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  • J. Gibson

Character Creation #1: Introduction to Character Development

Creating dynamic and engaging characters is a central element of storytelling. The quality of our characters may make or break our books for many readers. It all begins with a simple idea; our initial conception. Then, we make our characters speak and respond like real(-istic) people in dialogue or action, developing their voice and behavior set, so that the reader is able to connect with them.

When we think about telling a story, one of the first questions we must ask ourselves is: “Who is this story about?” This question goes beyond identifying a protagonist; it involves discovering who is meaningful to us as a writer and who will matter to our readers. The essence of an interesting character is someone we care about deeply, possibly (usually) reflecting aspects of ourselves, our family, or our immediate community. That is to say, we write what we know.

We start with the physical being of our character, envisioning them from head to toe. How tall are they? What color is their hair? What kind of face do they have? These physical attributes help us imagine our character, begin to realize them. For instance, consider a character named Maya, a woman of average height with a head of untamed curly hair and intense, dark eyes that seem to stare right through others. Her athletic build and confident posture hint at a past or life filled with physical activity; perhaps she once competed as a swimmer.

Once we’ve visualized our character, the next step is to hear and otherwise sense them. A memorable character should be seen, heard, and even smelled. Do they usually wear a particular scent? Do they smell like the food they tend to cook or eat? How do they speak? Quickly and sharply, or slowly and thoughtfully? Do they have a regional accent? Imagine that Maya speaks with a straightforward, no-nonsense tone, her words clipped and efficient, reflecting a military or other austere background. She might carry the faint scent of engine oil and metal, creating an aura of practicality and resilience around her.

Characters are often defined by their actions and habits. These can be small, common behaviors or significant actions that reveal deeper or more complex but subtle facets of their personality. Consider Maya’s quirks and habits: she might have a habit of cracking her knuckles when deep in thought or when she’s anxious (like someone I know!). Her daily routine might involve a morning workout followed by planning her afternoon or reviewing her calendar, hinting at her need for structure and discipline. Physically, Maya might have a brisk and purposeful walk, her movements always precise and controlled, reflecting her determination and focus.

Dialogue is a powerful tool for revealing character and progressing a story. It should illuminate the character, advance the plot, and be interesting in itself. For instance, Maya’s dialogue might be peppered with technical jargon and/or direct statements, showcasing her expertise and confidence. She might have a habit of saying, “Let’s get to the point,” a phrase that, depending on the context, can signal her impatience or her desire for clarity. This habit adds depth to her character, revealing her as someone who values efficiency and straightforwardness. (Do not overdo or overuse such quirks, as they can easily become silly or annoying!)

Beginning writers frequently view setting and character as distinct, but setting can also play a crucial role in developing our characters. Where they live, work, and spend their time can reveal a lot about them. Maya’s home might be a sleek, minimalist apartment with various forms of smart technology, reflecting her love for modernity and simplicity. Her work environment could be a bustling garage where she restores vintage cars, highlighting her passion for mechanics and hands-on skills. Socially, Maya might frequent a local rock-climbing gym, where she enjoys pushing her physical limits and bonding with fellow climbers, indicating her adventurous and competitive nature.

While it’s important to provide enough description to bring our character to life, it’s similarly important to show them in action. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and can reveal deeper, nuanced truths about our characters. Instead of telling our readers that Maya is compassionate, we can show her mentoring a young apprentice in a garage or volunteering to teach self-defense classes at her community center. These actions provide tangible evidence of her kindness. Dynamic scenes that place Maya in challenging situations can force her to reveal her true nature. For example, a scene where she negotiates a deal to help save a struggling local business can showcase her strategic thinking and commitment to her community.

Interactions with other characters can also reveal important traits. Maya’s relationship with her best friend, a quiet, introspective librarian named Emma, can highlight her adaptability and her ability to appreciate different perspectives. In contrast, her more curt interactions with a fellow rock-climber who constantly challenges or chides her can bring out her competitive streak and occasional stubbornness. These interactions create a well-rounded character with diverse attributes, making Maya feel like a real, or at least, realistic, person with strengths and flaws.

Creating memorable characters involves a blend of physical description, distinctive voices, revealing actions, and rich settings. By reflecting on and applying the elements described above, we can ensure our characters are compelling, relatable, and, hopefully, unforgettable to our readers.


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