Who are these people?

One could hardly argue when it comes to writing fiction one of the most important elements of the story is the characters. After all, most fiction isn’t about sedentary rocks and the inanimate lives of trees. We need people–or aliens, vampires, or whatever you happen to be writing about, but someone or something has to have a personality.

And the author has to create that personality.

There are tons of methods for creating characters. Ask a hundred different authors how they build characters and they’ll give you a hundred different techniques, tailor made to their brand of thinking and writing. Some authors like to plan characters out down to the most meticulous details, including what their favorite color is and where they went on vacation with their family when they were ten. They might fill an entire notebook with details of a character, fully knowing most of those details will never make it into the story, just to have a well-rounded comprehension of that character. Other authors (like myself) enjoy finding out details about their characters as they write. The author may start with a rough sketch of the character and gradually flesh them out as the story develops.

We’re under intense pressure to make the character interesting too, but I argue this is subjective because readers are diverse. What qualifies as ‘interesting’ to one reader might be boring to another, or too much, or just doesn’t do it for them. Creating an old lady that likes to knit and has six cats may sound boring, but some people might love reading about a little old lady who knits sweaters for her cats. This is more an argument of readership and audience though, so I won’t go too deep into it.

I say what makes a character interesting is if they’re interesting to the author. When an author is interested in their characters and enjoys writing them it comes through on the page. Whether the character is an international spy, an overworked tax account, or a sheep herder on the side of a remote mountain, if the author is enjoying the character the character is going to come across as interesting.

But how do you make up these imaginary people?

For me, most of my characters start as a concept. A feeling. A lot of times I hear them having conversations with other people before I get a clear view of what they look like or what their deal is. Often they come packaged as amorphous blobs along with the overall idea of the story, ready to be shaped and formed to fit the circumstances. Sometimes I do a little fleshing out beforehand, but I never make full blown character sketches, mostly because I enjoy letting the character tell me who they are as we frolic through the story together. Like the author who has pages of character details they’ll never use, this means I’ll have huge chunks of story I later cut out, but it turns out the same in the end.

Sometimes characters end up cut too, because they weren’t chatty enough to make it through the story. Sometimes you think you’re building a person and you realize it’s just an automaton, so you have to launch them back into space.

What are your thoughts on character building? What do you find makes a character ‘interesting?’

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