Ever since I entered grade school, I have been something of a writer. My first stories involved cats that could speak or fly, and while the premise was silly enough, my work was published in the school’s “young writer” publication several years running. Of course, it was a little private school so it didn’t turn any heads, but it meant a good deal to me.
From the time I was able to write, my dream has been to publish a chronicle of grand fantasy stories in the spirit of Tolkien and CS Lewis, using my faith as the foundation and my imagination as the threads of what I had hope will become a grand tapestry. I’m now thirty years old and I have gone through dozens of drafts of the same story. I’ve written and re-written key plot points, worked timelines, done map upon map, expanded lore, and even come up with a corking calendar. I’m still stuck at the gate of the race–the very first chapter. I cannot tell you how difficult it is to just start a book. I know how the stories are going to end, I know key elements, I’ve tried connecting the dots and working out a timeline, but starting is somehow worse than coming up with fake fantasy terms. This is my greatest weakness, so I won’t be focusing on that. Any writer worth their salt will tell you that starting is the hardest part. I can’t help you in that. I can’t help myself, but I can offer advice in the one area that I am frequently applauded on: character creation.
The most generic of stories can be made into something great or something absolutely forgettable on the shoulders of the characters within them. We don’t read stories because we can relate to a world with seven moons in the sky or dragons that speak into the minds of the magically-inclined humans. The reason we love any medium of storytelling, be it the written word or the plays on a big screen, is the characters that we learn to love and hate. Let’s be honest: Harry Potter is nothing special story-wise. The concept of a magical school with internal struggle and secret worlds isn’t exactly something new. Earthsea did it, the Kingkiller Chronicles did it, on and on. What drew people into the books was the characters. While I cannot call myself a fan of the Harry Potter series in any regard, I can understand why people love the stories. So for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWrMo), I’m going to share my personal process for creating characters. Hopefully it will help some of you struggling writers out there or at least shed a little insight on the creative process behind the characters that we appreciate.
Starting out, you’ll want to create a template for your character. In art, this is called a “study.” You make some rough, crude lines on a paper in the generic shape of a figure. The details, clothing, eye color, etc. all come in later. First you need the bare bones of an idea before you can start working in the details. In writing, this is called an archetype. Archetypes are fantastic starting points for creating a character because it gives you a foundation to build off of.
There are twelve common archetypes: the innocent, the orphan, the warrior, the caregiver, the seeker, the lover, the destroyer, the creator, the ruler, the magician, the sage, and the fool. There are others, and many writers will contest that some are very similar to others while others writers will say there’s more than just the basic twelve–but they’ll do well enough as a starting point. Each of the templates gives a basic foundation to start building your character from, and we can see these archetypes everywhere in current media. Some characters represent multiple archetypes or can grow from one into another.
For example, Link from the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, starts out as the orphan. His goal is to find some sense of security–and that’s made clear in the start of the game. His community torments him, he’s confused as to his place in the world, and he really has no place where he can go to feel completely welcome. He fears exploration because he clings desperately to what he does have and what he does know. He’s plagued by nightmares of a coming darkness to the point where he finds himself exhausted, sleeping well into the afternoon. His gifts are interdependence–which comes out when he finally receives a fairy of his own–and realism, as he shows when he does what needs to be done regardless of what he, or anyone else, feels about it. He’s told he needs to leave the wood, but he’s fearful to do so. The reality is: he has to, so he does.
Link then grows out of the orphan archetype into the role of the seeker when he is tasked by Zelda to obtain the three spiritual stones and open the way into the sacred realm. He’s seeking the stones, yes, but this is his first time out in the world beyond his forest. Out here, Link is learning to find his place in the world. His gifts are autonomy and ambition. When Link opens the Sacred Realm and ages into an adult, his efforts as a child having only accomplished the ends of Ganon, he transforms into the warrior. Here, his goal is to defeat the evil by confrontation. He then holds the virtue of Courage, which carries obvious symbolic meaning, and discipline, as he has seen what reckless actions can do without the insight behind them. This transformation from one archetype to a final archetype is known as the “hero’s journey,” and most works’ stories revolve around the personal journey of the character with the journey of the quest as co-pilot.
In writing your character, you need to figure out where they start. The archetype can help you get a guideline, but once you lay down the basic shapes of who your character is, you need to start working in the details. Backstory is huge, as we are all products of our past. Think of little details like family dynamics, strange personality quirks, an experience that shaped or destroyed the character’s vision of the world, and what they wanted in life before their first appearance in the story.
Another very important factor of character creation is balance. It’s important that, for every strength or power that your character has, they have an equal weakness or vulnerability that balances them out. Let’s face it, no one wants to read about a character that’s flawless. In the writing world, we have names for these sorts–Mary-Sues and Gary-Stu’s. These characters are attractive, strong, smart, popular, wealthy, and possess abilities that will always see them through every situation without having to sacrifice anything. It strips the humanity away from the character and gives the reader nothing to relate to. Characters without flaws have nothing at stake because they’re always going to come out on top.
One famous example of this is Superman. Granted, Superman has his fans, but in the end even the most die-hard DC fan can admit that Superman is stupidly over-powered. The man can fly into the sun without a scratch, reverse time by flying around the world, and aside from a magical rock from a world light years away that’s harder to come by than a good Disney sequel, he has no weaknesses. This dishonorable slot also belongs to the infamous main character of the Twilight Series, Bella. Essentially, Bella is the prettiest girl in school that hits it off with everyone right away, gets the hottest guy at the school, apparently has something that vampires cannot resist, and who’s biggest conflict is if she’s secretly into werewolves instead of vampires. Bella has the personality of a paper cup.
Gary and Mary are characters that are written for a very specific group: those who wish to insert themselves into the skin of perfection and prance around in a trouble-free world. There is a market for this sort, but they are admittedly a fringe of the writing community and most bland characters won’t live to see the flickering, fluorescent bulbs of a publisher’s desk.
Characters go through a journey within as much as they do without, and without the inner-core journey, the journey on the outside can easily fall flat. Even unbearable characters who are selfish, stingy, and whiny can grow through the course of a journey into someone truly admirable. In a lot of the strongest stories, the hero must overcome themselves before they are strong enough to face the challenge ahead–be it a maniac laughing on a pile of bodies or the abusive father lurking in a warehouse.
The hero’s internal journey serves as a way for the reader to get into the head of even the most stoic and closed-off of heroes. We read their thoughts, experience their inner conflicts and pain through their eyes so that we grow attached to them. This is why, when the axe meets the grindstone, we are glued to our books, huddled up under blankets, nearly sweating through the pages to see if our hero will come out. We’re invested in their struggle. We know their weaknesses, while their foe may not. We have walked beside them every step of the way.
I may not be able to get my book off the ground yet, but I know I often cling onto my fellow writers who can offer their strengths to fortify my weaknesses. If you’re a writer, I hope that I’ve helped fuel you a little. Even the most generic story can become great if we’re walking beside a character that we’ve grown close to. Pay attention to your characters, give them life, and know that your readers can handle just about anything that your character can.
Remember, also, that God is the ultimate author, the Master of all artists, and the Composer of the greatest score the universe has ever known. It’s from him that all beauty and creativity flows. When all else fails, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to find a quiet place and listen to the story that God wants you to tell. You might just find the inspiration you seek.
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