Everyone has that fictional character they know like the back of their hand. You know them like a best friend, you fall in love with them, and no matter how hard you try to will your hypothetical psychic abilities to materialize them into the same room, it just never quite seems to work.
Here’s the good news. With writing, fictional characters become graspable.
In the abstract space that we write, we are able to communicate with characters and ask them crap-tons of questions. What do you want? How do you feel? Why do you act in the ways you do? Every time you sit down to write or edit your story, you are interacting with your fictional character. This means that character formation is an ongoing process, as every bit of your story reveals more and more about the person you are creating and their relation to the world around them. Congrats, mortal. You get to play god.
Because a person is so complex, made up of so many micro and macro qualities that make us all beautiful and rare, there are going to be millions of choices to make when forming a character. The questions to answer about a character can be big – would they ever murder anyone? – or extremely small – do they like their sandwiches with the crusts on or off? No matter what the question is, the answer plays a crucial part in bringing the character to life and making them specific, original, and, therefore, memorable.
In that sense, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the little details of your character. It’s best to begin by choosing the very basics of how your character will function in your plot.
Dynamic or Static?
Dynamic – “Dynamic” characters are the characters who grow or change in some way as a result of the events of your story. These are the characters that learn something along the way, that go through some life-changing event. The change isn’t necessarily good – a character forming villainous tendencies because of trauma or a past wrong done to them is still a dynamic character. Dynamic characters often make up the protagonists, antagonists, and main characters of a story because they give a plot momentum.
Static – These are the characters that stay relatively the same throughout the story. Static characters can be seen in a lot of cliché and stereotypical tropes, like the superhero who is always cookie-cutter good, or the greedy bank-robber who never stops stealing. The problem with static characters is that they often lack motivation and are often neglected characters in a story that are often only there to make another character look better. That being said, static characters can be extremely useful when in the role of side, supporting characters and even mentor characters. Static side characters can establish tone to help define your setting and form an underlying foundation for the transformation of the dynamic characters.
Want vs. Need
What does your character want? This is probably the most essential thing to figure out when forming your character. Everyone wants something. It can be material – a new car, a million dollars, pistachio ice cream, a left shoe. It can be immaterial – to fit in, to feel safe, for things to go back to “normal,” to be free. Figuring out what your character wants, whether they know they want it or not, and why they want it creates the foundation of the character, their backstory, and the influences on their personality, choices, and actions.
What does your character need? This may seem like the same question, but wants and needs can be two very different things. Wants can be very surface level and are things your character thinks they need to be happy. Needs are the things that will actually make them happy. Sometimes wants and needs align – this means the character is self-aware enough to know themselves, their faults, and what they lack. But often, wants and needs don’t align. For example, a ballerina wants to get into a swanky ballet school because he thinks that’s what he needs to feel like he’s enough, but what he needs is the validation that can only come from himself. Want = swanky ballet school. Need = self-validation. When wants and needs contrast like this, it provides the opportunity for a character to be dynamic, to come to some important self-realization, and for an all-around more interesting story.
When You’re Stuck
A trick I use when I’m really stuck or having trouble getting a character down is taking a personality quiz as if I were the character. A great structure to follow is the Meyer-Briggs 16 personality chart, which may give you insights into your character that you never thought about. Taking a personality quiz as your character is also a great exercise for getting into the headspace of your character before you begin and finding inspiration as a writer.
Inspiration for character can come from anywhere. Maybe there’s someone you know whose personality can be a jumping point. Maybe specific dialogue or a quirky way of speaking just pops into your head. No matter where you start or how many adventures you take your character on, they will always surprise you, pull you in directions you didn’t originally plan to go, and open up to you if you take the time to get to know them. Just like any other friend. Just like you.