Character Creation: 2 Tricks To Use When You Get Stuck
October 11, 2019
Hey there, writers! Thanks for taking the time to stop by Indigo Typewriter before the weekend! Today’s post is a fun exercise for character creation.
Regaining the Character Spark
I wanted to share a fun exercise for you to try over the weekend. At the beginning of the week, we talked about how important it is for your character to grow during their story. Readers remember characters who overcome their fears and flaws and survive––even thrive––when their support system is taken away. Today we’re going to talk about the other use of the term “character development”: character creation.
Even if you find that creating characters is one of the easier parts of writing, sometimes you just get stuck. Your character stops cooperating and suddenly turns into a closed book (pun intended 😉). It’s frustrating, to say the least.
Every time this happens to me (read: all.the.time.), I take the pressure off.
But what does that mean?
It means writing stuff you don’t plan to use. Ever.
Why on earth would I do that? It’s a waste of time!
Writing a scene that you don’t intend to use in your manuscript frees your mind from thinking “this has to be perfect.” If, like me, you’re a perfectionist (and let’s face it, a lot of us are writing perfectionists even if we’re not life perfectionists), this is a huge game-changer. You no longer worry about what the reader will think, if they’ll connect with the character, if you’ve made a massive mistake and need to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. (Hint: you don’t!)
Okay, so how do you actually do this?
First off, these are exercises you can do at the planning or drafting stage, but if you tend to edit endlessly, be wary of trying these character creation tricks at the editing stage.
There are two main ways to take the pressure off of you and your character: writing from multiple perspectives and transplanting.
Character Creation Trick #1: Writing from Multiple Perspectives
Let’s imagine we’ve created a protagonist. We’ll call her Jane.
We’ve thought about Jane’s life (working as a lawyer downtown), goals (to win a big case that just landed on her desk), and motivations (living up to the standards of her late father). Her character arc is developed, as are her fears and flaws. We nailed down her looks, developed her friends and family, thought through her past, even identified her favorite color (canary yellow). She’s already facing troubles, and we’ve built our plot around her growth. We know exactly how she fits in her setting, how she moves around in her world, how she feels about herself, how she feels about others, how much she loves gardening and how terrible of a baker she is. We know her deep insecurities and the things she’s most proud of.
In short, we know Jane like the back of our hand.
We go back to our notes on Jane trying to rekindle the magic that she was in theory. But that’s exactly the problem: she’s magic in theory, and we need that magic in practice.
Enter the minor character.
In a story, the main function of a minor character is to populate the world and perhaps advance a subplot or a portion of the main plot. In story writing, minor characters can play a much more important role: lenses through which to view your protagonist.
Jane is a partner at a law firm, which has just taken on an intern, Bob. We know a little about Bob––his personality, his dialogue patterns, his irritating habits. Just enough to make him a real, if unimportant, part of Jane’s world.
Bob’s psyche may be something of a blank slate for us, but that’s okay. He can still be a lens.
We try writing a scene from Bob’s perspective. It’s his first day at the internship––he’s nervous and keeps fiddling with a cheap plastic pen he got from the receptionist’s desk––and in strides Jane Berkley of Berkley & Reid Law Firm. A rush of thoughts flood Bob’s brain. That’s Jane Berkley, the Jane Berkley. The hero of the Smith Case. Everyone’s attitude shifts when she enters the room. Ties are straightened, the slouchers sit up, and expectation fills the air. Even the desk plants seem to stand a little taller in her presence.
The general desire to impress infects Bob, who, upon seeing that Jane Berkley is heading to her office a short distance from his new desk, leaps to his feet and promptly trips over the leg of his desk. Glasses and pen go flying, and Bob lands flat on his face with a smack against the hardwoods.
Embarrassment engulfs him like a wave. He can feel every eye on him. The whole office is silent. Then, the clack of heels somewhere north of his head sounds on the floor. Bob pushes himself up slowly and squints around to see a pair of canary yellow pumps stop at a blurry object on the ground. His glasses.
Without a word, Jane Berkley stoops and picks up the glasses, then the cheap plastic pen.
Bob gets to his feet, face beet red and heart pounding.
Jane Berkley hands Bob his pen and his glasses, waits for him to put on the latter, and says, “Always pick yourself back up, Mr. . . .”
“B-brown,” Bob stutters, “Bob Brown.”
Jane Berkley looks Bob dead in the eye. “Welcome to Berkley and Reid, Mr. Brown.”
See? Character creation doesn’t stop with the planning stage.
We’ve ways seen Jane how she sees herself: unsure if she’ll be able to rise to the challenge of this new case against another lawyer she’s never defeated, insecure of her own abilities despite the achievements she’s made, longing to live up to her late father’s impossibly high standards.
