Updated: May 8
A character — a villain, a hero, a dog, an alien, a barista — is your story. The great stories come from character, not plot, not a place, not a concept, but character. Create your character first, get to know everything about your character, and then write your story.
When I was working at a video game studio I used to love the characters I would see. The art was stunning, the details vibrant, the characters evoked a story, but when I asked what that story was the answer was vague. Sometimes, these fantastic characters didn’t even have names!
If you create your characters first, with names and histories, relationships, goals, faults, strengths, dreams, purpose, if you do all that then the design of your characters and their stories emerge in an organic, vital way that lets your players, readers, audience connect on a deep emotional level. They will care about your characters. And that’s magic.
So how do you do that? How do you create fully formed characters where the stories write themselves, the creative choices made are, and the work moves forward on a sure-footed path to creative bliss?
Open your eyes.
We tend to drift through our lives with our eyes closed. Really. Most of us never really stop and watch people. I live in a city, and one of my favorite pastimes is standing on a street corner. A million stories pass you by. The writer David Mamet used to say he would always carry a notebook with him and jot down what he heard, what people looked like, their clothes and words. He wanted to anchor his characters in the real rhythms of the world. That was Mamet, but if you’re writing fantasy video games, maybe the people on the crosstown bus are not so helpful.
Still, watching the way people walk, talk, handle their day can teach you how to make a ‘real’ person. If your characters are not rooted in some relatable universe of reality, people won’t relate to them. So even if you’re making a superhero, try to make your superhero be somebody you’ve seen, observed on the street or in the park, on the subway or in a diner. Get your superhero grounded in reality and people will never forget them. Or more importantly, people will believe the stories you’re spinning.
1. Where do these people, aliens, beings call home? 2. What’s their purpose in your story? 3. Where are they headed? 4. What makes them jump off the page? 5. What makes them interesting?
Now you can plan a story and make your charters fit your narrative. In other words, they are designed to fulfill the story accurately. Or you build your characters and find your story that way. But either way they need to fill a role in the story, they need goals, they need a history, they need quirks, and they need to be compelling.
A file clerk is not so interesting. But a blind file clerk who turns into a dragon, accidentally created by a mad scientist in the dark woods of Northern Germany might be a story you want to know more about.
Life is purpose. It’s how we define ourselves. It brings us into being. A life without purpose is not much of a life at all . And it’s the same with characters. There must be a reason at the core of your characters that defines how they see the world, how they react to it, taste it, smell it, experience it.
A nun has a different purpose than a firefighter. Or maybe they have the same purpose. Perhaps the nun likes to fight fires, but a nun would fight fires differently than a file clerk. Understanding what’s the nun’s purpose in life lays out the blueprint for your decision making.
“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-ninth of it being above water.” Ernest Hemingway
I’ve been working on a character bible for a show I’m creating. It has eight major characters, but the text is 250 pages long. The show is only 22 minutes per episode. So how do I fit all this character into it? I don’t. It just seems to be enough to have thought through every aspect of my characters.
I use personality tests, astrological charts, family histories, quirks, passions, things that bug them, food they love, anything I can think of to place my character in a world, and then when I’m writing a scene I always go back and reference my bible to make sure my characters are acting and speaking truth to who they are.
(By the way, I build my stories in Scrivner, an excellent writer’s platforms that allows me to set up a split screen, so my bibles and stories are easily cross-referenced.)
Building characters is complex. I gave you three steps, but there could be a hundred steps. The goal is to know these people. Know them better than you know yourself.
In a story, characters become the foundation for readers to stand on. The world can get fantastic, the plot complex, but if the characters inconsistent the readers will get lost, and your story will fail.
So take the time. Character work is where the heavy lifting of any great story