The titular panel was actually one of the virtual panels I was on at Imaginarium 2021. I usually don’t take notes when I’m on a panel, but there was a lot of good information. Our moderator was Kathryn Sullivan, and my fellow panelists were C.L. Polk, Kellie Doherty, L.R. Braden, Dan R. Arman, and Jonathan Zarantonello.
Like all Imaginarium panel descriptions, this one was brief and direct, “Learn how to create compelling characters for your story.“
8 Techniques For Getting To Know Your Characters
I’ve talked about the external bits — naming characters and using pinterest or google image search to gather inspirational pictures, but characters are a lot more than what’s on the outside. I picked up a great technique for giving background characters well rounded personality traits, but this panel was about who your characters are as a person.
Some writers start with the characters, others begin with the world, and some? The setting. You might enjoy characters that match — or those whose strengths and weaknesses play well together. Perhaps a fish-out-of-water story is what you need to introduce your readers to a strange new land. But, no matter what sort of story you want to write, or where you start, you need to get to know your characters if you want to write them right.
1. Fill out a role-playing character sheet
The most basic and straightforward technique for many writers is to take a character sheet — with skills, attributes, and equipment — then simply fill it out for the character in question. There are tons of RPGs, so you can pick the style of character sheet that works for you — D&D, Pathfinder, White Wolf, Deadlands, 7th Sea, whatever the kids are playing these days. It’s a great way to start if you want something a bit more guided and structured.
2. Start with the wound
Life is complicated and most of us aren’t living lives where we’ve achieved our goals and reached fulfillment. There’s usually something we want, even if we’re not actively working toward it. And there’s often something in us, holding us back.
When building your characters, look at them and decide: what about them would benefit from some serious therapy.
3. Channel an aspect of yourself
Now, I’m not saying to create a idealized version of yourself that all the characters love and has all the luck — Gary Stu and Mary Sue characters aren’t what you want. But, we all hold multitudes, and for most of us, every character we create has some aspect of us in them. Even our darkest villains might share an intense need for a family, and our brightest heroes, a deep seated fear of ostracization.
Of course, not every trait a character has must come from an aspect of you, but there’s usually something that gives you a connection, a way to understand your character and channel them into your writing.
4. Note how the character is different than you
By explicitly noting the most drastic differences between your character and you as a writer, you can more easily see how they would react in ways that you might find unnatural, and lead to a better understanding of how your character works. Plus, it can help you make sure that your characters are easily differentiated in both personality and behavior.
5. Use their greatest strength against them
You’ve probably seen the meme, but Othello’s decisive action would have been more useful for Hamlet, and Hamlet’s introspection could have saved Othello a fair bit of grief.
Give your characters strengths — and them put them in situations where using that strength hurts them.
6. Assess what the character would change about themself
Most people out there have things about themselves they want to change. While some would choose an action from their past, or a physical attribute, there are plenty that want to change something about their own personalities. What are they fighting in themselves?
7. Discover what they will always do
Think about your character. Will they always strive to avoid conflict? Perhaps they always put their family first? Maybe they never back down from a fight.
It can be positive, it can be negative, or it could be binge eating chocolates on Friday nights, but your character has something about them that will always make them act a certain way.
8. Evaluate the difference in what your character wants versus what they need
If you do, you’ll have your plot. It’s up to you which your character gets, and if they live to regret it.
Do you have any favorite techniques I missed? Have you used any of these? Which is your favorite?
A lot of my characters are people I know, have met, worked with, etc, with the serial numbers filed off (change first or last name, for example). Then I know what they look like, what they sound like, and how they act. Then I can change them.
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