Every author has a different way of creating their characters. The best characters have some connection to real life — meaning, they think real thoughts and feel real emotions.
I don't restrict myself to writing characters I have met in real life. As interesting as people are, even living people aren't necessarily complete unto themselves. Many of us are still wandering, exploring, and trying to learn who we are. Characters in a fictional universe must be more. Even if the character doesn't know their role in the universe, their author must.
I draw from my collective experience with millions of people and jigsaw traits together to create the most realistic person as possible. I've found it important to avoid conflicting traits even while exploring what-if scenarios, but as an observer of people and one who travels a lot and talks to as many people as possible, I've found it fascinating how many varieties of people really exist. More than a few times, I've read a book or watched a film featuring a character I believed was completely unrealistic, only to later meet someone in the real world who matched them - and in some cases, contained even rarer combinations.
Ultimately, it's a 3 step process. But not really.
Step 1. Purpose
To me, the most important aspect of a character is their purpose in the story. Not their role.
A character's purpose may be to entertain me as the author or to convey an idea to the reader. Actually, they should ALWAYS do both, but which comes first affects the next step in the process
Step 2. Quirks & Affectations.
To ensure my character stand out as individuals instead of archetypes (gods, I hate archetypes), I always begin with imagining the characters behavior.
I've never studied "Method" acting, but I assume it's not unlike that process. I let the character inhabit my mind and take over my body and I let inspiration guide me to do something they would do. If I'm creating a character with a purpose for the reader, I try to convey that purpose in action or speech. If the character is going to be more primary, like a protagonist or featured supporter, then I just let my imagination fly.
For example, once I felt the urge to hunch over and sit on the edge of my chair as if it were a concrete stoop or over-turned bucket. I rested my elbows, weary and hung my head. I started flicking my thumb with my index-finger (same hand) for no reason at all, so I imagined a reason. My character's thumbnail was long and uncut, and a small hoop earring was pierced through it that I was flicking like a nervous tick. But why was I nervous? Why was I weary? My shoulders swelled and I realized my character was muscular and broad shouldered. A thug? An athlete? A boxer? Well, not anymore — not with that thumbnail. But he obviously had style. I try to speak, to see what words come out and how they define me, but I only get a sigh. Then something brushed my cheek, and I imagined dreadlocks - no braids. Long colored braids. I was sitting in an alley stoop at night, gold lamps gleaming off my large dark-skinned hands. I was waiting for a woman. No, my ex. No, to meet my daughter at her mother's apartment. But they were late coming back from the movies. I stretched and felt the cool night air on my hands and face, but I was wearing a jacket. A jean-jacket. With buttons all over it. Some were political. Some were for fun. My daughter had given me some of them. I missed her. But she was better off with her mother. I had a tough job breaking legs. Images of people I've know flash before my eyes. My old friend Al's generous spirit and fastidious nature. My friend Phil's physical strength, and the responsibilities that came with it. My own doubts and ennui that sometimes cause long quiet moments in my life.
And that's how it goes.
I'd like to say that I think about their thoughts, emotions, profession, and personality, but whether they are Steps 3—99 or 2a—2zzz doesn't really apply to how I work. I just jump off the cliff with quirks and affectations and hit everything else on the way down like branches breaking my fall.
Quirks and affectations automatically lead to everything else.
Quirks and affectations automatically lead to everything else.
Step 3. Honing their Role
To me, a character's role is how they fit into the story as a whole. Now matter how great a character might be as a person, the real world doesn't have a theme or a plot the character must actualize. If you just threw random characters together and inspired them to act, they would almost never act together (a hard lesson learned from decades of roleplaying games).
Changing the character to fit the story and is critical to a good story. Of course, the story has to fit the character, too - but that's a different blog post.
I named the boxer character above Twizz. The story I came up with was for another character, a runaway who needed a kind of father figure. So, Twizz couldn't be a leg-breaker. Instead, I made him a courier. While still doing illicit things for money, I wasn't going to have to justify hurting some people but not others to the protagonist. And I made him older. While a boxer as a young man, he eventually drove ambulances until something tragic happened and he lost everything: his job, his license, his relationship with his daughter, and all of his money to a lawsuit. All of his own experiences and motivations focused on supporting the protagonist, but still left plenty of room for sub-plots and surprises and best of all: Growth.
