How do you invent a character?

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Where do a character’s qualities, persona, tendencies and nature all hail from? Character development is hard. Let’s start there. Ask any author and they will likely report the same. However, it does get easier and it does become more natural. But let’s back up to the beginning because before you can develop a character you have to have a character to develop.

What is a character? A character is a living entity that you imbue with life. Your character doesn’t have to possess anthropomorphic quality but they usually do for two reasons. 1) We are human and therefore relate to humans, and 2) The reader is human and therefore relates to humans. So even if your character is a cloud or an ostrich there is a good chance that you have assigned human quality to it in the interest of relatability. 

What other criteria exist for the generation of brand new characters? Obviously your story is a part of it. You have conceived a story in your mind and your characters will be the vehicle to move that story from opening to close. Is that to say that a character can’t be conceived before a story? No. But a story typically comes first because a character (like any being) is a product of environment. So the unfolding drama of the story—(the obstacles, tragedy, and success)—will shape the character. 

    Character Development.
    It is difficult to capture exactly what makes a character sizzle in a book but let’s give it a shot. For the purpose of ease let’s keep it at human characters.

      1. Complexity.
      People are complicated. They are unpredictable and make decisions for hosts of reasons, much of which is rarely apparent to the people closest to them. To write strong characters a writer must have an affinity for human dynamics and a keen eye for human behavior. For instance, it benefits a writer to understand that people do things out of personal compulsion more often than external compulsion. It benefits a writer to know that people are creatures of habit and establish patterns. It benefits a writer to understand that humans are emotional and those emotions sometimes override logic. The list could go on but this is probably why more experienced writers (those who are a little more aged, experienced, mature) craft more believable characters—there is a strong chance they understand human nature a little better.

      2. Writers have a tendency to group characters into categories of good or bad, but the best characters are neither. The best and most authentic characters are equal parts failure and triumph; they are filled with goodness and error because that is what it is to be human, which segues into the next…

      3. Characters are an extension of one thing: humanity. That’s it. Your characters are representatives of the human race and should tell us something about what it means to live. All characters educate us in some way about life. 

      4. People are not linear. Who do you know who has grown on a perfectly linear path? We move forward, we fall, we take three  steps forward then seven back. The trajectory of the human is more like the Nasdaq than a straight line. Write your characters appropriately. Think back to some of the literary characters you most related to. What was it about them that you found relatable? I posit that a healthy chunk of what we relate to is in a character’s struggle. I see more of myself in characters who have endured similar hardship than in characters who have experienced similar success.

      5. People vacillate. They question what they do. They harbor fears and insecurities. People question who they are, where they’re going, and who they’re becoming. Your characters should have a questioning awareness about what they do and what their role is.  

      6. Characters change. Yes, there are flat and round (dynamic) characters. However, all characters experience moments of roundness. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a flat character is granted reprieve from development. Even stubborn characters who are resistant to change have reasons for  their stubbornness. Characters don’t become who they are in a vacuum. It is your job to explore why they are the way they are. 

      7. Lastly, and note that there is much else to discuss on the topic, your characters are all trace elements of who you are. As I wrote 20XX I found evidence of myself in all my characters. They weren’t all me but they were all a part of me. Character development is an opportunity not only to explore your characters but to explore yourself. 

      I hope this small but succinct list helps a bit in your own writing endeavors!

      Roman Newell

      Graphic Composition:
      by: Darlene Carroll

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