The Zero-Fuckery Quick-Create Guide To Kick-Ass Characters (And All The Crazy Plot Stuff That Surrounds ‘Em)
When writers are tasked with creating characters, we are told to try these character exercises that entreat us to answer rather mad questions about them: hair color, eye color, toe length, nipple hue, former job, phone number of former job supervisor, what she had for lunch, if she were a piece of Ikea furniture what piece would she be (“Billy bookcase! NO WAIT, A SKJARNNGFLONG LINGONBERRY-FLAVORED COCKTAIL TRAY”). And so on and so forth.
Most of these are, of course, abject badger-shite.
They get you as close to creating a strong, well-realized and interesting character as jumping off your roof with a blankie on your back gets you to flying.
And yet, I am frequently emailed (or in the old English, ymailt) about how one creates good characters on the fly. The short answer to that is, mostly, you don’t. Characters are not a fast soup — they’re a long-bubbling broth developing flavors the longer you think about them and, more importantly, the more you write about them. (Which one assumes is the point of the inane questions asked by many character exercises, which would be a noble effort if those questions were not so frequently concerned with details and decisions that will never have anything to do with your character, your story, or your world.)
Just the same, I decided to slap on the ol’ thinking-cap (seriously, it’s really old and gross and I think a guy died in this hat) to come up a quick springboard that should get your head around a character quickly, efficiently and creatively. Note that this isn’t a system I generally use as yet — it’s me noodling on things. Just putting it out there for you all to fold, spindle, and mutilate. Especially what with NaNoWriMo right around the bend, right? Right.
Let’s do this.
The Character Logline:
Right up front, I want you to identify who the character is. And you’re going to do it in a very brief way, the same way you would conjure a logline (or “elevator pitch”) for your story at hand. You will identify this character in the same space allowed for a single tweet — so, 140 characters.
If you need help, try writing a few character loglines for pre-existing characters from other storyworlds — “Dexter Morgan is a serial killer with a code of honor hiding in plain sight among the officers of the Miami Police Department.” Or “Boba Fett is an inept bounty hunter in Mandalorian battle armor who sucks a lot at his job and gets eaten by a giant dusty desert sphincter.” Whatever. (Want practice? describe a few well-known characters in the comments.)
Right up front, the character has a problem. A character’s problem is why the character exists in this storyworld, and this problem helps generate plot (plot, after all, is Soylent Green — it is made of people). Identify the problem. Shorter is again better (and note that you may have inadvertently identified the problem in the logline above, which is not only fine, but awesome).
Problems could be anything that defines the character’s journey: “Hunted by an unkillable star beast;” “Can’t get it up in bed;” “Trapped in an alternate dimension and unable to get home;” “Pursued by chimpanzee crime syndicate;” “Lost child in divorce;” “Life’s worth stolen by dirigible-dwelling pirate-folk;” “Can’t find gluten-free muffins in this goddamn city.”
If you take John McClane from Die Hard, his problem isn’t really the terrorists — not as a character problem. The terrorists are a plot problem, but we’ll get to that in a second. John’s actual problem is his separation from his wife. That’s his issue. That’s what drives him.
Buffy Summers is a character who wants to be a normal teen, but isn’t.
The problem is why we’re here. It’s why we’re watching this character, right now.
The character will also have a proposed solution to that problem. I’m not talking about You The Storyteller solving the problem. I’m talking about what the character thinks is or should be the solution. A solution that, in fact, the character will pursue at the start of the story.
The character who is hunted by he unkillable star beast, well, she may decide that she has to escape to the fringes of the universe where her soul can be remade in the Nebula Forge, which she believes is the only way to throw off the scent.
The character who can’t find gluten-free muffins is going to try to bake her own. (THE FOOL!)
John McClane’s solution to his separation is to fly all the way out to LA from NY and reconnect with his wife at her office Christmas party.
If we are to assume that Dexter Morgan’s problem is: “Dexter is a secret serial killer,” his solution is to “hide in plain sight in Miami Metro PD.” (One might suggest that it his solution is to “cleave to a code of honor that forces him to kill only criminals,” but I think that’s something else — and I’ll get there in a minute, I promise, cool your testes-and-or-teats, Doctor Impatience.)
The Conflict Between:
In between a character’s problem and solution is a wonderful tract of jagged, dangerous landscape called HOLY SHIT, CONFLICT.
Or, if you’d prefer, it’s less a landscape and more a GIANT SPIKY WALL. Or a gauntless of FISTS AND KNIVES AND BLUDGEONING STICKS. Or whatever image gets you to grasp the perilous potential between points A (problem) and Z (solution).
It’s possible that this space is practically auto-generated, that the conflict writes itself as a product of the problem -> solution dichotomy. With Dexter, his problem is being a serial killer, and his solution is to embed himself in Miami PD. That conjures an immediate and easy-to-imagine conflict. Serial killer? Working for the police? Easy to see the conflict there. (I haven’t seen the last two seasons, but my understanding is they failed to capitalize on this great conflict.)
John McClane’s problem and solution auto-generate conflicts that don’t really fit in the context of an action movie. And so the writers created a kick-ass external conflict — in this case, THE INEPTITUDE OF THE LOCAL POLICE AND FBI. Oh, and also, some dude named Hans Gruber?
