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How to make a Character (because I've been holding back my process for too long)

#Creative Writing #Character Design #Character Development

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#1
Eshai

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So if you're here, you've probably made a character, rather drawing them, writing a character description (probably you D&D players), and perhaps even both. Some of you may be wondering if there is a right/wrong way of doing this. I have ideas, but these are theories crafted by my own experiences. 

 

This is more for if you're forming a character for a story. It does work for casually made characters as well, but tbh those with any character description should have enough depth. 

 

0. NOT THE NAME.

If you think that the name is important, it isn’t, at least in the beginning of a character’s creation. Names don’t really define who people are. You could’ve been named John, Marty, Sarah, Sue, or something else and it wouldn’t have affected your character unless the name is important in context in some way, like royalty, nationality, or gender.

 

1. Theme and Setting

Sometimes this is easy, like in High School Anime, where you just slap magic on it and shove it in Crunchyroll's face. Sometimes it's a more character driven story in the modern world, so Setting is just where they live and Theme is whatever you want. Sometimes you're Made in Abyss, Ender's Game, Hunter x Hunter, Lord of the Rings, or Dark Souls and have an entire setting you built using your imagination. This depends on how you want your audience to feel when reading your story. You may have several feelings you want to express through the story, but typically well themed storytelling has a single feeling that’s capitalized on, like optimism in My Hero Academia, family in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and immaturity and community in Lord of the Flies. This will probably define everyone involved in the story, whether the character’s promote, feel, or foil the ideals of the theme you decide on.

 

2a. Stereotypes

*Insert the SJW mob here

But the title “SJW” is a prime example of stereotyping. The acronym has different reactions from different people, whether they believe in the seraphs of equality or an over the top group of witch-hunters causing more trouble than they're worth. Couple questions to ask yourself about your character in relation to their world:

  • How do people see your character?

  • What might people infer about your character from an outside perspective?

  • How might they abide by or reject these stereotypes?

  • How do they interact with the stereotypes given to them?

This is the first half of developing the core to the character.

 

2b. Personality

This is the more factual interpretation of the character, typically not fully understood until the end of the story. While Stereotypes are more reactive to the Themes/Setting, the Personality is more innate, typically ingrained in themselves from very early in their life. It can be a smart idea to reference how your character has developed their Personality with back story, but probably pace it with the plot so it doesn’t feel ham-fisted. Some people might just name off a couple traits for the personality, but if you’re cool, it’s a good idea to dig a bit deeper. Here are a couple ideas to get your imagination going:

  • Take a couple Personality Tests roleplaying as your character. Myers Briggs is fine, but there are a couple other valid options. However, do not take the personality descriptions as fact. This is used to further your understanding of your character and  fill a couple gaps in your characterization you may have had, not be your character word for word..

  • Get a couple controversial questions together to interview your character. Maybe find 20-30 questions they can answer somehow. These could be politically controversial, but you could also have them more as if in their hobbies or workplace. These answers will probably be more rooted to your character’s experiential biases, so make sure your character acts according to the theme/setting.

 

3a. Morals

These can be defined as rules placed on one's self, rather for convenience or personal reasons. This can be as simple as obeying the law and not killing people, or it can even be something like not getting in the way of other people as a response to anxiety. Although usually it's "never give up" because how else are you going to get a character to move the plot forward if not just making them do it for the sake of doing it?

 

3b. Motives

What drives your character to act, and how does their Motives conflict with their Morals? Most of the time character motives are simple and agree with their morals, but it’s always really interesting when that doesn’t happen. Fullmetal Alchemist has this in spades within the first couple of episodes when they figure out what a philosopher stone is made out of (if you don’t know, Watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) Sometimes the climax can have to do with a compromise or an alternate solution, or them realizing their wrong and do what they can to correct themselves.

 

4. Quirks

While this might be a direct refence from My Hero Academia, you could actually include Quirks here. This is just misc. stuff about your character, like hobbies, talents, faults, weaknesses, tendencies, etc that are meant to ground the characters in your world, and further humanize them. Humanization is complex, but it's important if you ever want your audience to ever actually care about your character. Unless your character is One Punch Man, at least include 1 relevant weakness so conflict can arise in one way or another. While it isn't strictly necessary, it can help beginners. I will say it has to be something that can actually screw your character over, since a time limit on their power level isn't going to matter from a meta perspective unless it's a very short duration or your character actually runs out of it mid battle (see Digibro's Asterisk War Sucks videos for further details).

