Ever tried creating a character only to get stuck right at the beginning or in the middle?
And you wondered how some others can do it easily?
The thing is there’s actually a science to creating a character in fiction.
And we’ve picked the brains of some consummate professionals who have a lot of experience when it comes to creating a character.
They’re all celebrated in their fields and if you continue reading, you’ll see why.
If you read to the end of this post, you’ll also find out exactly what every fiction writer, screenwriter or playwright must know about creating a character.
1) Think of your characters as real people
Yes, I know, you’re writing something that is categorised as a work of fiction.
But the thing with creating a character, is if you think of them as ‘not real’, you run the risk of doing a shoddy job and unintentionally creating a caricature.
“My outlook is that nothing is fictional. I’m giving a voice to reality. I’ve never considered any character, fictional.”Taiwo Ajai-Lycett
There’s something that happens in our minds, a complacency that sets in when we know something isn’t the real deal – whether it’s a fire drill, wedding rehearsal, mock exam, or creating a character.
Even if you don’t actually say it, there’s a sense of “Oh, I’ll do it better when it’s time for the real thing. I got this.”
Except that no, you don’t got this.
Cos while you can iron out kinks in the time between a wedding rehearsal and the wedding proper, reprimand someone who didn’t react to a fire alarm the way they should in the case of a real emergency, or spend extra time revising problem areas flagged up by a mock exam – you don’t get a do over with creating a character.
Once that character is out there in your novel or screen/stage/audio production, it’s done and you can’t recall it.
The problem with this is that people who read, listen or watch the work that has the character will
drag you on Twitter be very dismissive of you and your work. And that’s best case scenario.
Because (and if you don’t get anything else from this point, please get this) people read or watch or listen to works of fiction, searching for themselves. Or someone they know.
They’re looking for a real person, not someone they can tell is pretending.
“The audience doesn’t pay to watch actors, act.”Gideon Okeke
Even in works of fiction, people are looking for hope and information for themselves.
That’s why a victim of domestic violence, for instance, can read this book and do something they didn’t know was an option, or that they didn’t feel empowered to do before.
To some people who haven’t had experience with domestic violence – whether from a victim, survivor, lawyer or caseworker standpoint – it’s just fiction.
But to people who have felt or witnessed it and might even still going through it, it could be the nudge or kick up the rump they need to change the situation – either for themselves or a loved one.
So, if you disrespect a character by not thinking of them as a real person, you miss an opportunity to really tell a story.
Even worse, you miss the point of creating a character.
Think about how you felt when a character you’ve read about or watched, was badly created and you knew.
So, for instance, you see something about a character who’s an asthmatic patient.
And they’re having an attack, yet
- they’re having a full conversation
- while taking multiple puffs from their Ventolin inhaler, and
- they’ve (still) got a tight bra on.
It’s true that asthma affects people differently and you’re not going to be able to write about every type if you’re creating a character that suffers asthma.
But many people who suffer (or have been around those who do suffer) asthma understand that
- a Ventolin inhaler is actually prescribed medication, NOT an accessory or a toy
- like every prescription medication, it has side effects
- it’s actually possible to overdose on Ventolin
- one of the possible results of overdosing is death
- if you’ve gotten to the point where puffing on the inhaler isn’t working, you know it’s happening for a reason and you’ll panic, not overdose
- if you’re at ☝️stage, you really should be calling an ambulance or be on your way to the hospital
- someone having an asthmatic attack is only interested in breathing, not talking
- the bra is one of the first things that’s taken off when an attack starts, even if it’s not actually tight
Research will help you if you’re serious about creating a character that’s real.
There’s a reason that some books, films, and TV shows are hits. Or that someone recommends such to you – it’s the fact that the characters are real.
When you’re creating a character, think of them as (you would) a real person.
2) Understand that your characters do not exist in a vacuum
You need to remember this when you’re creating a character because real human beings don’t exist in a vacuum.
“Characters in fiction must be based on real people in real situations.”Taiwo Ajai-Lycett
I’ve given an example ☝️of someone having an asthmatic attack and what would usually happen or not.
But this is more than that – you need to make your character part of a specific society, that’s also part of them.
And society in this context refers to any group or set of conditions that your character has to co-exist or interact with.
So, family, geographical location, climatic conditions, economic realities, cultural differences and expectations, etc.
“I like stories that examine our political reality from a fictional standpoint; they help us articulate.”Joke Silva
Even with a strong character, it’s not just about what they do in the world of your story. When you’re creating a character, you need to
- be aware of the impact of the society where the character operates
- demonstrate how the character interacts with that society
- explore how that specific society (no matter how small) might be why the character feels a need to do certain things.
“As Africans, we have so many traditional beliefs that I think are negative to the modern times that we’re living in. So, I like to play any character that shines a light, that tells a story that’s necessary to change something in our tradition that’s outdated and doesn’t work for us anymore.”Bimbo Akintola
You need to understand the society that you’re writing for your character to exist in.
So, if your character is based in a village in Anambra State without electricity supply or internet access, unless something is seriously wrong, there’s absolutely no reason for anyone in that vicinity to have pizza for dinner.
If your character just returned to Nigeria after living in the UK for a decade, even if s/he hangs around people who have the same history, understand that not every IJGB from the UK says bruv, cheers or innit as part of their normal conversation.
Not everyone who lives or works in Lekki has croissants for breakfast. Or kale salad for lunch.
“I like to play characters in a story that doesn’t ape other cultures. Crafting stories that ape other cultures signifies a self-loathing of your own culture despite the inherent wealth.