But even external conflicts are key to the character — the conflict born in the gulf between McClane’s problem and his solution is still one that demands the best efforts of his cop nature. The writers didn’t give him a love triangle, or a cantankerous mother-in-law, or a stuck pickle jar. He’s a bad-ass dude with a gun and a badge and no shoes and so they gave him a gaggle of terrorists. (More on his unfixable undeterred cop nature in a few.)
Ultimately, try to mine the rich, loamy, ruby-laden earth between what the character wants and what the character cannot have.
A limitation is generally internal — meaning, it’s something within the character that exists as part of their nature. This limitation hobbles them in some way, altering their problem/solution dichotomy (which we could ostensibly call “the mission”).
Remember how I was talking about Dexter’s “code of honor?” I consider this a limitation to his character — we the audience would perceive that as a strength but to Dexter, it’s also a limitation. It puts a limit on his role as a serial killer and thus creates not only a deeper character, but also offers new plot angles and opportunities for tension.
Limitations are traits of the character’s that get in her way — they might be flaws or frailties but they can just as easily be positive traits that make trouble for the character and the plot. You might say that Buffy’s limitations were her age, her immaturity, and her emotional entanglements with problematic boyfriends (seriously, Buffy, what’s with the choice in dudes?).
Complications tend to be external — they are entanglements outside the character that complicate their lives. These can be more character-based or more plot-based depending on which aspect of the story you’re working. John McClane’s job is a character complication — he’s married more to the job than he is to his wife, which is what leads to the problem, which demands a solution, which opens the door for conflict. And the conflict is further complicated by his intensely cop-flavored demeanor, because he just can’t let this thing go. He throws himself into danger again and again not just because his wife is in the building, but because this is who he is. Shoeless and largely alone, all he is is pure, unmitigated yippie-kay-ay cowboy copper.
(And of course the rub is, a character’s limitations and complications are also the things that may help them succeed in their mission even while still causing them grave disorder.)
Short but sweet: what does the character fear most? Death. Love. Disease. Losing one’s best friend. Bees. Toddlers. Chimpanzees with clown makeup. Lady Gaga. Whatever. It’s useful to identify the character’s fear — meaning, the thing they most don’t want to encounter or see happen — because you’re the storyteller, and you’re cruel, and now you have this Awful Thing in your pocket. And whenever you want, you can bring the Awful Thing out of its demon-box and harangue the character with it to see which way she jumps.
Description for characters is overrated — again, a lot of these character exercises seem hell-bent to have you figure out their eyebrow color and genital measurements and other useless metrics. That said, I do think a little description is good, and here’s what you’re going to do:
Write a description. Keep it to 100 words. Less if you can manage (once again consider the 140-character limitation). Do not hit all the bases. Do not try to stat them up like a fucking baseball player. Listen, when you look at someone, you take away a visual thumbprint of that person — it’s pushed hard into the clay of your memory. You don’t remember every little detail or aspect. Rather, you remember them as, that gangly Lurch motherfucker with the flat-top hair-do and the lips like grave-worms, or, that woman shaped like a butternut squash with the frock that smelled like cigarettes and old terriers.
A short, sharp shock of character description. And a tip on description: writers are best describing things that break the status quo, that violate our expectations. In other words, find the things that make the character visually unique, interesting, odd, curious — different. Cleave to those.
The Test Drive:
The character’s voice and behavior is still a bit alien to you at this point — conjuring all these details and entanglements still doesn’t let you zip into their skin and grab their vocal chords like a flight stick in order to pilot them around (suddenly I’m getting a really weird narrative Pacific Rim metaphor and I must like it a lot because I think I have a boner — what shut up it’s a metaphorical boner jeez you people you’re so Puritanical with your “ew he’s talking about boners again”). So, my advice is:
Take ’em for a test drive. Said it before, will say it again: write a thousand-word piece of flash fiction with Your Brand New Shiny Character in the starring role. Drive him around. Ding him up. Challenge him! Force him to talk to other characters: an obstinate cab driver, a belligerent cop, a drunken orangutan. Give him a new problem or one related to the character explicitly.
Let ’em speak. Let ’em act. See what they do when you get behind the wheel.
Inhabit the character.
And you may come away with new material you want to use in a longer work.
Rewrite The Logline:
All that’s said and done?
Rewrite the original logline.
Sharpen it like a fucking stake you’re gonna stick into a vampire’s chesty bits.
The reason you’re rewriting is:
a) Because your idea of the character may have changed a little or a lot through this whole process so, best to revisit and revamp accordingly.
b) Because you better get used to revision and tweaking things — plots, characters, sentences — to hone them into molecule-splitting story-razors.
And That’s That
That’s it. A quick path through character creation in what hopefully distills that character down to his or her bare quintessence. More importantly, it’s a process that in a perfect world gets you into their headspace and the plotspace that surrounds them, thus allowing you to drop-kick them right into the story without any hitches or hiccups. Thoughts, comments, questions, complaints, prayer requests, death threats, proposals of marriage —
Drop ’em in the comments.