So, wrote these up recently while helping out a gal, and I thought to myself, why not post them somewhere for anyone to benefit from? The list is by no means perfect, but here's a list of six general tips for character creation. :3
1.) SHOW, don't TELL. This is for the actual writing process. Active voice is important for keeping the reader engaged as well. Compare:
- Macy was a mousy girl, nervous all the time. (telling)
-Macy's hands shook as she dug her keys from her purse, glancing one more time around the parking lot. It was mid-afternoon, and yet the absence of people made her heart race as she fumbled to get the door unlocked. (showing)
2.) RESEARCH! I can NOT emphasize this one enough. Take, for example, mental health issues, which are in fact fascinating and can make for good reading. But! Only if they are properly executed. Don't just read the descriptions and diagnoses and stop there. Do your best to find first hand accounts, read other (published) literature which features the diagnosis you're looking into. But most of all, keep in mind that people are all individuals, and work to avoid over-done tropes. Humans are truly complex beings, and a mental diagnosis does NOT sum up the entirety of their being.
"What's your character like?"
…okay, wow, generic much? Yeah, that gives us some idea of the stereotypes to expect, but it truly doesn't inform us of what makes this character a person, or why we should care about them. My advice is to completely build a character independent of any mental illness first. Truly make them a rounded person. And I mean a person. Down to quirky habits, favorite memories, childhood, family relationships, if they have any pets, unusual hobbies, what trials in their lives they've had to overcome (even something that most would think simple like raising a kid, having to chose between friends, maybe people walk all over them often, maybe they came to a point where they had to cut a family member or friend from their life because said family member was making too many bad choices that was hurting them, all examples). Then, look into which mental diagnosis you intend to use. And I mean REALLY research. Keep in mind things like cause for said illness as well. Is it something brought on by trauma? If so, you'll want to include how and why the character developed it, and again remember that even within diagnosed mental health that individuals respond independently. Is it something less to do with how they cope with life, and more to do with their brain chemistry (and thus independent of at least most events in their life)? In both instances, the most important thing for having a mentally unstable character is to show how they cope with it, how it effects their life and their relationships. Don't just slap on a diagnoses for the sake of a diagnoses, show us how it has effected them and why it adds to the overall character and story to be told. If it doesn't add anything important, don't include it. Giving your character a mental health issue by no means makes them a special snowflake. If it's not a truly important part, don't include it.
((kind of went on a mini-tangent there))
Along with research, READ READ READ. And not just fan-fiction, and not just published works. I'd say a healthy mix of both, and many different authors. Compare writing styles, think as you read about what you like and why, as well as what you don't feel works very well for you, as a reader. Evaluating the writing from a reader standpoint will help you to determine as a writer what you would like to incorporate into your own work. I, for example, think primarily about immersion when I read. What keeps me immersed and emotionally invested? What takes away from that? HOW does this format of presentation make me feel? And do I wish to duplicate that?
3.) Writing exercises! These are incredibly helpful in rounding out your character! Here is a resource with 100 character questions to consider: www.gather.com/viewArticle.act…
And here is an idea generator to get some inspiration flowing:www.archetypewriting.com/muse/…
It's also good to sit down and put the character into different settings and have them deal with different mundane activities. Your character got a package in the mail! How do they feel initially? What's in it? How does that make them feel? Your character is stuck on the highway behind a long traffic jam. Your character is completely lost in a new city (or out in the wilderness). You character has agreed to babysit a friend's eight-year-old. All of these are just some examples of prompts that can further character development.
4.) Pull from your own experiences. Emotion is the key element here, and often it's easiest to describe emotions you have already felt. But keep in mind, it doesn't just have to be the big ones. Yes, a heartbreak which seems like the end of the world could be a powerful motivator, but the little things can likewise add depth to the character, so don't be afraid to use them. You can think of them as sprinkles on a cupcake.
Another reason I say to pull from your own experiences is because having first hand info is the best kind of knowledge. However, don't be afraid to tweak a few things (or do even more research on the topic). What you're mostly focused on can be the emotion behind the event (but obviously you don't want to put your own life story down), or the technical details. For example, I'm able to write about things like foster care with technical precision, because I myself was raised in the system and thus know first hand how it works. I don't have first hand accounts of mental health institutions, but many of the other kids I grew up with did, and would freely talk about their experiences. Therefor, I have second-hand knowledge of the mental and lock down facilities through listening to their stories and experiences. People aren't always the most accurate presenters of technical information, but they give good personal incite to events and provide emotional responses and reactions.
In the same way, you could use emotion you felt, and change the event that caused that emotion somewhat. For example: have you ever gotten lost or been forgotten briefly somewhere as a young person? If so, you no doubt experienced, in that short time, the panic of abandonment. "Have I been forgotten?" It's truly an emotional experience and drive, though often over-looked due to it's brevity and the habit we have as children to go from one emotional state to another very quickly. However, that same sense can repeat itself with other events as an adult, perhaps to a lesser extent, or for prolonged periods. It's more than possible to write using your own emotional feelings of abandonment, but change the actual instance which incites the emotions in your character. Maybe you felt it when you got lost in the grocery store as a child, and your character feels it when their significant other leaves them? Different event, but you're still drawing on an emotional response you yourself have had and can therefor pull from. Which brings me to my next general tip:
5.) Method acting. Maybe not outloud, but it's important to be able to crawl into the character's head-space, so to speak. Think about how YOU would feel, is an important first step. Now, how would they feel? Try writing down your own emotional responses to events, not just the initial response. Process it. How would you proceed? What would your emotional process be like? Work through not only the confrontation, but the process of solving it as well. Now that you have that written down, go back and analyze it from your character's perspective. Using your own emotions will provide you with plenty of opportunity for detail, and give you an idea of how to be just as detailed with your character's responses.
6.) Table Top Gaming. It might sound strange, but if you have the opportunity to join a table top campaign (D&D, Deadlands, Shadowrun, Mutants and Masterminds, there are many options), do it! For each game you have to build a character, and the character has to fit in not only with the setting of the world and the game story, but also with the rest of your team. The character will develop as you play, through the experiences of the game itself. And, most importantly, you character will likely be balanced to what ever settings the game is set to. Because each player has the same amount of points to build with, and the same rules for creation to follow. In short, it's a good way to learn how best to avoid creating a "god-type" character who is amazing in every way and is all the bad-ass and who the entire story should focus around (because no one likes playing with those ass holes). Now, focusing a personal work around one bad ass character? Not too bad. But if in the rp community, it's important to be able to work well with others, and table tops provide the skills for that (if nothing else because the DM running the game isn't afraid to tell you "no, that doesn't work here"). This will also help you in creating other characters besides your main protagonist, not to mention help in general with growing more comfortable with the character creation process.
I'm aware that not everyone has the opportunity to play table tops, but if you can find the opportunity, it is well worth it to join in (not to mention a lot of fun!). There are also many systems to chose from. Deadlands has an excellent weird west, World of Darkness is perfect for monsters like vampires and even some fantasy like changlings and mages, Shadowrun has cyberpunk future fantasy, Mutants and Masterminds is catered to making superheros and supervillains, and that's just a small sample!
---Whelp, that's it. Hope you found some of this helpful, happy writing! :3 ---