How to build your characters in six easy steps

By Nat Leblanc

So you’ve got a great idea for a novel or story that you’re DYING to tell. The premise is profound, the symbolism is subtle, and the big reveal at the end is going to blow your readers’ minds. You throw together an outline and show it to an editor friend. They read over it and turn to you.

“Why do I care about these people? What do they want?”

“But the story!” you argue moronically, having not yet read this article, “The story is brilliant, right? The premise is great, I know it is!”

Your editor friend throws the draft to the ground. “Maybe,” he says, lighting a cigarette and staring into the distance, “But it didn’t feel like the characters cared, so why should I have cared? Don’t ever contact me again.”

A well thought-out and relatable character can allow a reader to enter bizarre and alien worlds without as much as a blink. Whether that’s the hapless bumbling of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Arthur Dent as he’s flung around the galaxy or the emotional turmoil that Superman feels knowing that he can never be truly human, being able to identify with a character in some way gives readers an emotional connection to your story that makes them care about what you are writing. Your plot twist might be brilliant, but compelling characters are what keep readers invested until then. So how do you write a compelling and interesting character? You can sit down at a keyboard and hope that one jumps onto the screen fully-formed as you type, or you can make a character sketch.

A good character sketch isn’t just a description of a character’s physical attributes or likes and dislikes. A character sketch is meant to tie them into the story, explain what conflicts they have to encounter, why they are conflicts and how they are going to react to them. It doesn’t just plop the character into a fully formed world, it explains how the world formed the character and how the character is forming the world. It explains what role your character takes in the world, and how they will interact with other characters in other roles.

  1. Character name and description of role

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The first thing we need is the character’s name and the description of their role. By role, I mean protagonist, antagonist, hero/heroine, villain, friend, etc. If you have multiple protagonists or antagonists, explain their connection to the story or other characters. How is this secondary protagonist tied to the first antagonist? Where did they meet? Keep these simple and short. If the character is another character’s brother, that’s all we need to know right now.

  1. How the world views them

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If your character exists in a world with other people in it, chances are that that world has opinions of your character. How would a casual acquaintance describe your character? How would the police describe your character’s mannerisms? How would a random person at the bar describe your character? This is where you really try to separate yourself from your character and see them from an outsider’s perspective. Try to think up a list of single-word adjectives to describe your character. This is usually how we figure out how your character will react to conflict in the story. Someone who is described as “volatile” will likely not react kindly to someone bumping into them on the street, while someone described as “gentle” will likely not punch someone’s teeth out for spilling a beer on them.

  1. How they view themselves

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Anybody who’s taken a first year psychology course is familiar with the Looking Glass Theory: “We view ourselves as we believe others view us.” How would your characters describe themselves? Would they say that they are lonely? In love? Are they satisfied with their life? Could there be something more? This section is usually where we define the conflict that your character will have to face in your story. If they are lonely, they will likely be trying to deal with that loneliness. If they are happy, they will probably be trying to enjoy or maintain that happiness. Everybody just wants a little satisfaction, and stories are driven by somebody trying to find that satisfaction or having it taken away from them.

  1. Abilities and Skills

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This works with numbers 2 and 3 to figure out how your characters will deal with conflict in the story. If your character is an expert in ju-jitsu and is described as fiercely loyal, we can put two and two together if somebody is roughing up their best friend. This creates solid forward momentum in your story that can be used to propel us from one plot point to the next. If your character needs to make a million dollars in a week, we need to know how their skills are going to help them get those million dollars. Are they a lazy college drop-out who’s a gifted programmer? Or maybe they’re the most skilled bank-robber there’s ever been, but they’re retired. This is also important as it creates a back story for your characters that may actively (or retroactively) influence the way that the other characters see them.

  1. Building up personality 

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What aspects of the world display the aspects of your character that you’ve described up until now? This is where we get more specific in describing your character and the internal conflict your character faces. Quickly jot down 5 elements of your character’s life or incidents in the story that will serve to accentuate the already established characteristics of their personality. If your character is stupid or lazy, have them fail a test at school. If your character is a sad, explain the incidents that made them sad. Try and think of things both overt and subtle that will make your reader think “Oh, okay. This shows that this character is like this.”

b) Compare/contrast – What aspects of the world balance out against your character’s personality? This is where we start looking at external conflicts that your character faces with the world. If your character is a miserable misanthrope, how are they interacting with the chipper newspaper vendor that they have to talk to every day? If your characters hate themselves, how do they feel about the villain’s arrogance? Comparing and contrasting elements of your character’s personality to the opposing elements of the world or characters around them should be a way of highlighting who your character is.