 

5. Appearance (Artists you can go nuts now)

Knowing all you know now about your character, how would your character express themselves in their place in the world? You can be annoying and make the anime typical high school uniform, but you can also make them look cool like in My Hero Academia, Mob Psycho 100, Kill la Kill, Code Geass, or Toradora (you thought I only watched Shonen didn't you?) In other settings your characters are probably not forced to wear particular kinds of clothes, so this will probably be up to them. How and why would your character choose what in particular to wear? This can be as simple as "my Mom bought it" or "it was my last piece of clean clothes" and that probably says a lot about the character to begin with, but you can also add some deep meaning, like a tragic event or some memory that makes them treasure that trinket their wearing. You could also say "because they thought it looked cool" but it's a rule you have to get that character in a position to say those words exactly. Otherwise there isn't a reason.

 

6. NOW YOU CAN DO THE NAME

Happy? Knowing what you know, do something cool with it. Maybe give some insight on a race you made by making a weird sounding name, or make it a pun if you're going for more of a comedy. You could reference a mythological or historical figure, but that'll probably be for more moral based stories, unless said figures are involved in their parents lives or actually existing in the story.

Knowing what you know now I hope you can use this to improve your character creations (I'm not calling them OCs because the name is the opposite in societal context of what it's actually supposed to mean. Stop calling them that.) Please comment if you have any questions, ideas, suggestions, or, y'know, comments on the process. This took me awhile so I'd like to hear your thoughts.

 

 

Knowing what you know now I hope you can use this to improve your character creations (I'm not calling them OCs because the name is the opposite in societal context of what it's actually supposed to mean. Stop calling them that.) Please comment if you have any questions, ideas, suggestions, or, y'know, comments on the process. This took me awhile so I'd like to hear your thoughts.


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#2
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I have to disagree about the name. Well. At least I have to say you didn't elaborate on the actual importance of the name. It's not necessarily the first thing you need to do but it is something you need to put thought into.

 

You're right in saying that any kind of name can make for a good character but the important thing to remember is that the people reading will have certain expectations given the name is often one of the early things you find out and is something usually said multiple times.

If you're in a modern world and give a character an ethic name but they are not of that ethnicity it will throw people off and break submersion. Similarly for way too modern names in a fantasy setting or vice verse.

 

You have to think about the readers when giving a name. They'll get certain ideas in their head and, while it's nice to subvert these thoughts, it's not a good choice to completely forgo thinking about what people will think when they read the name.

For an extreme example. Something like Butch or Clint gives off a tough guy vibe. Sure you can give your science nerd a name like that but it's a risky move. I'm not saying all nerds have to be named the same three names, and in fact it's bad to go too cliche, but taking a name that is so heavily thought of as one thing and giving it to another has an off-putting effect.

 

Now there ARE times when this is fine. The classic "give the strong scary guy a name like Tiny or Terrance" comes to mind. But that's usually reserved for either nicknames or a one-off joke.


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#3
Catterjune

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I have to disagree about the name.


Agreed, though I don't know if I can really talk about names considering all my characters for anything I've ever written have been stupid jokes.

If you give someone a name people are gonna have stereotypes in mind. If I say "Gertrude", you're gonna picture a little old granny. If I say "Becky" you might imagine a teenager whereas if I say "Rebecca" you might imagine an adult. If you want an adult to seem younger, you'd give them a nickname.

Secondly, a name can also instill an emotion. Would you really root for a guy named "John Hitler" or someone named "Nancy Poopface"? I mean, extreme examples of course but people react differently to different types of names and it's important to recognize so you can elicit the right emotional response from your audience. When I first read "Longbottom" in Harry Potter I thought "this guy's gonna be a real doofus!" and anytime I read "Hermione" I thought "wow, this girl's gonna be super pedantic and overly corrective cause I bet she had to correct people on the pronunciation of her name all the time" and for the most part I was right.

There's nothing wrong with playing with stereotypes, as long as you recognize what you're doing.


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#4
Eshai

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I was more implying that the name shouldn't be done first despite what we habitually do. The steps prior to it typically give you a good idea of what kind of name your characters are going to have, so I figure that part of name conception would be done there. I was just making it clear that there's a time and place, and that isn't the beginning of conception.

 

There will be edits though, since it was late at night and edits will always be a part of the writing process. I think I'm going to make my points and opinions a bit more clear, and probably add some examples that aren't from video games or anime, since that might come off the wrong way from another kind of perspective.

 

EDIT: Edits completed for now


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#5
Catterjune

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I was more implying that the name shouldn't be done first despite what we habitually do.

