For those of us who don’t arise with the morning lark with a full-blown character in mind, courtesy of a dream, character design can sometimes be intimidating.
After all, there are so many details to consider — from what this fellow looks like, to how many siblings he grew up with, to his years of military service, to his self-concept, etc. In previous posts, I’ve delved into numerous aspects of design to consider. (And in my forthcoming book, THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA, there are a staggering number of questions that can help writers shape complex story people.) For the unwary writer, however, character design can become a tar pit of procrastination equally as dangerous as setting research.
After all, what if you don’t want to write a multi-volume epic? What if you’re intending instead to tackle a short story or novella?
Do you really want to be sidetracked into generating an elaborate, thousand-word background dossier for the protagonist of a two-thousand-word story?
Here are four shortcuts to utilize when you want to create a character quickly, or to deepen a character you already have:
Your character should come with a built-in drawback or something inside that needs repair. The plot of your story will exacerbate this flaw enough to bring it out into the open, where the character can’t ignore it, conceal it, or deny it anymore.
Perhaps your character can’t commit to a new relationship because of trust issues. Perhaps your character is too stubborn and won’t accept change, good or bad. Perhaps your character is trying to overcome the temptation to embezzle from the company she works for.
What is your character’s secret worry? What is vulnerable inside your character? Maybe it’s something from your character’s past that’s been kept hidden for years. Maybe it’s a fear of failure. Or maybe — like Indiana Jones — it’s a fear of snakes.
Whatever the fear may be, the story circumstances of your plot should put the character there, facing it, by the story’s climax.
What does your character want most of all? This element speaks more to motivation and a psychological/emotional goal than simply being the plot’s McGuffin. Harry Potter chases after the sorcerer’s stone, but inside he really wants to belong, to have a family that loves him.
Who is your character’s enemy? Who stands in your character’s way? Who is determined to thwart your character’s desire, push your character into the situation she most fears, and take advantage of your character’s flaw?
Obviously you will have to flesh out a few details beyond these four elements, but use them as a foundation. Start with them and you should find the other details — such as name, hair color, and favorite foods — falling quickly into place.