6. Symbolism 

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These are aspects of your character that serve your character’s personality through an existing or established association. They can be physical, such as a scar or a trinket, or they can be non-physical, like a melody or a verbal tic. They can be unique to the character or shared by another. They serve as habitual reminders of who this character is and what they represent. Think of Harry Potter’s lightning scar, Sam Spade’s fedora and trench coat, Ahab’s peg-leg, or Holden Caulfield’s repeated use of the term “phonies.” You can mention them in passing or you can refer to them overtly and directly. Either way, they need to be tied to and associated with your character and their personality traits.

Remember that the goal of this outline isn’t to create a character for the purpose of shoe-horning into an existing story. The goal of a character sketch is to create a crib sheet that can be used as a reference to figure out how your character would react in a variety of situations. It should be vague enough that any other writer would be able to take it and write a story involving your character, but specific enough that you would still be able to see elements of the character in any story written around the sketch.

Need to get rid of your writer’s block? Try a writing hackathon

As the morning fog dissipated over San Francisco’s Mission District, I approached a quaint bookstore with a gray cat played upon a lime-green marquee. Alley Cat books, a small but integral watering hole among San Francisco writers, is known for hosting talks, readings and performances of all things literary. But today, the group gathered here was doing something a little different. In a little under 32 hours, we were going to write a full novel. Drafted, edited, saved, pressed, bound and presented all before the weekend was finished.

The 32-hour writing challenge is the writer’s version of the hackathon. Instead of inputing reams of code over beers and Red Bulls, the writers are required to write the chapter of a book, all based around a singular theme. The novel we were charged to write was the third part of a projected 9-part series, each novel representing one part of a whole that will be revealed in the final edition.

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In a city with over 5,000 startups, The San Francisco Bay Area has built a reputation as an accelerator of top talent through constant and vigorous work. This ethos has lead to tech companies hosting hacking marathons and to startup accelerators gathering hundreds of companies together to improve their products all at once.

But Lou Benna had different ideas. As the organizer of the event, Benna (a nom de plume) wanted to use collaboration as a tool for writers. “Having an external force keeping you on track is wonderful as a novelist. I’m part of a group where other novelists get together and just meeting our own deadlines.” But this philosophy of collaboration extends beyond the mere act of writing. Rather, the 32-hour writing challenge required equal participation for everybody right from the start.

The prompt of our novel was as such:

For twenty days in a row, time will stop at 11am for fifteen minutes. Everything around the protagonist will freeze, and he will be able to move objects, but not set objects in motion. After fifteen minutes, time will resume, and the entire world–save the protagonist–will be oblivious to the situation.

Benna handed out an entire sheet of stipulations based around the hypothetical universe. Included were items about how liquids, fire and time interacted with the protagonist in the story. But all of the limitations helped me focus on getting the plot and the setting right. Sometimes, setting strict limits on both time and content can bring out the best in a writer.

The 32-hour writing challenge invited a diverse group of writers from all parts of the Bay Area. Not only were none of the stories alike, but they also revealed many of the skills (and admittedly, weaknesses) each writer possessed.

Ramses Bulaklakan (another pen name), one of the nine participants in the challenge, had not written a short story since 1990, when she was an undergraduate at the University of Washington. I spoke to her about her work she had done before and during the writing marathon. Bulaklakan had not even considered returning to her old love of fiction, but an invitation from Benna reinvigorated her interest in the craft. Her story, “Dead Helicopters and the River No One Swims In”, used the conceit of time stopping as a way to look at her ancestral Philippines, where her parents had grown up. Not only were we using the stories to wring out our authorial cobwebs, but we were also tapping into the personal narratives that drew us into writing in the first place.

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While the challenge undoubtedly cured my writer’s block for the short amount of time we were given, the exercise also raised a number of other challenges. For example, how could I write a good story and stay true to the strict laws of the fictional universe? and how could I expect perfection if I needed to make sacrifices for the sake of time?

Well, those sacrifices are arguably the point of the challenge. The sensitivity that helps writer’s be more observant, witty and descriptive may also inhibit their confidence in prolonging a story or finishing a first draft. What I noticed is that some of the best collaboration was unspoken; instead of ruminating upon a single phrase, do as your peers are doing a compose furiously.

For the near future, Benna hopes to capitalize upon the event’s success to bring in a more diverse group of writers, including children’s book authors and designers. Benna hopes to have this workshop up and running in San Francisco by Spring of 2016. “There’s no end in sight,” said Benna. “These events will happen as long as I have the interest in writing them.”