You’ve been struck by a creative bolt of lightning and now a new project sits before you. What do you do? Are you the type of person that outlines first or do you dive right in? There is no right or wrong answer, but the way you answer will play a decisive role in determining how you craft your work, and what you need to be aware of before you finish it. This will impact your work in many ways, not leas of which is character creation this time. In fact, it is the most important part of any creative endeavor you have. With that in mind, we’ll talk about how to create good characters in three steps.
If you’re the person that likes to dive right in, just to get your ideas flowing, you should return to these steps later, to make sure all your ducks are in a row. If you like to outline, this post will be even better for you.
See also: The most important book I read in 2021
Now, let’s find out how.
Step 1: What does your character want to accomplish in the world?
This question will tend to be more general and easier to answer than the other two questions, since it interacts with your plot on the macro level.
For example, what’s Aragorn’s goal in The Lord of the Rings? It’s to destroy the ring, obviously. His method of accomplishing this is to give Frodo the window of opportunity he needs by defeating Sauron’s armies and distracting his gaze.
In my own “Red War” book, one of the main characters, Hector Turenne, like other major characters, has a goal of expelling the Earthlings from his world. His method of doing this is to fight as a soldier in the war.
This is the easiest step to take when creating a character. Ask yourself about the big, real-world thing that he wants to accomplish. That serves as what Lisa Cron would call his “external goal.” It’s the easiest question to answer, but you might find yourself coming back to it once you answer the other two questions.
Step 2: What does accomplishing his goal mean to him?
This is the much deeper question that you will need to navigate to create a layered and compelling character. It’s easy to say that your character wants to do this or that, but what’s the reason? Whenever anyone does something, it’s for a reason, and that reason is usually some kind of emotional gain. Even if someone just wants money, it’s usually the feeling that the money gives (freedom, security, etc.), rather than the money itself.
Why does Aragorn want to see the ring destroyed? Of course he wants to defeat Sauron and ensure that he does not live in a world ruled by the dark lord. He also wants to become King of Gondor and Arnor (in contrast to his reluctance in the movies), because this will be necessary in his quest to destroy the ring.
Yet, the biggest reason that he wants to destroy Sauron and become king is because this is the bride-price that the Elf lord Elrond made for his daughter, Arwen. Knowing what marrying Aragorn would mean for his daughter (the loss of her immortality and permanent separation from him), Elrond would not consent to give Arwen to any mortal man other than the King of both Gondor and Arnor. Aragorn and Arwen had been engaged for decades on this understanding. This was Aragorn’s biggest motivation in undertaking the quest of the ring. He saw the struggle against Sauron as the best chance he had to do this task which even Elrond doubted was possible (indeed, this was why he set such a price).
This is what getting the job done in the physical world truly means to him, personally.
Of course Aragorn is motivated to do the morally right thing and would never do wrong in pursuit of his desires. A “servant-king,” he is one of the best literary examples of masculinity in its highest form. Yet his deepest personal motivation remains to marry Arwen. Accomplishing his goals of defeating Sauron and becoming king mean that he will be able to wed Arwen, which gives us a reason to be invested in his success, rather than finding him uninteresting.
In my story “Red War” story, Hector is in a far different place than Aragorn. Even at the start of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is a proven masculine figure. He is a man who has already traveled far and won great renown (if in disguise). He is a man of capability, virtue, and proven action. The fact that he’s already engaged to Arwen is the biggest proof of this.
For Hector, this is not true at all. He wants to be a man like Aragorn. He wants to find his masculine identity, the respect that goes with it, to be the man that his father couldn’t raise and his mother, unconsciously smothers. He just doesn’t know how and is held back by strong internal and external circumstances.
The war, which he proved instrumental in starting, quickly clarifies matters for him. He cannot claim to be such a man if he can’t perform admirably in the war, and there’s nothing like being shot at to force you into growing up.
Hector wanting to expel the Earthlings is one thing, what it means to him is something different. It means he will have conquered many obstacles to claim the status he wants – internal and external. Speaking of that…
Step 3: What does your character need to overcome, mentally, to accomplish his desire?
Nobody achieves something great without conquering both physical and mental obstacles. The plot provides the physical obstacles. In Aragorn’s case, the plot gives him the armies of Orcs and other monsters at Sauron’s command that he will have to fight. In Hector’s, the armies of Earth provide much the same obstacle.
Yet, our characters need to grapple with their own mental barriers in the process of their respective quests if they are to deal with the physical obstacles successfully.
