How I Construct Characters

When I’m writing a story, typically I have 90% of the history, personality, quirks, mannerisms of my characters down before I even touch a key. I seem to work through this in my head very fast, at least what I have gathered from talking to other writers.

I create characters depending on the direction of where I want the story to go. I can create a character that is basically a lantern – there to further the plot or shine light on what is happening – or I can create an antagonist you, in theory,  love to hate and hate to love. So instead of going on about all the possible ways I do this, I am going to show you.

WARNING: THIS IS LIKE FINDING A SPECIFIC NOODLE IN A PILE OF SPAGHETTI, BUT YOU GOTTA START SOMEWHERE

BEGIN THE INSANITY!

This story is going to be about a man going to the grocery store to buy a few things from his wife’s list.

What is the purpose of this character? Do we need emotional contrast to our main character? Do we need a geologist to pass off vital information to help further the plot along? Do we need somebody to be counter-energy to our main character’s Feng Shui? Do we need a main character because we haven’t created one yet?

So, the main character is a man going to the store. What kind of man is he? This is a severely loaded question, which in its own right could be an entire blog post. I will throw out some examples to help.

Is he a good-hearted man who seems to be trapped in an endless wave of bad situations, making him challenge his own intentions?

Is he a bad man seeking redemption from cheating on his wife, leaving his kids behind, and running from conflict his entire life?

Is he an old stodgy man who served in war and is very methodical, controlling, and detail oriented?

Is he a pencil pushing play-it-safe kind of guy who did everything in his life that was expected of him, and because he is shackled by societal expectations and niceties his inner tiger is about to burst out?

The possibilities are endless, but what is most important is that you come up with something interesting, real, and with depth. Even a shallow character can be made interesting, if we understand why. The why is the nuts and bolts of it, but we are drawing now and will come back to color in the details of why here in a second.

So let’s go with the pencil pushing idea. Now we have our flavor of character, he needs a name. The name is very important, names reveal a lot about a character. So given what we have decided about his personality, we need something that reflects him.

In my mind I am picturing an everyday run of the mill kind of guy. Somebody who eats the same thing for lunch everyday. So lets look at common names; Ed, Ned, Steve, Randy, Joe. Or we can go with something a little more old school, something that somebody with play-it-safe parents would have chosen, Herbert comes to mind.

I like Herbert. He sounds like the kind of guy that bites the inside of his cheek when he is nervous. Perhaps his stomach gets upset when he becomes really stressed.

So Herbert is the kind of guy who buys from the same car manufacturer because when he bought his first model it worked like a charm. Why screw with a working formula, doesn’t matter if it could be better. Throughout the years they have continuously owned the same breed of dog, beagle.

Herbert is a hard-working guy. He wears khakis and a button up shirt to work everyday, even when it is casual Friday. The font on his business card is the wildest he has ever been, calibri of all things. He married right out of college, which he had a 3.9 and perfect attendance. Over the years his wife has accustomed to his particular brand of detail oriented method of every day thinking, so she has molded her thought patterns to be similar. After all the house is paid off, the kids’ college is paid for, the cars are in perfect condition with routine oil changes.

Herbert’s wife leaves every Thursday night to get her hair done at the local beauty parlor. She leaves looking the same, she comes back looking the same. But they are running low on a few things to make complete and scheduled meals with. She leaves a note asking him to run and pick up a few things.

Now, we can start writing the story.

Herbert had a bad day at work. He completed his work load on time and to perfection, as par. But today an intern started and he wore a bright red Italian tie with monkey’s on it. It was obnoxiously rebellious in his software company’s dress code. Not enough to break it, just enough to walk up to the line and laugh at it. It made Herbert think about how shocked his coworkers would be if he would wear such loud piece of rebellion.

So, Herbert heads to the store. He is buying russet potatoes, carrots, sliced deli meat, and juice when he comes across easy cheese. He stares at it, the easy cheese stares back at him.

Later that night Herbert’s wife comes home. She asks if he went to the store as she is checking the newly added contents of her refrigerator and pantry. She notices the easy cheese and becomes confused. She asks him if he bought it, seems like an odd question but it is outside of his character, he has never bought it before.

He walks over, picks it up and pops the cap off. He places it in his mouth, pushes the nozzle and lets rebellious and creamy cheese flow into his mouth.

His wife stares in awe at him, hardly believing what she is seeing.

He puts the cap back on, and walks away. A hero in his own mind and his spare time.

Partially end the insanity!

Now this might seem a little odd, it isn’t as fleshed out as it could be. This is true. Here is the kicker.

I have Herbert’s entire life mapped out in my head. Everything. Probably 15% of it will see a story. It will forever exist inside my head congregating with the other stories. Want another twist?

Herbert is a side character I would use in a completely different story about a disgruntled worker bringing a gun to work and shooting his supervisors.

This might not be the most efficient or sensible way of creating characters, but this is how I do it. Each one has their own story, their own life. I might use most of it, I might use just a snippet. The idea is to paint in such bold and broad strokes that when I lay another and often completely different story over this lives, you see them bleed through as I want you to. This, like any other method though, only works up to a point. Everybody has different experiences and will respond to things differently. I just want you to notice.

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11 thoughts on “How I Construct Characters

  1. The Herbert character and his story worked like a charm. Your mind is fantastic. The rebelious act in the form of a cheese that I could relate or any husband out there who once or twice did something similar. All in the name of freedom of any form. Cool post!

  2. taureanw says:

    That’s a gift dude. To be able to create a character so deeply and so completely mapped out. I am jealous of this ability while at the same time utterly convinced you may be clinically insane. But the insane part is for other various reasons……

  3. LOL – Love it! For some reason, I see Paul Giamatti playing him in the movie.

  4. dornefiction says:

    Nice! I admire the attention to detail, especially considering the lowered importance of the character. My characters have typically developed more organically…possibly due to laziness, but I’m not ruling anything out at this point! First I determine their mission, good, evil, their orientation towards the world at large with a little bit of history. Then I’ll do a visualization exercise, really placing myself in their footsteps and running through several scenarios and how they would react. Then I’ll do a Voice Journal Exercise and get to know them even more. After that the rest comes together as the character makes his or her way through the events of the story and I make sure there are plenty of opportunities for them to give their opinions on the world, or the situation.

  5. Two things Frank:

    1. This was a fun and surprisingly helpful view of how to create a character. While I am strangely put off by how much like Herbert I am, I still accept your character as interesting. I guess I usually end up thinking sort of the same way you do, but I’m still trying to learn how much of a character I “have” to show.

    2. I’ve always been wondering why the crap I haven’t been reading any of your posts too often. I keep checking my subscriptions and never see your stuff. This continued for a couple of months. I just thought you weren’t very big into blogging but really into commenting. Then I realized I never subscribed to your blog…. So, I’m a moron.

    Problem solved.

    • Frank Bishop says:

      There are worse people to be like than Herbert so I wouldn’t worry. How do you go about creating your characters?

      No worries, welcome aboard. You should receive a complimentary smoking jacket in the mail, sort of a thank you for joining the club.

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