And I could imagine him sitting in his car, hands on the wheel, flicking that little ring on his thumbnail at every stoplight. He'd be tense and drained nearly every moment. Almost humorless, until the protagonist came into his life and gave him something to finally be hopeful for. Maybe, just maybe, if he could help this kid, he'd earn his confidence back and the right to share his daughters life again.
And this was all before writing a word of the actual story.
Now there are times when I'm writing and I suddenly need a new character... or rather, a new character suddenly leaps out of my mind onto the page to fill a role I hadn't considered up front. In this case, I already know their role but I still go back to the quirk. How are they introduced makes a huge difference. Whatever the scene requires for the character introduction becomes their façade that I will have to undermine and eventually shatter into a reversal. If they appear scary at first, they will have to become an ally. If they are weak at first, they will have to show or develop strength along the way. Those two points, beginning and and, give me everything I need for the character except how to make them memorable: The Quirk. But this isn't going backwards. Purpose and role is not a character. That's not even an archetype. That's a mold. An archetype is a trite, overused, unbelievably expected trope with little value to a story outside of making it easier for the writer to meet a deadline or convince some non-creative to pay for its production.
A character is a singularly unique person who just happens to be fictional. That can only be done with exploring the details that distinguish individuals from the herd.
In my novel "Bell of the True Dragon", each of my characters have many quirks, from how to speak, act, behave, and dress. May is brilliant but flighty, sexually liberated but picky, and dismissively snarky to her self while absolutely the pinnacle of love and support for all of humanity (except family. Fuck family.) Bison is forcibly calm on the outside, but a tornado of stress on the inside. They speak in short sentences and southernisms, careful with precisely how to say and do everything. Ricardo is a bitter and spiteful and cruel and angry and the definition of hate-filled. He despises and insults everyone in his presence and speaks in a deliberate awkward cadence to push people away, and yet he has his reasons to accept May's friendship that go well beyond short-sighted profit - no matter how much he says otherwise.
In my short-stories, I can remember how each character began. Oilcan Jim began as a 12 year old boy with slingshot and a sneer. Pearl began with a confident flip of her afro, a driven New York professional destined to leave her mark on the world, a Black woman in a white suit, with no time for mistakes or a man. Albertine was modeled after a friend of mine, a sharp chocolate kiss of a woman. Stalaya was a haunted soldier, who stood broken, awed, and terrified before her god as she realized he needed her more then she needed him. Dart began with a wit that could change directions as quickly as a dragonfly, and just as deadly.
But these character only fit into the story because something tied them to the theme.
Thematically, characters should have either an opinion or a purpose or both related to the story's theme. The name can help that (or expose it too early). But I also add elements to their possessions and costumes. In "Bell", all of May's allies wear something that is red. Oilcan Jim wears hand-me down clothes to show he's trying to fill a man's shoes. Even Twizz's political pins shows how much he cares about things on the outside, even if he can't talk about or show it another way, and the ring on his thumb is the his sole stim to show when he's stressed.
In more than one instance, I've gone back and tweaked or recast a character to fit better. In "Bell", Zuofeng didn't originally have a white shock of hair, but he needed something to say that he was different. And as the story progressed, I let the readers imagine what that difference was before the final reveal. He he.
Sometimes I name my characters last, to perfect the theme. This can lead to either pure genius or groan-worthy puns. Oilcan Jim is one of my favorite names. It's just sets the era and tone so well. Ricardo Montblanc is another favorite, as its so pretentious and fake but he knows it and uses it to manipulate and judge people. In the best of cases, they can be better by accident. May Ling and Bison were just meant to be. :)
So, I do it like that.
What's your favorite character that you have written?
Ooh. Tough one. Ricardo Montblanc is my fave in my head — but not sure he comes across the way I want on the page. Bison comes a close second, and I know they came out right. Oilcan Jim and Dart are a tie of third right now.
What's your favorite character that someone else has written?
Ewww.... Er. Um. It's been a long time since a character had grabbed me from the page - but that was before I started writing and I was identifying with the character more than simply appreciating them. And I've changed since then, in both whom I identify with and whom I appreciate, so I can't really say. On the media side, I like Blitzo (the-O-is-silent) and John McClane and Ruby Rhod and Willow Rosenberg... I could go on forever. No, I don't have a single favorite.
How does a neurodivergent author writer a neurotypical character?
I have no idea. Every one of my characters, I think, is neurodivergent. "Normal" thinking feels either boring or fake.
Have any more questions? Just ask.