Writing advice: How to quickly create great characters

NaNoWriMo is coming up soon, and you’re getting ready for it. You have a basic idea for a story, you have vivid pictures in your mind of exotic settings and exciting action scenes.

But how about characters? I used to find developing characters difficult. They would twist and turn this way and that, and I felt I never really knew them or how they would react to the various situations I put them in.

Of course, I would try to design them. I would give them a name, age, occupation, and other personal details. I would decide on their appearance and personality traits, even hobbies. I would give them a list of adjectives, and even write a paragraph describing their background to give me a better sense of who they were. I thought that was enough.

But still, I always found myself being inconsistent. They always grew muddled in my mind and often characters merged into one, a kind of amalgamation of all the characters in a particular scene.

Note that I am talking about the first draft, the “vomit draft.” In later drafts, these things can easily be detected and better words can be put into their mouths, closer to the nature of the character. But when writing really quickly, it can get confusing and it weakens the characters, so much so that sometimes I would have to change which character said or did what.

But now I have a simple plan. A simple bit of writing advice I would like to share. I just pick a character from fiction I know well and slot them it. I choose a character of a particular personality, and then write my story as ‘fan fiction’ involving those characters. For example, in a zombie apocalypse story, I may have three characters in a bunker: Ellen Ripley from Alien, Han Solo from Star Wars, and Wendy Torrence from The Shining. I just write a scene with those characters, even calling them by name consistently. Ellen is a well-rounded woman who can stand up for herself, sees the situation clearly, and will put herself in danger for others. Han is a charming, cocky man who starts off being out for himself but eventually does the right thing when the going gets tough. Wendy is weak, whiny and needy, but finds inner strength when her son is in danger.

Those are the characters. I feel as though I know those characters well, so I can imagine how they will react to certain situations.

You can also mix it up, with a character that looks like one person but has the personality of another. How about a character that looks like Morpheus from The Matrix, but has the personality of John McClane from Die Hard? “He adjusted his mirrored glasses and pulled out the shotgun he had been hiding under his long black coat. ‘Yeehaw, motherfunker,’ he said with a cheeky grin.”

It’s not plagiarism, since you are doing all the writing and nobody will know which characters you were thinking of when you wrote them, unless you are too specific. For example, don’t have your beefcake with a crewcut say “I’ll be back,” in an Austrian accent.

A great piece of writing advice is to write what you know. Some writers have based their characters on real-life people they know personally. Occasionally it comes back to bite them. The main problem with it, however, is that it only works if you are writing a drama about relatively contemporary suburbia. Most of us have never had experiences in which we have witnessed true heroism or have faced unspeakable horrors. So when writing genre fiction, we have to look beyond our little comfortable neighbourhood for inspiration.

Another reason this is a good idea is that when writing character arcs, you already know what the character is like at the beginning, middle and end of their arc. We saw Sarah Connor as a feeble, exhausted waitress, we saw her facing extraordinary and horrific situations, and we saw the cynical, hardened fighter those experiences turned her into. You can also mix it up here too. Use Harry Potter or Charlie Bucket as your inspiration for a child in a far from perfect ordinary life at the beginning of the story, think of Katniss Everdeen when they are in the middle of their adventure and think of Neo from The Matrix as your humble, but satisfactory, end point.

Finally, when you have finished the story, just replace the names with ones you have chosen. Be careful with find&replace, it will not find errors or alternate spellings. Be sure not to call your Die Hard inspired character MacClane, McLane or McLean at any point.

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