 

And I'm saying you're wrong. There's a reason people habitually do it. Heck, I'm sure your mom and dad already had a whole bunch of names in mind before they named you. And even if you do happen to change your mind as you think about your story more, there's nothing saying you've couldn't go back and rename your character after giving it some thought.

For my sake, I prefer to get names down as early as possible because I don't like just saying "the girl" "the detective" "the hero" "the villain" when I'm discussing or thinking about my story unless there's a reason or a stylistic choice behind it. Maybe it's a tough gangster who goes by a tough gangster nickname? Maybe there's legal or technical reasons behind it? For example, Yugi Moto is a person that exists in my fanfic however if they ever have to talk about him they just refer to him as The King of Games because the story, while taking place in the same universe, is far enough away from the established Yugioh-verse I don't really want to allude to it.

In any case, once I have a name I begin thinking about their parents. What were they like? Why did they name their kid whatever it is they named them? John's kind of a regular name. Maybe his parents were boring whitebread folks? That then leads me to imagine what kind of childhood he would have. Boring, whitebread, run of the mill, plain, those kinds of things.

Yet if I named my character Xavier or Zachariel oe something less common, I'd imagine his parents would be a bit more outgoing. What kind of childhood would they have for little Xavier or Zach?

And then if none of it makes sense... I go back and rename them. I'm not married to the first idea that pops into my mind. That's how I typically create characters anyway.


BUT ANYWAY!

I had an idea. Since this is a place where we critique fiction, let's go ahead and do that to this guide too:

1. Theme and Setting

Why are you including themes and setting in a guide called How To Make a Character? I would assume the theme and setting get hammered out elsewhere.

Secondly, and more importantly, the guide here is pretty bland and generic. "How do you want your audience to feel?" is a good question. But then you don't really answer the obvious question of "how exactly do I do that?"

My Hero Academia is all about optimism... okay, but how? I've never seen it so I can't compare it to what you say.

Guardians of the Galaxy, again, something I've never seen. Can't really comment on it.

I once wrote in a fanfic (paraphrasing) "The class room was arranged like an ampitheater. If you don't know what an ampitheater is that's too bad because it's the only description you're gonna get." It was meant to be a joke, but this is meant to be a guide, yet I'm kinda feeling like you're doing that joke on me. "My Hero Academia is all about optimism. If you haven't seen the show that's too bad because it's all I'm gonna say about it."

I've read Lord of Flies, and the fact that you think you can summarize it in two words is laughable. But even then, 'immaturity and community'. Okay, WHAT ABOUT THEM? Is the concept of immaturity a good thing or a bad thing? Is the concept of community a good thing or a bad thing? What drove you to those conclusions?

To make a long story short:

a) This section doesn't really need to be here because it provides no advice on making a good character
b) This section is also just stupid and bad. "You want to make them feel something! Also, here's some examples of anime and how they made me feel one word about them!"


2a. Stereotypes

I was gonna do kinda like a point-by-point rebuttal, but people who do that are being disingenuous to the work as whole. I'd prefer to grade this whole section as a section itself instead of "Question A is stupid because blank." "Question B is stupid because blank."

- How do people see your character?
- What might people infer about your character from an outside perspective?
- How might they abide by or reject these stereotypes?
- How do they interact with the stereotypes given to them?

Your four questions can be summed up into just two shorter ones:

a) what do other people think of your character?
b) What does your character think of themselves?

And while it's a good starting point, it's JUST a starting point. What they feel is a good way to get it down, but WHY they feel the way they do, that's the crux of it all.

"This girl is popular."

Okay, but why?

"She's very pretty and she has a lot of money, which means she can afford to have big crazy parties where everyone has fun. However deep down inside she worries if she became all ugly or if she lost all her money she'd lose all her friends."

"This boy is nerdy."

Okay, but why?

"Growing up his parents were quite poor so he had no moey for video games and TV. Instead as a kidhe went to the library, which is free, and spent hours and hours reading. He wants to get a good job after graduating and etc etc"

Yeah, they're boring plain kinda one sentence wonders. But they provide more info then just answering "how do people see them" and "how do they see themselves"

2b. Personality

I'm of the mind that there's three or more different types of "personalities". The way you are between strangers, the way you are between people you know, and the way you are when you're all alone. Instead of sucking Meyers Briggs dick or taking an OKCupid test, imagine what your character acts like among other people or when placed in certain situations, because 99% of the time, that's what your fanfic will end up being.

Don't get me wrong. Certain high level writers may be able to pull a convincing story without any interaction between characters but you're reading this off YuGiOh Card Maker Forum. Odds are pretty high you're not the next William Shakespeare so cool your jets there Hemmingway.

