Apprentice Wordsmith A Writer's Blog

Building Characters Organically

In one of my earliest posts, “Stop Trying to be Unique”, I encouraged writers to use archetypes, to not reinvent the story if they didn’t need to. Last month, I gave an example of how adding conflict to an archetypal character can turn them into an interesting individual.

Yeah, both of those posts were cool. But how do you build these characters? How can I do that?

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I focus heavily on plot in my writing process. I don’t have a separate method for developing characters. Instead, I develop them organically from (and in tandem with) that plot. In this post, I’ll show you how I do this. There are 3 steps I take in the beginning, then 6 principles I use to guide my planning and drafts.

1) Start with a character type. Optionally, identify touchstones you want to reference.

An archetype is the skeleton of a character – the basic traits that remain consistent across their many manifestations in various works. For example, the wise old wizard, the criminal genius, and the dark lord.

Specific manifestations of a particular archetype (aka specific characters) I call “touchstones” because of their use as a reference point. Examples would be Gandalf, Professor Moriarty, and Darth Vader. Instead of the bare bones, a touchstone provides you with a full body of concrete inspiration for how your character could behave. Pick and choose the characteristics you want to work with; alter the ones you don’t. The elements where your character contrasts with the touchstone will form the basis of their unique identity.

Also, feel free to use multiple touchstones for a single character. Maybe you’re envisioning a mash-up of two fictional characters, taking the backstory and goals of one and the personality and mannerisms of the other.

2) Put your character in a bad situation (or at some kind of disadvantage).

Character strengths are very easy to identify. Hell, they’re probably the first things you noticed when you identified your character type and touchstones and then went to work altering and customizing them. But I’ve found that character strengths are better used to solve problems, not create them. And as I emphasized in last month’s post, creating problems and conflict is one of the key things a writer needs to do in their story. So I start with a character’s weaknesses, and bad situations bring these to the surface.

The problem presented in this initial scene may not be connected to the conflict which drives the whole story, but it should point in that direction. Better yet, this initial scene can also show you potential antagonists and how they can exploit the main character’s weaknesses for their benefit. Because, in the scenario you’re examining, they already have.

I should stress that, even though this scene is the first one you’re working on, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the opening scene of your story. It could be the inciting event which kicks off the entire plot, which usually comes after a bit of exposition. It could be climax of your story. It could also be a showdown that occurs halfway through. Or it could just be a smaller event that occurs in between these major turning points. Whenever in your timeline this scene eventually falls, it will be a point of tension – an ideal place for conflict to take root.

3a) Question why your character is there and how they reached that point.

The answers to these questions will form your character’s backstory, backstories of other characters involved, and even parts of the world’s history. As much as we may hate to admit it, we are shaped by our past; the same applies to your characters. Knowing what happened before will help shape how your character will react in the future, giving you a foundation to build the rest of the story on.

3b) Question how your character moves beyond this bad situation.

Your character certainly doesn’t want to stay stuck there, and your story won’t progress until they get out of it. Getting them out gives you the opportunity to highlight the strengths you’ve likely already identified. If not, here’s your chance to discover them.

Inevitably, navigating these answers will lead to more questions and eventually the conflict’s resolution. The answers to this string of cumulative questions forms the outline of your plot.

From here, the process is all about fleshing out the outline I’ve created, asking and answering questions when necessary. At this stage, I rely on these principles to keep everything moving in the right direction.

Ask leading questions, ones that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no.

You will have to make assumptions in order to push the story forward. But these assumptions create complicated questions and answering them creates a string of story beats that you can attach to your draft. For example, you don’t want to ask “Does the main character survive?” Instead, a better question is “How does the main character survive?” The word “how” carries the assumption of the main character surviving, but it also makes the question harder to answer. You’re forced into telling more of the story as you answer these types of questions.

Have the main character fail. Have the failure be their fault.

Universally, readers hate perfect characters. And while we pity the suffering of innocents, these scenarios do more to characterize the antagonists rather than the innocent protagonists. Having your characters fail makes them imperfect and relate-able. Showing these failures helps persuade the reader to like them or at least care enough about their fate to see the story through to the end.

This same scene can also give the reader a glimpse of the character’s internal problems. The more connected the external drama and the personal struggle is, the bigger impact both will have on the reader. For more on this particular topic, read this post from 2016.

No one is an island.

Don’t develop your main character in isolation. When you introduce allies, enemies, and other characters that will spend a significant amount of time in focus, pause to give them some development. As you continue your planning and your drafts, develop all of these characters alongside each other. This joint development creates strong relationships between the characters. It’s harder to build connections with a fully-fleshed out character than one with fewer details nailed down. These multiple strong connections also create a realistic web of motivations running through your story. I’ll probably talk more on this concept in this future because it’s something I try to achieve in every story I write (well everything that’s longer than flash fiction that is). But I’ll save that for another post.

Everyone has a past.

Rather than detailing each major characters’ personality or fill out some questionnaire, I delve into their backstories. As I said earlier, characters are shaped by their past. Digging into this history not only tells you who they are but why they are the way they are. For instance, a character may be a perfectionist because they were raised by a perfectionist.

Blank spaces are okay.

This is an uncommon stance, I’ve noticed, given the number of character questionnaires available and the number of people pushing them. But just like how you don’t need to know everything about your world, you don’t need to know everything about a character to start writing them. Blank spaces are the areas where the character can grow and change in response to the circumstances the story throws at them. Character growth is a huge draw for readers, so leave plenty of questions unanswered when you begin your first draft.

When stuck, leave it to chance.

This is a relatively new principle I’ve adopted, but it has broken me out of writer’s blocks so many times that I’ve come to regularly rely on dice rolls, coin flips, and other random generators. They prompt your brain to think outside of your usual box and guide your story in a direction you might not even have realized was possible. I outlined a couple of methods in my last post on randomness. If you’re familiar with tabletop RPGs or what to experiment with something more complex, try the Mythic Game Master Emulator.

No matter what you use, remember that you aren’t married to the results. You can always re-roll the dice to get a different answer. But once an answer inspires you, follow that inspiration to the end. Even if you don’t keep this bit and end up revising it later, you’ve continued the draft toward its conclusion. And if you’re surprised by the turn of events, then your readers will be surprised too.

I know this framework is very loose and won’t appeal to those of you who like a structured approach to writing. But each story its own beast. The above aren’t strict rules; they’re the basic pattern I’ve noticed myself taking with my own projects. Hopefully, these steps and principles will help you while you’re writing your own stories.

Which of these steps/principles have you heard before? Which ones are new to you? Are there other steps you take or principles you write by? Share in the comments.

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