“We think it’s sophisticated but we don’t realise that ‘sophisticated’ comes from ‘sophistry’ which means fake.”Taiwo Ajai-Lycett
Understanding that your character doesn’t exist in a vacuum when you’re creating a character also means appreciating that the story goes beyond that character.
“My decision to play the characters I play is based on the story they’re telling, not the characters themselves. I’m interested in how they change and affect the lives we live today.”Bimbo Akintola
In creating a character, you also need to think about the purpose of the story you’re trying to use them to tell.
“There’s so much we can change in our society through our films. The first thing they told me in when I was a student at the University of Ibadan was that we’re not just there to entertain, but also to educate and to inform.
“So, for me, education is key. The story that the character I play, is a part of, has to go towards changing the way we live for the better.”Bimbo Akintola
Just as with #1 point, research is key but you need to understand that one character doesn’t make a story.
“I like when the entire script is well thought out. Some writers write some characters well because they want a particular actor to play a particular character, but don’t do as much justice to other characters.”Joke Silva
3) Use a character sketch
This ☝️ will save you a lot of frustration when you’re creating a character.
A character sketch is a pretty accurate guideline for creating characters in fiction.
Think of it as something similar to what a sketch artist creates for the police when they’re trying to find a person of interest.
If you don’t have a character sketch, you will forget something important when you are creating a character
and the Twitterati will drag you.
But on a serious note, I read some reviews of a book whose protagonist had four different names and two personalities. No, they weren’t schizophrenic, bipolar, in an alternate universe, or an evil twin.
Some mistakes can be avoided when you’re creating a character if you know for sure, who is supposed to be doing what.
A character sketch will eliminate your confusion.
If you don’t know how to go about creating a character sketch, please request your free character sketch cheat sheet below.
4) Write characters that are multi-layered
“I’d rather play a baddie than a saint. But I get irritated with characters that are good all the way. Because it’s not possible for someone to be totally good or completely bad.”Joke Silva
Apart from the fact that a character that’s created to be all good or bad isn’t a real person, they’re also boring.
When creating a multi-layered character, there are three questions I ask 👇
a) Is this character compelling?
b) Is this character relatable?
c) Is this character credible?
If the answer to all 3 isn’t Yes, something is wrong – especially if the character is supposed to be a major character.
People who read, watch or listen to fiction only remember the compelling characters. Meaning that if you’re creating a character that isn’t compelling enough, you most likely haven’t done enough research. Give your character, something to go through!
Think about it, why would you remember someone who doesn’t give you a reason to?
“A character in fiction must be beset with struggles and go through hurdles because life is intense, you know?”Gideon Okeke
Relatability is something that many people are looking for in stories.
The character doesn’t have to be a clone of your audience member/s, but they have to have enough in common with the audience for the audience to care about the character and the story.
So, say you’re creating a character that is a single mum of two (and yes, single mums come in different shapes, sizes, colours and types) but no audience member who’s a single mum can relate with the character, something is wrong.
Credibility is also something you need to get right when you’re creating a character. Most times, your audience doesn’t find your character to be credible because they’re not relatable.
Say in the example of a character who’s a single mum ☝️, the way you’ve created her – she NEVER has ANY financial, emotional, medical, technological or physical setback, she’s always genuinely happy, nobody ever sexually harasses her, her work schedule never clashes with her child’s after-school extracurricular activities – yet she lives in Lagos. 😯 How, please?
That ☝️ isn’t a credible character simply because she’s not relatable. And the audience will turn on her – especially if she’s like that without a good explanation.
5) Give your character a back story
You need to remember when creating a character that people don’t behave anyhow for no reason.
The reason a person behaves a certain way might not be immediately apparent or make sense to everyone around them, but the reason exists.
The reason is their back story.
“You find that for a lot of women here in this part of the world, we tend to grow from our experiences.
“And we keep the burden of those experiences with us. We never let it go.
“And that colours us.”Bimbo Akintola
When you’re creating a character, you need to create a back story. The audience might not get to know all of it, but it must exist.
“Whether a character is a protagonist or an antagonist, they must come with their own personal baggage.”Gideon Okeke
A back story isn’t a cheap excuse; it’s a solid reason or even a backlog of series of experiences that make us understand where a character is coming from.
“If a female character is bitter for instance, you have to look at her back story. It might mean she’s had a few bad relationships in the past.
“Every character that you’re meeting at any point in time when a film starts, has a back story, has a life before then. And as human beings, we’re a sum total of our experiences.
“You need to ask when they were hurt, their first boyfriend, the first time they fell in love, when they had their first period, etc.
“Things like that make your character well-rounded. So, things like that are what I use to get into character.”Bimbo Akintola
There’s one more thing you must know when you’re creating a character 👇but I find that the best and easiest way for me to figure out the back story when creating a character is to ask Why?
6) Watch your language
“A writer should understand English and its nuances, in order to use it to create and paint the story, especially for the stage.”Joke Silva
Even when creating a character for a novel or script in an indigenous language, you also need to understand the language and its nuances.
There are some words, for instance in the Igbo language, whose meanings change when a punctuation mark or speech mark is applied.
There’s also dialects, proverbs or wise sayings that can seem like throwaway comments if you don’t really know a language or understand its nuances.
“Words are magical.
“To prepare to become a character on screen or on stage, I learn my lines and understand the nuances.
“When you know (and this is different from just reciting) the lines, the character will come to you.”Taiwo Ajai-Lycett
So, now you’ve come to the end of the post, what new or surprising thing have you discovered about creating a character? And do you see why the contributions of the thespians we picked are worth their weight in gold?
Let us know in the comments section below. And don’t forget to book your space at the free training where you’ll learn how to create characters that don’t suck.