SInce your story will likely be a multitide of people talking, interacting, and involved in silly scenarios, start by imagining THAT. It does you no good to imagine "my character finds it difficult to introduce themselves to people" and then stick to it 100% like it's gospel. People aren't that simple. Instead imagine it as "the main character just saw a girl at a bar that he thought was very cute. Would he introduce himself? What would the consequences to the story be if he did not meet her? What would it take to get him to say hello?"

3a. Morals

Again, I believe morality is relative. Killing someone is bad. But what if killing someone could save a life? What if it could save a hundred lives? What if the person being killed actively wanted to die because they were in terrible agony? What if it wasn't 'pulling the trigger' or 'stabbing the knife' but just making a decision that you believed would end a life? There's a lot of moral gray area and I wouldn't say hard and fast 'they wouldn't kill anyone!' because then you open up a can of worms as 'what do they define as killing someone?'

This is why I prefer to define my characters in situations. Instead of "John never kills" it's more like "John would probably kill someone if it meant protecting his wife and kids from death, but it depends on various other situations." There's other things that could change my answer. What if his mom was brainwashed by aliens to kill his wife and kids? What if his wife and kids were turned into zombies and there was no hope of recovering them and he had a pistol? There's no point in asking stupid questions about morals, because your character will never be asked about their morals. Focus instead on situations, since that is what your story will likely be, a collection of situations.

3b. Motives

"If you don't know what Fullmetal Alchemist is, that's too bad because it's the only example you get."

Again, I prefer imagining it as 'situations' over morals and motives. Defining them first though is a bad move. When you grew up you probably wanted to be an astronaut or a firefighter or a king or something. But then as you grew up you probably changed this over time. That's perfectly acceptable to change as the story goes. This guide seems to state that once you define something it can't be changed, but slightly worse than that when you do get into conflicts it doesn't give you the tools to resolve them.

"What happens when motives and morals are at a crossroads?"

"... It's really interesting!"

Like, yeah thanks a lot for that Siskel and Ebert. I know the audience finds it entertaining. But how AS A WRITER do I solve these quandries?

What I recommend for writers seeing themselves in a predicament like that, write out simple scenarios and imagine where they might go.

Conflict: A man has just pulled a gun on John, Mary and Timmy and says he will kill them if they don't hand over all their money.

Solution A: They hand over their money. They live in fear for a bit but eventually get over it.
Solution B: John fights back, wins - non-lethal. He becomes a big hero.
Solution C: John fights back, wins - lethal. He kills the mugger but is left with PTSD.
Solution D: John fights back, loses - non-lethal. His wife and kid are beaten but still alive. They all move out of town and live in fear forever.
Scenario E: John fights back, loses - lethal. His family dies. He has nothing left to live for. John becomes Batman.

And just kinda go down this rabbit hole, see which is the most interesting idea. If you realize halfway into it that an idea won't go anywhere or it's just stupid and contrary to what you've been building up so far, don't be afraid to drop it.

So that's my tip really. THINK about not just "a solution" but come up with "all possible solutions" for this dilemma, and don't be afraid to drop ideas you think are bad.

4. Quirks

I don't think it's enough to say "throw in a quirk!" Instead imagine it as WHY do they have this quirk.

She's a normal student, so why did she take up painting? When she was little she stared at a solar eclipse and it scarred her eyes. The doctors were able to save her vision, but for those six months she couldn't see a thing. She doesn't ever want anything to be forgotten so by putting it onto paper it kinda makes it more important. That big tree in the park is being cut down tomorrow, but this painting of the tree will still be there long after it's gone.

5. Appearance

I kinda don't like to pigeonhold my characters into a certain exact way that they look. I imagine them as just generic ordinary unassuming people, and I base their lives and their scenarios off of that. "What would a normal person living in a major city do in this situation?" or "what type of situation and past events would cause them to be a happy upbeat girl? What would make them a womanizing young man?" and so on.

For the longest time, I didn't described anyone in my fanfic other than gender and how tall they were. The main reason was, nothing changes depending on what they wear or what they look like.

If my character is a happy and upbeat girl, it doesn't matter if she has brown hair with brown eyes or blonde hair with blue eyes. She'd still be happy and upbeat regardless.

I had a character that was described as the most beautiful woman in the world... and I didn't physically describe her at all. The importance was placed on how she made the other characters feel instead of what she physically looked like.

To sum it up, appearance is not that important.

Emma Watson played Hermione Granger for about 8 years and she's white. Noma Dumezweni played Hermione Granger in The Cursed Child and she's black.