By the time we see Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, he has already affirmed his heritage and is largely a complete character, one who was born to be a hero. In this regard, his character arc in the movies is more compelling than in the books. We see him visibly struggling with his heritage, given his ancestor Isildur’s failure to destroy the ring when he had the chance. He fears that he’ll succumb to the same weakness if he took up the kingship. If the movies had been more explicit about Elrond’s bride-price for Arwen, pitting Aragorn’s love for Arwen up against his deep doubts and fears over his heritage and what it meant, we would have had an even more compelling character, one who needed to solve this dilemma in order to be successful.
Yet, doubts still remain, even in the books. One of his most trying tasks is to contact Sauron directly, after slowly revealing his identity to the dark lord throughout the course of the books. This took great courage, given he had avoided Sauron since childhood, hiding behind several different identities and disguises. There, in order to buy Frodo and Sam time, he needed to persuade Sauron that he had the ring, and would confront him directly at the Black Gate of Mordor. This long-held fear of declaring his identity directly to the enemy was the final internal test he needed to pass to make his physical victory possible.
For Hector in my book, he must confront issues stemming from his immaturity and perceived inadequacy in order to be successful. His age is part of that, but it goes deeper, stemming from a previous tragedy involving his father. If Hector is to become the man he wants to be – and be recognized for it – he will need to overcome these, or he will not be able to survive the war with Earth, let alone perform admirably as a soldier in the conflict.
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Do you have to do it this way? What about plot-driven versus character-driven stories, you might ask? You might object that your characters don’t need to be as deep if you focus on the plot first. Let’s consider the Ghost in the Shell franchise.
The main character in this story is Motoko Kusanagi, the field commander of a crack anti-terrorism, anti-corruption, and information warfare unit called Public Security Section 9. Like Aragorn, she is well-rounded at the start of each separate series of the franchise (which act as their own continuities). Yet, not all is as it seems.
Something happened to Motoko Kusanagi in her childhood that forced her into replacing her biological body with a prosthetic one. She’s mastered her body by the time of the series. She’s one of the best in the world, in fact. Yet, this was an excruciatingly painful road, both physically and mentally, and she has not escaped the events of her childhood. Her past still haunts her. We see this in muted ways throughout the events of the various Ghost in the Shell continuities, particularly in the Stand Alone Complex series (which is why it’s the best one). In the second part of that series, she has to deal with her past in a more direct (though still subtle) way, if she wants to bring a case of potential nuclear terrorism and government corruption at the highest level to a peaceful conclusion.
So even though Ghost in the Shell is a more episodic series, dealing with how Motoko Kusanagi and the members of Public Security Section 9 encounter the daily challenges of the job through multiple cases (as opposed to an overarching quest like The Lord of the Rings or “The Red War”), you still see these three questions being explored.
So even if you’re making something of a more episodic nature, you should answer these questions with your characters. Even a character as simple as Dragon Ball’s Son Goku is driven by them, especially in his climatic encounters with Frieza and Jiren (which is what makes those two battles so incredible).
I hope you now see how answering these questions is a shortcut to creating the kinds of layered characters that audiences can invest in, cheering for their success or failure. In a world of short attention spans, this is ever more important. You must create a world that viewers won’t easily click away from, since more and more reading will be done on screens. Even before then, this is what distinguished the wheat from the chaff.
You may think that writing about events in flowing language like Homer is what’s most important, and that matters, but recall that these events only have meaning by how they affect people. Using techniques like that, while creating compelling characters that audiences can slip into in order to experience those techniques, is true mastery.
I didn’t consciously recognize the importance of this when I started, but I developed “The Red War’s” characters along these lines unconsciously, which is why I’m happy to say, the story is far further along than I feared it was. I had dreaded that it “wasn’t ready,” only to learn that I had my characters mostly right all along.
If you did not have this unconscious realization (or luck), this guide should suffice.
This mainly applies for writing fiction, but even from a non-fiction perspective, you should keep these rules in mind. Remember, each project you do has a human being at the other end of the equation, consuming what you’ve created. Your audience comes wants to be absorbed in your work and that means creating a compelling point of view for them to slip into. That is the point of the characters you create. So think of it like this: how would your intended audience answer these questions about themselves? You don’t even need to assume the answer to this. You can do keyword research to help you clarify it.
How do your viewers see themselves? What are they trying to accomplish in line with that vision? What do they need to accomplish in order to see themselves in the way they want?
If you answer these questions, you’re well on your way to making a real connection.
Donald Trump did this in 2016 (not now) with Stumped. Read it for more on selling compelling stories.
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