If you’re writing fiction, you know you get to create the entire world around your story. One of the most memorable components of your story is the characters.
Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, Hester Prynne, Ichabod Crane, Harry Potter, Ebenezer Scrooge, and the list goes on of memorable characters from decades of good fiction.
Here’s an exercise you may want to try if you’re working on creating characters in your writing.
- Watch people in real-life scenarios. CAUTION: Do not model your characters exactly after real people, however. Most people aren’t very exciting, and some are prone to lawsuits. What you’re looking for is various pieces from different people that you can put together to create your own character.
- Use different facets of different people to create a “whole” that’s more interesting than its parts. For example, if you’re watching a customer service representative in a store interact with a customer, jot down your perceptions of each person. You can describe each physically, you can note each one’s non-verbal communication, and you can watch for reactions of others observing the same scenario you are.
- Decide which person is the protagonist and which is the antagonist in a given situation you’re observing. If you know either person, or both people, personally, you’ll have to discipline yourself to become objective and put your own feelings/prejudices aside when you make this decision.
- Concentrate on the protagonist first and ask yourself probing questions. For example, write down what is motivating that person. Note his/her reactions to the other person (and even reactions to any interruptions or anything else unexpected during the scene you’re watching). Write down any actions the protagonist takes. Finally, note how others react to the actions, non-verbals, words, etc. of the protagonist.
- Now repeat the bullet point above with the antagonist. Capture as much of the same information as you can so you can make a side-by-side chart to compare the two.
- Fill in the blanks. Since no one knows what another person is really thinking, you, as author, get to fill in the blanks based on the clues you captured in your observations. For example, how well do the people you watched like each other? What might their backgrounds be? Is one from a privileged background and the other not? Does one harbor a sense of entitlement while the other believes in rewarding only hard work? What’s behind each person’s attitude, motivation, action, reaction? Why do others react as they do to the protagonist? to the antagonist?
- Create your character from your analysis. It’s immaterial whether you like your character or not (and sometimes you won’t). What matters is that your character is believable to your reader.
There are pieces of your characters all around you that are just waiting to be put together into a new creation. All you have to do is increase your awareness and watch out for characters!