If you’ll recall from last time, I walked you through the first section of what I write down to make a character. But there’s still a ways to go on the list, so let’s keep it coming!
LOOKS LIKE: Broadly speaking, whom does your character look like? Could be a movie star, someone you know, or whatever defining features will be noticed first by other characters. If you can acquire a picture of your inspiration, pin it to your writing notebook.
VOICE: You can put in this section something like “nasally” or “confident,” but I like to treat this section like “looks like.” Maybe your characters sounds like or has the same verbal tics as your Uncle Bruce, or Skeletor.
POSTURE: Does your character stand up straight? How does he or she present his or her self?
FAVORITE FOOD: With this answer, you should also give a brief note to your character’s eating habits. I’ve mentioned this before, but how your character prepares, consumes, and stores food is a great example of personality in action.
HOPES: Have you ever had wild prayers about the future? Something that may be out of your control, but that you wish for anyways? Well, your character has that too, and it’s good to jot those hopes down.
WHAT JOKES DOES (S)HE NOT GET: Again, touched on before. Essentially, asking yourself this question makes you envision an active character, a person reacting to something. This question also distances you from your creation, since you’re not likely to see yourself as the person who “doesn’t get” certain types of humor. This category also helps define what your character is not.
SELF OR WORLD: If your character had to choose between saving themselves or saving the world, which option would they pick? Why?
PERCIEVED AS: How do other people view your character? Can be anywhere from completely accurate to completely wrong.
PERCEPTION OF WORLD: How does your character see the world? Is it an optimistic, pessimistic, or balanced view? Basically, when your character’s talking about an unspecified “they,” who are “they”?
TRUSTING OF OTHERS?: Pretty straightforward: does your character tend to trust other people?
TONE/CERTAINTY IN DECISION: Remember when I talked about voice and said I preferred not to put in that category something like “smooth” or “on the verge of crying”? This is the section where such answers belong. “Certainty in Decision” is related to Tone, but separate. It’s also simpler than it sounds— is your character certain in everything they say? Or do they fill their speech with “wells” and “umms” and “you know, if you’d like to”s?
(S)HE’S THE PART OF US THAT: How will your character connect to a reader on an emotional level? To explain this section, let’s say I was designing Donald Trump as a character for a conservative audience. I’d put down in this section, “the part of us that wants to fight back the bullies, real or imagined.” Without meaning to make this blog any more political than it needs to be, I’d say that’s the reason why people like Trump: he speaks to a part of conservative psyche. If your character speaks for a mental or psychological part of the audience, like “the part that wants to talk back to teachers” or “the part that just wants to live their own life,” it’ll likely receive as much attention from your readers as the actual Trump.
BASELINE EMOTION EXPERIENCED: I talked about having your character not always responding to everything with the same characteristic. But there can be a default emotional state, such as “angry” or “cheery” that motivates your character to accomplish their goals. You character does X because she feels Y. This works in tandem with…
BASELINE EMOTION GIVEN TO AUDIENCE: What do you want your audience to feel when this character is mentioned or encountered? If you know what you want your audience to feel, than you can give your character direction. Pairing up the two “baseline emotion” sections is a good starting point for character design. The Joker likely has “giddiness” as Baseline Emotion Experienced (BEE), and “terror” as Baseline Emotion Given To Audience (BEGTA). The Joker’s goal, from a writing perspective, is now set: he’s going to make the audience shit their pants, but while remaining funny at least to himself. Try other pairings for your own characters. A happy character than invokes dread! A character that fears everything around her almost as much as we fear her!
Also, I owe credit for BEE and BEGTA to Rich Burlew, though he used different words than me.
EMPATHY FOR: Who is your character empathetic towards? This will say a lot about them. And try avoiding writing down here, “Nobody, his is a LONER and COOL.”
EYE COLOR: Yeah, it’s cliché description, but people will ask.
GOOD WITH KIDS?: I like this question because no one really asks it, and yet it’s so good. It’s got all the true-nature-revealed quality of “Do dogs like her?” combined with an actual scene that can be written. Imagine your character surrounded by toddlers. If she’s developed enough, this scene can write itself!
BESERK BUTTON/ INSECURITY: These two are as tight together as a stomach and its stomach lining. What topic will get your character raving mad at the mere mention of it? Comedies tend to have sillier, more-beserkier reactions, but even Lord Varys might get upset if you call him a mermaid or something, even if he doesn’t show his anger in raging and screaming.
VIEWS ON: What does your character believe? Here are some topics regarding what your character might muse on during those late-night philosophical conversations with tired friends. Answer them all:
Preface all these buzzwords with “What is” and have your character answer them in their own voice if possible. Answers can be as complex as a whole treatise, can be as simple as “Good is when Bob don’t hit my fence with his tractor.”
NOTE: Views on Humanity is different from Perception of World. Humans may be bastards in your character’s eye, but maybe nature, science, or something outside of people get valued differently by your character.
WHAT’S GOING ON THIS WEEK?: We’re not all set in stone, though we wish we were, ‘cause a stone’s not affected by bad weather or drama at work or finding someone’s wallet on the sidewalk. What just happened to your character before the story starts that slightly affects their mood by the time we first see them?
RELATIONSHIP TO ESTABLISHED CHARACTER: Make your guy a friend or brother or sex slave of one of your other characters! Start a literary universe! Even if it breaks the continuity of the other character like a wooden plank at a dojo, it’ll be worth it, ‘cause now you’re writing the karate master!
REPLACES CLICHÉS WITH: Clichés comes from subcultures like baseball or superhero clubs or holodeck adventures. What’s your character’s frame of reference? Instead of writing “a stone’s throw away,” maybe she can say “a racetrack away” if she’s really into car racing. WARNING: THIS CAN BE OVERDONE. USERS SHOULD TAKE CUATION AND HOLD THEIR HIPPOGRIFFS BEFORE OVERINDULGING IN THIS PRACTICE. NOTE HOW I USED CLICHÉS IN THIS POST WITHOUT COMPARING EVERYTHING TO STAR WARS OR SHAKESPEARE.
When you’re writing a lot of details like this, it’s easy to forget a character’s core. In fact, overdesigning is a problem that happens to me a lot. Make your character a real person first, and then start adding in the weird and quirky.
Part 3 of this list will be much shorter, but will cover arguably the most important point: your character’s history and expert knowledge! See you then!