Let’s be honest.
Getting inspiration for character writing is hard. You only know so many people, and honestly, you can only write so many characters based off of yourself. While we can’t write the character for you, we can at least try and ease the process, and hopefully help you create interesting characters rather than generic or simple ones.
With this hope in mind, here are our five favorite techniques to get you started on creating incredible, memorable characters.
Picture from Giphy.com. Gif of Usopp from One Piece.
1. Make The Unique Aspects First, Make Them Uncommon
Here’s a practice; think of a character aspect. Picturing it? Good. Now imagine another aspect or trait that is rarely used with the first aspect. Imagine how those two would mix, write out how they mix, and there you have it, a good start to an interesting character.
That was fairly vague though, so here are a few split examples to emphasize the technique:
- A living skeleton : who loves being a skeleton.
- A high-school teen : who doesn’t want to graduate.
- A master swordsman : who wants to become a marksman.
- A bird : who lives underground.
- An intelligent AI : who wants to work with humans.
- A spy : who likes wearing flashy, identifiable clothing.
- A wizard : who is actually not that intelligent.
This list of examples was the easiest part of writing this article because it is such an easy way to get a base idea that can define a character in the future. We suggest trying to add more traits, related or not, to the character over time. They are especially effective when stacked together, so we suggest at least two or three unique traits to start a strong narrative.
(As an example, Usopp from One Piece is a coward who wants to be a brave warrior, a joke who wants to be taken seriously, a sniper who exclusively uses a slingshot, and a liar who never maliciously lies to the protagonists. We suggest watching at the Arlong Park arc, episodes 31-44, to understand how well traits are used in the show.)
Picture from Giphy.com. Gif of Saitama from One Punch Man.
2. Give Them A Unique Skill, Have It Define Them
Closely tied to the previous technique, this is worth mentioning as it can particularly create interesting characters when used in combination with other techniques. Starting by writing the ability or power first can help you build a metaphor or contextual character trait based around that ability’s unique problems and goals. Most common in superhero stories, these abilities do not need to be supernatural, as an interesting skill can both endear, and fascinate those experiencing your story, as well as define their core character.
Best described with examples, here are two characters who take similar abilities in different ways:
- Superman‘s super strength and invulnerability leads to the following character-defining line: “I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard. Always taking constant care not to break something. To break someone.” His invulnerability also causes him to question his endless fighting, as he knows he will always win, and his villains will always return, so why not just kill villains and end the people’s suffering?
- Saitama, the super-powered, invulnerable protagonist from One-Punch Man. A sort of Superman parody, he is differently defined by being underwhelmed with being a hero. He is simply too powerful to ever be truly challenged. He gave up looking for powerful opponents long ago, as his ability to simply win any fight with a single punch became his cross to bare.
Be careful not to slide into one-note stereotyping. Always make sure to add extra dimensions on top of this technique.
Picture from Giphy.com. Gif of Lacie Pound from Black Mirror, “Nosedive”.
3. Give Them A Unique Environment, Have It Define Them
While outlier characters can be fascinating, believable characters often need a believable environment to grow in; a believable cause and effect. If your story revolves around major narrative events, many individuals may base their goals or perceptions around it, so use that as a guide rather than a hindrance. Take that event and consider how that would mold a person.
Not very specific, I know, so here are two extreme examples:
- The world was split in two but will remain functional for a few more decades thanks to science. One child’s parents were on the other side of the world, leading the child to grow into a woman whose life goal is to at least make the flight to the other half, if not rejoin the halves entirely, as she never gave up hope that her parents were still out there, and that she would be able to see them, at least one more time.
- A business man, this character grows up where supplies of are dwindling, so he starts bottling and selling mostly-filtered urine to people needing cheaper water alternatives, effectively combating raising water prices. He has become rich and able to purchase natural water for himself to drink from this business.
This is probably the hardest process to explain since it requires that you already know the world of your narrative, or at least a significant plot point, before the character is created. However, if you do, then this is a good way to fill the cast of your narrative with relevant characters to the situation.
4. Find Good Example Art, Visualize Them Through It
Visually describing your character is hard. Even worse if you cannot visualize your character in the first place. By finding a photo or art piece to match the general character you have in mind, the resulting character will have a much more focused physical design.
While one of my personal favorite techniques for making characters in a hurry, as long as you are willing to redesign the character for commercial products, starting with temporary art can quickly materialize characters to start. Needless to say, this must be used with caution when used for your job. However, even if you heavily modify the design before typing a single trait, from my experience, nothing helps write a character faster than having a visual guide.
Picture from Giphy.com. Gif of Dungeons & Dragons TV Show Intro.
5. Use a Roleplaying System, Let It Do The Work
Unlike the other options on this list, this one has a prerequisite. You must have played, or at least be knowledgeable about, one or more tabletop roleplaying games. Additionally, this process tends to take the most time, but grant the largest return on investment.
Roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons are meant to simulate a living fictional world, along with the denizens and adventures within it. It should come as no surprise then that the character creation tools included with roleplaying games are fantastic writing tools. While a potentially slow process, the detailed character backgrounds, traits, and statistics of many systems give a very solid start, or finish, to any writing process. Perhaps the best use of this method though, is a context guide. A character sheet made before writing can persist as a consistent character guide until the end. Many systems even generate pocket money and equipment, and a few include mental health, non-humanoid character generation, and spirituality, among others. You can consistently and easily track difficult aspects, like long-term injuries and weapon damage, using the same sheet with which you started, which is a dream come true for writers of longer stories.
While potentially limiting, since it is just a guideline, simply adding or removing something is rarely damaging to the character or system, so give it a try!
(We suggest the Dungeons & Dragons: Player’s Handbook, 5th edition, with the Dungeon Master’s Guide available to add additions options and suggestions if needed. Fight Club 5th edition on iOS or any other tabletop character sheet app for character tracking.)
These are just some of our favorite writing techniques, and aren’t guaranteed to work for everyone, but hopefully we helped a writer or two along the way.
Have a character creation technique that works well for you? Post it in the comments below so we can all learn from it!