Character Development: A Step by Step Method


Star Wars - Darth Vader - Inside

Some of the best characters have spent much time inside the brain of a writer, incubating, developing, becoming more realistic with each thought.  However, one might wonder what the process of creating great characters might entail.  I decided to record my process for creating characters (at least main characters) to help writers who have trouble in this area.

1.  Function – When I first decide that a character must come into being I decide what archetypal function this character might serve.  Like it or not, Joseph Campbell was right when he wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces.  Most characters are simply archetypal representations of characters that have existed in the past.  One can either follow in the footsteps (or blatantly rip off) another writer, such as The Hunger Games and Battle Royale or one can take those archetypes and spin them, change them, alter them somehow to create a unique twist on an old idea.  Heroes are easy to create for the most part, but it is the peripheral characters that take the most work.  Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven is a fantastic example of a film that takes an old archetype and spins it around.  I’ve seen the film several times and am still not very clear about the identity of the villain.  Will Munny is somewhat of a “good guy”, but used to be a “killer of women and children”.  The sheriff, played by Gene Hackman, is a law man who goes too far with his form of “justice” which seems more like villainy.  Decide what function your character will play in your story: either hero, sidekick, mentor, love interest or villain and then blend that archetype with another in order to reflect the unpredictable nature of real life.

2.  Traits – I make a long list of words associating that character with emotional tags, interests, personal philosophy, pet peeves, background information and a host of other things.  When creating characters, it is important that the writer spend much time fleshing out the details of the character’s background even if the writer will never show the entire life story of these characters.  One of the things that made Darth Vader interesting in the original trilogy was that he had this unknown backstory that most fans only could guess about.   It made him three dimensional and scary.  George Lucas had actually worked out the backstory for Vader long before Star Wars premiered in 1977.

3. Relationships – Once I have found the function of a character, I trace all relationships that character might have throughout the plot.  I then list emotions that the character will experience in the relationships with those other characters.  I often refer back to this list when writing dialogue to ensure that the feelings expressed are genuine and real.  I will draw connections between all characters so that if my plot takes a strange turn and characters meet up who were not originally intended to meet, interactions still seem realistic.

4.  Symbolism – All of the main characters should have some symbolic connection that adds to the depth of the character.  This could be as simple as a name.  As mentioned above, the character of Will Munny in Unforgiven is in dire straits financially, was a bank robber/murderer at one time, and keeps his evil side in check by the sheer force of his own will.  Use baby name books if you have to, but find the right name.  Hawthorne used objects for symbols, such as the red rose for Pearl in The Scarlet Letter.  Whatever the symbol is, try to make it something that may not be readily obvious to the reader, but with a little digging the reader can figure it out.  Naming a character is probably one of the most important steps in their creation.  I spend much time choosing names that not only mean what the character represents, but are also (when possible) onomatopoeias of imagery I would like to associate with them.

5.  Imagery – Characters have to have a specific look.  Everyone recognizes Harry Potter because he wears those signature glasses and has that lightening bolt scar on his forehead.  Characters must have a unique look that illustrate the traits, symbols, and function that make them who they are.  My latest novel includes a villain who is a militia leader.  Captain Waldeburg is a little overweight in a world of starvation and disease, riding a white horse.  He wears a large white cowboy hat, mirrored shades that cover a gaping eye socket on his right side, and a greasy handlebar mustache rolls down his ruddy jawline.  There are several symbolic images in this description, namely the eye socket which is indicative of his moral blindness, but the mirrored shades reflect on everyone around him effectively capturing all who gaze upon him “in his eye”.

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4 thoughts on “Character Development: A Step by Step Method

  1. It’s interesting to see how other writers create their characters. I’m not usually that methodical. Their traits come to me as needed, so they aren’t fully formed before I write them. I can see the value in considering my characters more carefully. I probably should take the time before writing to plot out such things. :)

  2. Thanks for visiting my blog. I am so happy to find you. The writing process is endlessly fascinating to me, and your description of yours merited several readings. I find Campbell both brilliant and comforting, as it helps to think that in this seemingly vicious world, we are actually all making the same journey. As a writer, the trick comes of making an archetype unique enough to be interesting and unpredictable. I believe your take on the process will help me along with mine. Thanks again.

  3. It’s always interesting to see how another writer goes about constructing any part of an imaginary world. I’d put traits first, because that’s what I see first. I’ve never had any use for archetypes because I see them as just another way to classify what isn’t always classifiable. But I can appreciate how you use them — by blending. As for symbolism — nope. Either the symbolism is invisible, or it sticks out like a sore thumb and tends to reinforce cliches. If anything, I like my characters to blindside readers rather than meet their expectations. I try to let them develop with as few prompts from me as possible.

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