Part two – Characters, who are they and how do they happen?
Some of the time my characters appear fully fleshed out and raring to go, most of the others take a little breaking out.
The hardest part for me is always naming them though. Good reference lists for names are googling baby names websites, especially for meanings. Or searching for names on pinterest – a quick search for ‘male names for romance’ for example, will bring up some names. Baby name websites, a google for ‘names which mean…’ is also useful for meaningful names.
Once I have some names, I assign a character archetype to each one. This is kind of intuitive and kind of not. I start with a Hogwarts house sorting…
For example in Rival Princes, Nate is a Gryffindor with strong Hufflepuff tendencies, and Dash is a Ravenclaw who people read as a Slytherin. This gives me a broad intersection of personality types and a springboard to more information.
Then I think about the role the character has in a story – okay, so Nate’s a Gryff in a new job, and I know he’s a natural charmer, because Dash is a hard worker who has researched and planned and strived to get where he is. The natural conflict there is that Dash feels like Nate hasn’t ‘earned’ his stripes the same way Dash has. Which is a totally normal and relatable way to feel. What does this tell us about the characters? Dash is competitive and has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Then I ask myself, what is a good contrast to that? What if Nate was kind of oblivious to all that? What would make you oblivious? Maybe Nate just believes the best of people all the time, he’s a genuine and kind person, and he assumes the same of others.
If you’re not into Harry Potter, you can also use Horoscopes or zodiac, Myers-Briggs style personality types, oracle cards, whatever works for you.
Then I look at those characters, recognise parts of myself in both and build on those as well.
Add in some character details which I can bring depth into the characters with, working in contrasts really makes this easy. Dash is a neat freak, so Nate doesn’t really care about mess. Dash eats a healthy, well thought through and locally sources diet, Nate gets a lot of takeaways. Dash has one friend, and everyone else finds him prickly, Nate is a charmer who makes friends quickly and easily.
From there I start writing and let the characters reveal themselves as they go. I keep a document open for notes and have little profiles for each of them I can refer back to.
For characters who are harder to nail down I’ve had luck with character questionnaires before. You can find these by Googling or searching in pinterest. There are a lot of them out there, but they all seem to have questions that I wouldn’t think of otherwise, and even if the stuff you discover never ends up on the page explicitly, it might inform something.
At a recent conference I attended a panel by Jan Goldie about faceblindness and how it informs her character creation. She had folders of information with all the physical and personal details of her characters recorded to refer back to. It was like police records for each character, but included things like what their sense of humour is and who they look up to. I aspire to this level of information, but I’m not there yet.
Also….there’s nothing wrong with borrowing from other characters. Maybe your lead is partly Mr Darcy and partly Clark Kent. Maybe you want to take a tablespoon of Veronica Mars and a half cup of Tahani Al-Jamil and blend them up in a big bowl of Lisa Simpson, I dunno. I’m just saying you have permission to use characters which aren’t totally unique. Don’t copy directly – that’s gross, and people will notice – but it’s okay to make homages with some aspects of your characters.
You don’t have to be a genius Zeus plucking fully formed and utterly original new gods and goddesses out of your brain.
So, those are some of the ways I come up with characters. I also like to mooch around online and find an actor or a model who matches the basic idea of how my character looks as a reference but your mileage may vary on that one.
The point of going deep with all this stuff on your characters before you start writing is that if you know them well, then you know how they’re going to react to things. You’re going to find it easier to write their interactions and responses. That’s gotta be a good thing, right?
Next time: getting the actual writing done.