6. NOW YOU CAN DO THE NAME

I kinda answered this on top so I won't do it again. I could instead give my process for creating a character but it's probably much more boring then yours.

a) I begin with a generic kinda plain character and just apply all the generic labels. This is also where I usually come up with their name. As stated earlier, I believe there's three types of personalities. How they are with strangers, how they are with friends, and how they are in private. Because we, the audience, are technically strangers to this person all we see of them are the quick labels when we first meet them.

b) As we become "friends" with the character, more quirks and more of their personality comes through. Their personality is developed as I write, usually not too much beforehand, and again it's usually developed in a "situation" type of way. If I have an end goal already set up (and I do, it's the generic labels I put when I first started) my next step is to find out how they got to that position and set it up as their history.

c) As the story continues we get to their "private" life and have more intimate moments with the character. They're pushed to the limits of what we thought they could do. We see what really makes them tick, what their morals and motivations are, and ultimately what it would take for them to betray either of them. As the situation in the story escalates, they grow and change and evolve.
 
To sum up my critique of this guide:
 
Your character creation guide is boring, underdeveloped, and generic. It gives some okay ideas, but doesn't go far enough in some points and it just namedrops animes like I'm supposed to know who they are. It's a bad guide and I'm pretty certain nobody reading it going to come out of it having a better understanding of their character.


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#6
MewMew1989

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I was thinking of putting my two cents in, using the three most important characters in my Yugioh fanfics as examples, but it's very long and detailed. If you want massive TL;DR just holler.


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#7
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I'd like to disagree with point one. You can incorporate the name of a character into various aspects of their culture or upbringing. For example, perhaps someone's father is Italian while their mother is Cambodian, so while the child is mixed race, the parents decide upon the name "Lorenzo" while "Valentino" is the inherited family name, so it's an Asian with an Italian name. This can amplify the reality of a story, if needed.

I somewhat agree with point two because you are correct in that the setting plays an important role in making readers feel something. Dorian Gray uses flowery imagery in the very beginning to promote the theme of hedonism, while Fahrenheit 451 has an air of suspicion and secrecy to it—because of the cityscape and the mannerisms implied by it—that sort of behooves the reader to keep Montag's secrets as well.

I won't argue on anything else since it's late and I don't want to stir up too much trouble.

I think for me, personally, I'm so in-tune with my characters that I pretty much just assume that everyone who reads about them will totally know what I mean, and I don't want to talk to people like they're stupid. Maybe there's an in-between for "Show don't tell" and "Explain more"

Also, lol, Yugi Moto
https://forum.yugioh...time-card-wars/

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#8
MewMew1989

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I wasn't thinking of Yugi, but he is a fine character nonetheless.  


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#9
Eshai

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Catterjune! This got long so I put everything into spoiler folders. Should be pretty clear. 

Initial Statement
Theme and Setting
2a. Stereotypes
2b. Personality
3a. Morals
3b. Motives
4. Quirks
5. Appearance
6. NOW YOU CAN DO THE NAME

 

Hope this addresses most of your of your concerns, but it's a long read so do what you will. This was long so if there was anywhere I got a bit annoyed just ignore it if it feels personal.

 

MewMew anything constructive helps. This is only a Rough Draft of an ordered process, so go nuts if you think it'll help. Tbh I just want to find the "right" or "best" way of doing this.


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#10
MewMew1989

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Oh right, I can use spoilers! YAY!

 

I will describe my principles, then use my three central characters as examples, as I have thoroughly developed them over the years, so they (hopefully) make instructive examples, since examples are good chances to illustrate a point. This is also a chance to tweak my characters and instruct myself. I develop my characters through no real order as they "grow" within me spontaneously, but I do put certain principles above others. The order is not set in stone, especially not for the first and second principles, but this is the general way I try to follow these days.

 

Notice how I won't mention Yugioh a single time despite them technically being Yugioh characters. Mr. Plinkett devised a little test for characters when reviewing Star Wars Episode I: describe a character without mentioning how they look like, what do they dress, their job, or anything related to Star Wars. If a character is strong and well-done (like Han Solo or C3-PO), then you should describe them thoroughly. If a character is weak (like Qui-Gon Jinn or Padme) then describing them will be hard as there will be little substance to grasp. I tried to follow this test as best I can.

 

The most important principle is the character's "heart": the fundamental role(s) they play in the story.

 

Second principle, is the character's motives and struggles that, in turn, mold the plot of the entire story, or at least a character's arc.
 

Third principle, personality traits, including little quirks and relatable aspects.

 

Fourth principle, appearance.
       

Fifth principle, names.
 


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