Creating Fictional Characters


Written on 9:17 PM by Jack B.

All stories start with characters. Good well-developed characters can often compensate for weak plots. There are tons of book out there that will spend pages and chapters how to develop good characters but personally I think if you don’t know instinctively how to do it no book is going to help you.

For me it always starts with a name. Not obviously fake names like the movie studios used to give to re-name actors they thought were too “ethnic” and not overtly obscure names that nobody in the world would ever think of. It’s bad enough that celebrities give their poor infant children names like “Apple” or “Moon Unit”, there’s no need for the rest of us to do so. My suggestion is to buy a baby name book to use for first names and use your phone book for surnames. Try to match a combination that sounds good coming off the tongue and doesn’t sound too hokey.

Usually once I have a name I try to match the character’s personality to the name rather than the other way around. I ask myself: what kind of person would have this name? What are their likes and dislikes? What were they like as children? How successful are they? How’s their self esteem? Create an entire inner life and history for your character even if most of that information will never see paper. The point is that YOU know it. You know this character inside and out. You know how they would react if you placed them in any given situation, from an avalanche to being mugged to having their heart broken. Once you know that the plot will resolve itself because it will turn on the character and not some plot device that makes no sense.

For instance, when I was writing my screenplay for college during my undergrad years the #1 point I got during feedback from my peers and professors was that the script didn’t work because I didn’t know what the motivation was for my main character – she seemed to do things just because that was what was needed to further along my plot, not from anything that was inherent in her. She was basically a cipher and because of that the script fell apart and no matter how much I would write and re-write it to make more sense, it still didn’t – because she made no sense. Since then I have resolved not to try my hand at screenwriting again until a character comes to me that will be so 3-Dimensional they will in a way write their own story. All action and re-action must be an organic growth from what a writer has already established.

There of course exceptions to the rule that good well-developed characters are necessary for good stories. Agatha Christie usually had cardboard characters populating her stories but then she was a genius plotter par excellence and could get away with it. Most of the rest of us are mere mortals.

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