Episode 6: Four Ways To Build A Character


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Season 3, Episode 6: Four Ways To Build A Character

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

This is Season 3, Episode 6: How to build a character.

Here’s my friend and producer Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is from both Natalya and Keely. Keely asks: Where should I start when creating a character? Natalya asks: How do I add depth to a character, so that readers connect to them, and want to keep on reading their story?

This is a really fun question, and as I record this episode, it’s something I’ve been doing myself, so it’s very much on my mind. You can have a thrilling plot, snappy action, the deepest mysteries – but if your readers don’t care about the characters experiencing it all, then something will always be missing.

When you come to a story, you might have a very basic idea of who a character will be – you can check out Season 1, Episode 6, which is called ‘Who Is My Protagonist?’ if you’d like some more information on figuring out who your main character should be.

That said, it’s a big leap to get to somewhere emotionally intricate and layered from ‘he’s a soldier who’s just been shipwrecked on an abandoned planet’ or ‘she’s a girl who just woke up from two centuries in stasis, to discover humanity has colonised the galaxy and aliens are real.’ Those two characters are Tarver Merendsen in These Broken Stars, and Aurora O’Malley in Aurora Rising – but though they ended up complex, they started out as a basic idea, as all characters do.

So, how do you go about building those characters, making them feel real and engaging, so the reader cares what happens to them? There are more options for this than I can count, and there are no rules, of course – there never are with any aspect of writing. You may prefer to just start writing, and meet your character on the page. I’ve done that myself plenty of times.

If you’d like to build your characters before you begin chapter one, though, today I’m going to take you through four different options you can try.

Option 1: Write them a stat sheet. When Jay and I were beginning Aurora Rising, we had to settle on who the characters were quite quickly. We couldn’t just discover them as we wrote, because we each had to write chapters with the other person’s characters in them from the start of the book.

We created sheets of their vital statistics – starting with the basics, like their height, eye colour, and so on, but then we got more complex. We wrote up the one thing you can do that will always press their buttons, and make them lose their temper. We talked about their family, and how they feel about their family. We talked about the one secret they don’t want anyone to know. Piece by piece, we began to build more complicated pictures of them, and of course it always turns out that when you learn one thing, it suggests another.

Option 2 is to start with a character you already know, and build from there. When artists are drawing human figures, they often use little wooden mannequins that can be posed into the position they’re trying to draw. A reference point helps get you along the runway, and ready to launch into your own work. Is there a character on TV, perhaps, or even in real life, who resembles the person you want in your story? How are they different? Is your character more hot-headed? What would happen to the TV character if they were? What kinds of situations would they end up in, and how would that change other things in their life? Is your character far more shy? What would change in your base character’s life if they didn’t speak up?

Now, to be extra, extra clear here, this is not advice about using someone else’s character. It’s about using a reference point you can describe your character against, defining their differences, and generating questions in the process. If Meg and I had done this for These Broken Stars, we might have started out with a well known soldier for Tarver, but then added, “But his mother is a poet, and he loves poetry.” Then we could ask ourselves what that would change about our base character, and start playing with those differences, then doing it again, and again. You should end up many iterations away from the starting point, if you try this.

Option 3 is to try some personality tests. Could you run your character through the Myers-Briggs, or Enneagram test, answering the questions as if you were them? This is valuable firstly because it helps you figure out how your character would answer some of these questions, and then secondly because you can look at the descriptions of the personalities your results yield up – you might agree, you might disagree, you might make changes, and any of those options are fine! I’m not suggesting that these kinds of tests are scientifically valid – my expertise is in writing – but for the purposes of answering interesting characters about your characters, they can be helpful, and a lot of fun.

You could also try googling “ethical hypotheticals” – or try saying it three times fast – or “moral dilemmas” and answer some on behalf of your character. A few trolley problems will help you figure out what your character thinks about things – and then you can dig into why they think that way. What happened in their past, or in their family, that caused them to hold that view?

Finally, option 4 is for all of you who are co-authoring a project with someone. It’s something I often do with Meg, when we’re starting a book together. We first did it for These Broken Stars, and we’ve gone back to the same technique for every book since, all the way to The Other Side of the Sky. In fact, we’re doing it right now for the characters in our next book together.

We start with a blank piece of paper – something like a google doc is good, as you can both work into it at once – and we just drop our characters in and start roleplaying them back and forth. They meet, they talk, they spark, they fight, and we learn about how they play off each other. Each thing that one does causes a reaction in the other, and so we learn about them.

So, there you have it – four ways to start creating a character.

One: Write up their vital statistics, inside and out.

Two; Start with a character you know, and then create differences, and explore the impacts of those differences.

Three: Put them through personality tests or hypotheticals.

Four: Jump into a blank document with your co-author, and start to roleplay.

Now, I do have one fifth and final tip for you on character creation, and it’s this: don’t get so endlessly caught up in all of this that you don’t start the book. To some degree, you always have to meet your character on the page, learning about them as you write, and put them through the dramas of your story. That’s what authors are talking about, when they say their characters surprised them, or didn’t want to do as the author had intended. Their personalities and motivations will continue to evolve, and continue to reveal themselves. So, have fun creating them – but don’t forget the main event.

Here’s an exercise: Try out the quickest of these options – a personality test – on either a character you’ve created, or if you’re a reader, on a character from a book you’ve read recently. You can use one of the more formal tests, or grab a Buzzfeed quiz on what kind of baked good they’d be, if you like. It’s all good practice at thinking about how a person who’s different to you might see the world.

That’s all for this week. Next week, I’ll be answering a question about what to do if your word count has sprawled out of control.

In the meantime, I’ll remind you to subscribe, and leave the podcast a review wherever you listen. Both these things help new listeners find the podcast, and I really appreciate it. I’ll also remind you to check out Pub Dates, where Kate and I will take you behind the scenes on the countdown to launching our next books.

You can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for the podcast on my website. You can find me on instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, author of the upcoming novel Nightbirds. You can find her online at katejarmstrong.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing


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