There seem to be countless schools of thought when it comes to creating characters. But no matter the method used, there is a universal truth to characters: they need to change and experience tension to feel real. Sounds easy, but for many, it’s anything but.
Plan It Out
Whether you consider yourself a natural, spur-of-the-moment type of writer or a meticulous planner, this is an area where every writer can benefit from a little forethought. Creating compelling characters that feel real and relatable can be relatively easy. Let me give an example:
Character Name: Gary Mordon
Why he resists change: His father always wanted him to do something meaningful—become an engineer, join the military, go into politics, etc. But his father abandoned him and his mother when he was fourteen, so he resists anything that seems like it would’ve made his father proud.
Opportunity for change 1: He really enjoys soccer and it looks like he might get a scholarship if he keeps with it, but his new friends at school sell drugs. He can start selling and using the drugs, but he knows he might get drug tested and kicked off the team.
Choice for change 1: He chooses the drugs. Ultimately kicked off the team.
Resulting change: He has moved toward what he thought he wanted, but feels a deeper disconnect. Struggles to know if he wanted success for himself or if he had only wanted it because his father did.
Opportunity for change 2: Dealing drugs is quickly becoming more serious. Harder drugs and more dangerous clients. If he wants to continue in his social circle, he will have to rip off a few gangsters to stay afloat. He’s terrified, but initially decides to go through with the scam because he knows his dad would’ve wanted him to get out safely. In the middle of the deal, he decides to back out and give the drugs to the men, making enemies of his former friends and putting himself in an even worse situation.
Resulting change: He realizes that the destruction he’s bringing to his life isn’t worth it. He decides that he wants success for himself, whether his father wanted it or not. But now that he wants to turn his life around, he fears it may be too late.
Final opportunity for change: His friend murders someone over a drug deal gone bad. He can turn his friend in, but will implicate himself in the process and risk a prison sentence. What will he choose?
What Does This Do For Your Characters?
To use the old cliche, it “fleshes them out.” I made up Gary Mordon for that example. Creating characters has never been my strong suit. In fact, I would consider it a weakness.
But using the method above, you shouldn’t need to be a great character writer. The first step is most crucial. You may have heard that every character should “want” something, even if it’s just a glass of water. I’m not trying to dispute that, but you may find it hard to write a compelling character just based on his wanting water. What works better for me is to identify want they want to do and why. Then, your story should essentially be a constant stream of them reaching for what they want and either getting something different than what they expected, or getting knocked farther away from their goal.
In other words, your character should resist changing in at least one major way. Maybe they resist giving up alcohol, fighting, loving, helping a particular person, forgiving a particular person, forgiving themselves, accepting a part of their personality, accepting that they are a good person, accepting that they are a bad person, quitting a bad habit, etc. Once you’ve identified this, it’s pretty easy to throw obstacles in the way of their resistance.
Each time you challenge your character in this way, you give them opportunities to change. Maybe they thought they could resist but don’t, and that will shift their personality in some tangible way. As a reader, those moments are what make characters interesting. Maybe they even resist change through several trials, but in the end they do change, and because they resisted for so long it becomes interesting and rewarding to read about.
Creating a Satisfying Conclusion For Your Character
Writers Digest provides a great list for crafting a “moment of truth” for your characters. You will find this to be extremely easy if you’ve plotted your character out based on resistance to change and moments of opportunity. Their list is as follows:
- Make it fit—It (almost) goes without saying that the moment of truth has to be the collision of the two contenders in the hero’s life. You’ve got the old way and the new way. In your character’s moment of truth, she decides between those two options.
- Make sure both options are compelling—Your hero is stuck in the old way, which is hurting him on some level, and yet it gives him something he values. The new way has to be at least as attractive to him as the old way, even if he doesn’t see it at first. It must give him everything the old way is not giving him, and it must solve problems for him—but not without cost.
- Include the cost of purchase—The moment of truth is not complete unless the hero understands not only what he stands to gain by choosing one option over the other, but also what he stands to lose. If he lets go of his self-loathing to embrace a positive view about himself, it will be a betrayal of his father, who always said he was worthless. If she lets go of her fear and moves on with her life, it will mean risking failure again.
- Provide smaller moments of truth along the way—We’ll discuss this fully in the chapter on the escalation, but for now just keep in mind that you will need to think of ways for these two opposing options to skirmish before the decisive battle. Just as Frodo had temptations to use the ring at multiple junctures in the story (and in some of these, he chose wrong) and as Luke saw the promise of the Force over the limits of technology, your character will need to make minor yes/no choices between these two options before the big moment of truth.
This is just one method for planning. There are obviously many many more ways to plot out your characters, setting, story, etc. However, as someone who personally does not enjoy planning, this method is arguably the most complete and succinct way to gain both depth to your character and develop your story. I feel like I could write a novel about Gary after spending just ten minutes sketching him and his problems out.
Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.