Creating characters for writing can be daunting. It’s not my most favourite task in the world, but it is essential to creating a believable and relatable storyline. Since I first started my horror narrative podcast Flow, I have used the same set of characterisation techniques. Most creative writing is reliant upon a character-driven narrative. Therefore this task is something we all have to do as creative writers at some point in our process. So with this in mind, I thought I would share the techniques I use with you.
During my time as a drama student, I learned to hone my people watching skills to create characters. We were often asked to go away, sit in a public place for an hour, observe people, create lives for them, then return to class with a fully fledged character based on a person we had glimpsed. From walk right through to darkest secret, you were expected to know it all.
People watching became a way to create characters, that had real traits and relatable flaws. That person in the jumper who just walked by. What’s their full name, birthplace, favourite food, favourite music and do they have siblings? Watch how they move, act, how they carry themselves and look at how they’re dressed. Are there any clues as to their lifestyle preferences written on them? Look closely, use your imagination and write everything down as soon as you can.
Get yourself a notebook, in fact, get more than one. Digital or physical it doesn’t matter. I have 4 or 5 apps on my mobile phone for note taking. I jot things down as they occur to me on my mobile phone, then type up the notes again on my laptop later. One of my favourite apps for this on Android is Notebooks Pro, which allows you to create individual notebooks and designate them to specific tasks. You can get a free version of Notebooks Pro, but I felt it was worth paying for since this is my go-to for note taking.
When I’m writing up notes, I pay no attention to any concepts of correctness whatsoever. It’s the sort of notebook that would make an English teacher cry, filled with every spelling mistake and glaring grammatical error. I feel it is far more important for me to concern myself with writing everything down before it alludes me. After all, I’m probably going to be the only person to ever access these notes in this format, so who gives a monkey’s as to how it reads?
Again observation plays a key part in naming a character. I use Notebooks Pro on my phone to write down any names that strike me as interesting. Here, I keep lists of female, male, gender neutral and surnames. Just take a forename from one page and add a surname from another. I often find end credits on film and television a great source of inspiration. Appropriation is fine, so long as you don’t use the entire name. Let’s face it, Brad Pitt might get all lawyered up if you wrote him into your next novel.
There’s a few name generator sites and apps out there too, which can be useful. I personally avoid using the entire name that is generated, choosing to mix things together myself. The name generating app that I have currently installed on my phone is simply called Name Generator. You can download this for free for Android and it does what the title suggests, without fuss or lots of obtrusive adverts.
People are usually complex and do not normally consist of 4 character traits. However, for the point of characterisation, this is exactly what you need to do. Condense each character down to 4 main recognisable traits. Anyone needing a little help identifying character traits might find this list helpful, although not exhaustive. Choose characteristics that best exemplify your person, the first things you would think of if someone mentioned their name to you.
Those using a computer to help with this task will need a word processing program which has the ability to draw shapes. Draw a diamond shape in the middle of a new document, then add the character name to the middle of the diamond. Next write the four chosen traits down on each side of the diamond, then save and if possible export as a pdf document. You have created a character diamond. These documents can be used in the formats you have just saved as a reference guide whilst you are writing. Of course, you can also choose to make these character diamonds look a lot prettier in Photoshop.
I find the most useful way to break everything else down into readable chunks, is to create what I call character profiles. These are based on the character sheets from my RPG days. Again I recommend creating the first draft in a word processing program. The information I gather for each character is; name, age, sex, birthplace, profession, interests, likes, dislikes, family, other relationships and other facts. You can choose to use the same format as I’ve made, or mix it up with your own data as you see fit.
I choose to use Photoshop to create a finished design for this asset also, as I find it easier to read at a glance. It also looks more professional. Therefore, if you are sending out your character data to anyone, you may want to consider taking this extra step.
When writing, you will now have an easy to read, quick guide to each of your characters. This helps with character consistency in your narrative and can even provide inspiration as to how a scene should progress.
Anyone looking for more examples of characterisation can explore Flow’s Tumblr blog. If you would like to listen to my podcast you can find me on Soundcloud and iTunes. A new series of Flow is currently in production.