Character Studies: Creating Characters for Fiction

I’m working on a “beat sheet,” kind of a preliminary outline, for my next novel. Since the book is intended to be the first in a series, the characters I’m trying to bring to life now are characters I plan to be writing about for some time, so it feels especially important to get them right.

I didn’t create all of them initially. I have a coauthor for this series. His role was to come up with the original premise and a list of characters; he will also be handling the marketing and business side. I’m doing the actual writing, with some help from him on the editing stages. So I’m not starting from scratch with the characters. I have names and line or more about each. But in order to write about them and have them feel like real people, I need to understand what they’re like, how they talk, where they come from, what they value, and what challenges they face.

I’m comfortable writing books that are character-driven. I guess I should mention here that I’ve written 20 novels, all of them published by major publishers (and all of them under pseudonyms, so you unfortunately won’t see my name on them). So I’m not completely new to this. But one thing is different this time: I have more control. My other books were all written as works for hire for several different book series. Someone else created the characters, and other writers had written about them before. I had other books to look to for character traits and past experiences, almost like researching historical figures to write a nonfiction book (I’ve written some of those too).

While I wasn’t beginning this new cast of characters completely from scratch, I do have a lot of information to discover on my own about them. Of course, when I say discover, I mean “make up,” but it doesn’t always feel like that. When you begin writing a character, it can be more like gradually learning about a new friend than it is like creating one. You start with some basic facts, and, if you’re lucky, the character takes over from there. But it isn’t always easy to get to that point; I’m still not there with some of these characters. I have to understand them a lot better before they start dictating to me what they want and what they will do.

One factor that makes this task more difficult is that my cast of characters is so diverse. I mean really, really diverse. This is science fiction, and many of the characters belong to alien species. This book series will fit into the same fictional “universe” as other books and stories my coauthor has written, so these species do exist in other books, but the “bible” we’ve started putting together is still pretty rudimentary. (A bible is commonly compiled for writers working on a series, to keep all the information about recurring characters, settings, and events together in one one place.) I’m not yet an expert in the characteristics, abilities, histories, and habitats of all the species I’ll be writing about, so I have some work to do there, too.

Whether characters are human or not, clarifying their physical traits in my own mind is a great help. My co-author provided brief descriptions for some of the characters, and left me to decide what others look like. Sometimes it helps me to have a visual to reference. So I’ve searched online for photographs of people who look like my characters as I see them. The aliens are a little harder!

But what any characters look like is easy compared with what they ARE like. I started by writing several pages of a diary entry or letter from each character, in that character’s voice. A main reason for this exercise is to start to discover their voices. Also, in their hypothetical diaries, the characters discuss their situations at the point when the novel begins, their hopes and fears, and their backgrounds. Which ones have brothers and sisters? Which ones are thrilled to be embarking on this new adventure, and which ones are not there by choice? What are they good at? What are their weaknesses? And what does each person want more than anything else? This kind of fictional soul-searching has been useful, but for at least some of the characters, I need more before I really feel that I know who they are, what motivates them, and how they would react in any given situation.

I think I need to more deeply explore the ways in which they will interact with each other. Sometimes I’ve found it helpful to write conversations between two or more characters — not intended as dialogue that will appear in the book, but in order to understand how they relate to each other, what they have in common, and how they are different. Maybe that’s a good next step for me.

I’m still working on my beat sheet, mapping out the general events of the plot, but I am so far behind where I’d wanted to be right now. But as I said, I’m more of a character writer. Plots are harder for me. If I can get into the characters’ heads to really understand why they do what they do, and what they would do next, I think the trickier elements of the plot may follow, or will at least be easier to suss out.

(Sorry if you were hoping for more details about this book and this series. I don’t like to talk about the specifics of what I’m writing until I’m a lot more sure about it than I am at this stage. I’ll talk about it more when I have a better sense of where it’s going.)

So, if you write fiction, what are your favorite tips for creating characters?

2 thoughts on “Character Studies: Creating Characters for Fiction

  1. Wow, it’s so inspiring that you’ve published quite a few books. I myself pants through my stories and characters, only getting a feel of them once I write a few chapters, then I really dial in their traits and personalities during the second draft. Wishing you all the best!

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    1. Thank you! I’m not sure if I’d plot it out so carefully if I weren’t writing as part of a series. With the new book, I have to show my coauthor an outline before I proceed with the writing, so I don’t really have the option of pantsing it!

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