But when we extract ourselves from Jane’s head and look at her from another’s point of view, we see not just her toughness, but her kindness, too, not to mention how highly others think of her. We even see that her father’s impact on her, while she may view it as mainly negative, has made her value encouraging others.
When we go back to writing our story, we’re now aware that Jane doesn’t see these things in herself, but they are aspects of her character that we can let the reader in on in subtle ways.
Let me put it in even simpler terms: If you only see your character from his or her own perspective, you’ll never fully understand them.
You might have noticed an extra perk of this exercise. It doesn’t just give you a fuller appreciation for your protagonist, it also helps you flesh out your minor characters. While this may not be your top priority, it’s still important. It was good that we knew about Bob’s personality, dialogue patterns, and habits beforehand. But now we’ve been inside his head. We know his fears, his nervous ticks, his reaction to difficult situations, his thought process. All of this makes Bob, and therefore Jane’s world, more realistic.
Character Creation Exercise #1
Take a minor or supporting character from your novel and write a scene with them and the protagonist. How does the secondary character see the protagonist? What can you learn about the protagonist?
Character Creation Trick #2: Transplanting Your Character
This second exercise is even easier and doesn’t necessarily require you to put pen to paper, although you certainly can.
In this trick, you pluck your character from their native world and toss them into a new one.
Why would you bother doing this? Because it’s easy to get stuck in rigid ways of thinking about your character’s personality. This is especially true if you haven’t started writing yet and have focused only on the planning stage of character creation. You know how your protagonist moves through their world, but how does their personality manifest when they have to move through a different one?
Getting Out of Getting Stuck
For example, the book I’m working on is the first installment in a YA Fantasy series. It’s set in an entirely made-up world. When I realized that I would have to go into deep rewrites to fix the juvenile problems my high-school self had so naïvely overlooked, I suddenly didn’t know what my characters would be like anymore. My male protagonist, in particular, was being incredibly uncooperative.
I fell back on this transplanting trick, an exercise I’d been practicing for years. Only a couple of scenes ended up on paper, but my imagination went wild.
I plucked my two protagonists out of their world and placed them in modern-day America. To avoid completely divorcing them from certain aspects of their characters, I imagined their new setting as America with an underground world full of magic.
Immediately, I knew certain things about them.
My female protagonist was a loner who never stayed in one place very long. While this had always been part of her life, I had never realized was intrinsic to her personality. She could also easily move between the “real” world and the magical one, pointing to an adaptability and lack of belonging that I had never fully appreciated.
My male protagonist, on the other hand, lived almost purely in the magical world. He could emerge for short periods into the “real” world, but he never melted into it the way my female protagonist did. His personality and identity were innately tied up in the magic surrounding his life. He always felt more out of place in this foreign setting, too. Not just because of how essential magic was to his character, but also because he suddenly lacked the structure of leadership he had left behind in his native world.
It was through this exercise, through seeing that loss of his past as a leader, that I realized the male protagonist’s backstory had never been fully developed. I had simply thrown in this idea of him leaving leadership behind without exploring what that role had looked like in the first place. So, when he landed back in his native world, I took the time to explore it. Almost overnight, he became a more interesting character. The missing piece had been found. I didn’t want to tell of his past, I wanted to show it.
This character creation exercise doesn’t always lead to big changes like this. I mentioned that I had already been doing this for years––and not once did the characters I was using change or did I find the need to tell a different part of their story. You’ll notice that my female protagonist didn’t change at all. But because I’d now actually noticed certain parts of her character, I could explore them as themes, consciously build on her identity, and have her break her own mold at the right moments.
This works well no matter the genre.
I moved my characters from their fantasy world to a version of our real one, but you can move them almost anywhere. I’ve moved characters into the pre-made worlds of other books, of movies, and TV shows before. It’s fun to see what role they would play in someone else’s world and how they would interact with someone else’s characters.
If you’re writing historical fiction, move your character to the present day. If you’re writing contemporary realistic fiction, take them back a few hundred years, or to a different culture.
Once again, there’s a bonus to this exercise. When you watch how characters move in worlds that aren’t their own, you can easily recognize the aspects of your setting that are essential to the story and your characters.
Character Creation Exercise #2
Pick a world from a book, movie, or TV show. Toss your protagonist into this new world and see how they fit in. How do they move through this foreign space? How do they interact with someone else’s characters? Are there certain characters from their own world that are essential to their identity? How does their personality manifest differently in this world than in their native one?
I hope you have some fun with this one! Let’s just take the pressure off this weekend and spend some time getting to know our characters.