How to Create a Character Out of Thin Air

Hello everybody. I’m back in school now, and through a series of unfortunate events (including, but not limited to being subjected to death by AP courses, slaying a dragon, a hospitalized rainbow-making buddy, and a vanishing ferret) I have found myself with very little free time. However, I recently had a brainstorming session with a friend about character design and thought that I would share what I’ve learned. Take everything I say with a grain of salt, though; I’m new at this.

Getting Started

The first order of business when writing a story is usually character design. If you have a vague idea of a plot and setting, the best place to sharpen them in your eyes would be by creating your protagonist. Recently, I have come to realize this is a very Rumpelstiltskin-esque experience; you have your imagination, your ideas, and your language of choice, and you must weave them into somebody who will carry on his/her shoulders the plot of your story. You, as the writer, are faced with a similarly daunting task. In between you and your completed character are several common obstacles.

Mr/Mrs Perfect

Her parents simultaneously lose their jobs and can’t find employment, eventually losing their house. Out on the streets, they are mugged and constantly harassed. Not even the shelters will take them in. She and her kin seem to have elicited the world’s wrath, demonstrated by the constant calamities and bad luck thrown their way. However, Mrs Perfect’s halo only shines brighter. She is beautiful, kind, caring, surrounded by friends and has God-given talent in every field imaginable. She has no faults, and by extension usually has no depth nor a place in readers’ hearts.

99% of readers cannot identify with a Mr/Mrs Perfect. Although the occasional heart-warming success story shows itself on the shelves, these kinds of characters are usually too shallow to warrant interest. Take Harry Potter, whose frequent bouts of self-pity, lack of foresight, and fondness of lashing out at friends make him one of the easiest characters to empathize with. Everybody has their good and bad sides, whether shown in public or not. This one is particularly easy to overcome if you recognize it- all you have to do is imbibe your creations their own personal dark sides. For example:

Your crusader for justice can also have a touch of arrogance that frustrates their relationships, or perhaps a twisted moral code that allows for conflict with the law that they work with.

Your happy-go-lucky soldier can hide a hidden agenda, which is hidden by a mask of geniality and loyalty. This could lead to some interesting character development if he or she begins to lose track of their identity when they start to become the mask.

This can even go two ways; your surly anti-hero can have a soft spot for a certain charity, or perhaps his/her girlfriend/boyfriend has a way bringing out the anti-hero’s lighter side. A Mr/Mrs Villian hasn’t any more depth than their goody two-shoes counterpart.

John “Center of the Universe” Smith

If your book contains a John “CotU” Smith (henceforth known as a “John”), then your in-book world will work in some very strange ways. In a real life, and in most books, characters have, well, a character of their own. They have their own agendas, their own views on life, and their own friends, any of which might clash with the main character’s. But not if your main character is a John. No, the world revolves around John. His friends always agree with him, are always there when he needs them, and generally exist to further the plot or help him out of sticky situations. Basically, they are flat as a month-old soda and are just as welcome.

Technically, this whole shabang isn’t John’s fault- it’s the other characters. So that’s where we start. You know how the saying goes, that it’s the small things that matter sometimes? That’s true here. You don’t want your book to be about the pursuits of John’s friends- then it’s not really about John at all (assuming you want it to be about John). The way to go about improving you flat characters would be to mention them in dialogue. For instance, the talk might go something like this (with more detail, of course):

“What’s up, Walker? Heard you kinda bombed that English test, sorry about that. Any advice? I can’t take another sucky grade there, my grades are low enough as it is without Mrs Adams’s crazy tests screwing things up.”

“Man, I don’t know what went wrong. It was like the test was in Japanese, it was ridiculous. Grammar, though; grammar’s big. Can you tell KT when she gets back? I think she’s in you class, right, Ian?”

“Sure, but I think she’s going to do fine anyway; for learning English as a second language she’s still a lot better than I am. Where’s she?”

“I think she’s at soccer. Dunno, really. Later. Good luck!”

“See ya.”

The little details add up, if you can keep track of them. They kind of build a life for your character and give them reasons to be away or busy if you need them to not show up somewhere. It really doesn’t matter how you do it, so long as your protagonist isn’t a John. The most important thing I can say about designing characters is to make them as deep as possible. The more readers identify with your characters (or at least the more realistic your characters are) the better.

Thanks for reading! Good luck, any and all writers out there. If you have something I forgot or would like to help me out (I need it), feel free to comment! Ja, mata!

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