, but my inspiration behind who they are come from people I know now. F. Scott Fitzgerald has it right.

  3. erik hartshorn | August 28, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply

    I my self am not good at coming up with chacters,but do enjoy the advice from naming your chacters and will certainly use this in the futher.

  4. erik hartshorn | August 28, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply

    I my self strive to come up with good chacter names, but the section naming your chacters certainly will help with futher writing.

  5. Hailee-Brooke | August 28, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Reply

    I usually have a really hard time forming my characters. I usually form them off of people i either know or people i wish could exist. I haven’t really thought about my characters in such immense detail! Building a character from the ground up really does help. <3

  6. Characters are hard for me. I have the story but details about the characters are always challenging for me. Like what they look like and their mannerisms.

  7. I have never been very good at coming up with characters and this came to be quite helpful,I’m excited to start writing with these interesting thoughts in mined

  8. That really helps! I’ve never been good at coming up with names or creating my character but once I have a name that goes, everything usually falls into place but I usually try to come up with a name on the spot and it takes forever to come up with something.

  9. Adriana Coonce | September 4, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Reply

    I really enjoyed doing the character sketch. I feel like it was very useful to me as a young writer. it helps me figure out ways to create my characters.

  10. The character sheet i received in class helped me out with my characters build up. I am fairly good at building characters, but this helped me out even more.

  11. It seems difficult to “set in stone” the behaviors and qualities your characters have. Of course they’re not literally set in stone, you can change them at anytime. But to me it feels hard to change after it has already been established previously. Something to get used to.

  12. Building the character is such a challenge for me. I always feel like I’m copying from a book I’ve read, but now that I’ve read this I feel I will be able to build a character a tad bit easier.

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