Character month continues on WU, and here’s my approach to crafting characters.

First, let me start by telling you what I used to do.  I used to do pages of character traits, likes and dislikes, backstory, what sort of ice cream they’d eat or how many siblings they had.  I’d have so many characteristics for my protagonists that by the time I got around to telling the story, I was overwhelmed by these tags.  Or else the character would morph in the telling of the story, rendering all those weeks of work useless.

Then I realized that the most compelling characters in fiction, to me, had two dominant characteristics — a positive and a negative (or a dark and light).  Oh sure, the characters also had other bits of color as well (Ex: Anne of Green Gables hates her red hair; hobbits love mushrooms).  But I realized that focusing on two clear-cut aspects allowed the reader to dig into the character, and helps the writer hone in on moving the story along instead of worrying if you made it clear that Mary Sue loves butterscotch sundaes and how the hell are you supposed to work that into the narrative?

Deciding on two primary character tags is harder than it sounds.  Ideally, you want your character to grow and change with the story, to learn something by the end.  So you want to embed a characteristic that they will either overcome or learn to accept by the end of all the trials and tribulations you have planned for them.

I’ll use my favorite example, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Most of us know the story (if you don’t, what are you waiting for!?).  Lizzy Bennett is a self-aware young woman with a blind spot: she can be swayed by prejudice.  She runs up against Mr. Darcy, who suffers from an excess of pride.  Both characters learn to overcome their negative characteristic through conflict with each other.  By the end of the story, they’ve fallen in love and, more importantly, have had their faults revealed to them.  The reason their story is so powerful (besides fantastic dialogue and pacing) is that each character’s hallmark characteristic polarizes the other character.  The reader delights in the sparring between the two because we know that a) Mr. Darcy has the pride and b) Lizzy has the prejudice and it seems like they’ll never come to a mutual understanding, until, suddenly, they do.

When I’m ready to start drafting a story, I now concentrate on two things: what kind of emotional journey do I want my character to take and what two characteristics do I need to make that journey as fraught with conflict and angst as possible.  The rest of the character details emerge organically as I write the story.

What sorts of character details do you like to focus on when you’re creating characters?  Do you try to embed positive and negative characteristics in your protagonists?

Image by zi0n.


About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.