Author Toolbox: Character Creation – From Meeple to People

I have never loved the perfect hero. The old-school heroes like Superman felt too good to be true. I blame my brothers, of course, for my issues with the pure protagonist.  My first RPG character set me on the path for creating a flawed hero, and I have never looked back.

During my first campaign, I was six, my character was not. She was pretty and smart and everything a little girl wants her future self to be. My brother’s teenage friends hadn’t been thrilled letting me play with them. But I had been insistent, and my mother may have told my brothers to keep me busy for the day.

By the end of the epic six-hour campaign—far too long to hold the interest of any six-year-old—I was upstairs playing with my toys while they fought the battle to end all battles. Through the basement door, I heard my name. I took the pony I was grooming, opened the door, and yelled, “What?”

My brother who was running the game yelled up, “Mike just killed everyone else in the party and took all their stuff to split between you two. What do you do?”

My Little Ponies standing in front of castle with large dragonSmoothing my pony’s rainbow hair down I shouted, “I kill him and take all the stuff.”

There were some teenage snickers as he replied, “OK.” I closed the door and went back to the pink castle where a new story of love was unfolding.

I smiled as I set the pony down, a warm feeling of pride settling over me. I had just beat Mike, an ever-present goal in my life at the time, and my character now had all the fun things the group had accumulated during the campaign. She was powerful and amazing. I wished I could be like her. (Backstabbing-homicidal tendencies aside.)

Being powerful and amazing makes a great heroine, but I think flaws (including backstabbing-homicidal tendencies) add to her appeal. No one is perfect. Flaws may not always make a character more likable, but they always make a character more interesting.

Flaws are what draw you in.

Our brains are pattern-matching machines. We notice what is different, and a flaw catches us because it is different than our expectations. By adding a flaw, you create an opportunity to snag your reader’s interest. If you do it well, you will hook the reader in. They will want to know more and read more to find out.

Flaws are one piece of fleshing out your characters, but they may be the most important.

The Good. The Bad and The Unexpected.

Although I want to go into more depth about building the flaws in a character. I also want to provide how I take a character from an amorphous concept, a meeple in my brain, to a living—albeit imaginary—entity.

As to be expected it starts with asking a series of questions. I don’t answer these in a particular order, but I do answer them for every character.

5 Meeples standing on KeyboardThe Good
  • What does the character want?
  • What are they good at?
  • What do they like?
The Bad
  • What do they hate?
  • What do they fear? (Everyone fears something. This fear will drive them to avoid that thing.)
  • What are their flaws?
The Unexpected
  • What makes them different?
  • What is their quirk? Twirling your hair, scuffing shoes on the ground, whistling, laughing under stress?

Adding dimension

Girl standing with sunflower blocking her face

For each answer, I go back through and answer why, how, and when.

For example for the question “what are they good at” I would ask.

Why are they good at it?

How are they good at it?

When did they become good at it?

This step can feel unimportant. You know your character is good at fixing cars, but does it matter how this ability manifests? You just need them to notice that the brake lines have been meddled with.

The more I critique and edit I realize that a reader will notice these holes in characters when a writer skips providing this level of depth. It makes the characters feel shy of being real. A shade of a person instead of an individual. It is these details that move your character from concept to creation.

The way the character would reveal the information about the brake lines would be different if he came from a long line of car mechanics where his skill was learned at an early age with pride, than if he was from an upper-class family who only valued activities that helped him become a doctor or lawyer and car repair was secret passion. He would talk about cars differently if he was forced or required to learn the skill rather than wanting to learn it.

When a writer knows the story behind the answer, it shines through in the nuance of the prose.  It makes the character feel more real. A reader can sense these answers behind what unfolds on the page.

Roleplaying resources for character development

As a roleplayer, I have found many non-writer versions of character building. Here are a few that pose some good questions for developing characters for books or games.  (Hopefully, with some questions you will not have seen.)

Questionnaires

Stack of RPG books on table20 Questions for Deep Character Development breaks character development into sections. I particularly like the first couple concept questions: consider what primary emotion your character expresses and defines your character and what emotion your character evokes in others. It is a quick list that adds significant depth to a character in a short time. If you are using it for writing you can skip the Player section, but it has some great things to consider if you do play.

If you are looking for a more in-depth questionnaire, consider The 100 Most Important Things To Know About Your Character (revised) by Beth Kinderman and Nikki Walker. It is meant to be answered by your character and not about them. I think the self-image section can be particularly enlightening for character development especially when answering what your character’s greatest strength and weakness as both the author and as the character. In my experience, the answers are rarely the same. It also has things I may not have considered like if my character is right or left-handed.

Identifying Character Traits
Pathfinder books sitting on table

Ash’s Guide to RPG Personality and Background is probably the site I reference most often. Instead of questions, it uses a series of tables to help you identify things about your character. The first section focuses on how the character comes across and the driving force behind the character. The second section goes in more depth probing into who the character is and who they associate with. The last section deals with character background. It is a list of pointed questions that admittedly are a little RPG-centric, but I add an additional level when going through them asking if this enhances the plot. By doing so I often clarify the purpose of my characters in regard to the story’s plot.

My favorite section on the site is the mysteries. Nothing like some secrets and intrigue to pump up the intensity in a story. Each character should have secrets kept from each other whether intentionally or not. There should always be a sense of more behind everyone from the guy selling popcorn at the theater to your antagonist.

(Another fun site to check out if you are looking for some great random generators to jump off with is Chaotic Shiny. It has everything from generators for everything from cultures, to alphabets, to cities. Not to mention a plot generator if you are looking for a quick prompt.)

Writing is no game

Scrabble tiles spelling HmmIn role-playing, these are simply a set of questions to answer. You create the story of the character up until you start to play and as long as you can weave in whatever you decide it doesn’t matter how you answer. A character for a story doesn’t have the same freedom. Your characters must connect to the main drive of the story and to each other. They need to heighten one another like waves joining to crash as one large entity against the shore. Their traits and flaws must speak to your plot and not just exist because it sounded interesting or fun. In so many ways creating a character for a game is easier, but the limits of writing can make the development so much more satisfying.

The beauty of flaws

Nowhere is this more true than the negative aspects of your characters. The flaws you choose should drive each of your characters forward in the plot. Lisa Cron’s Story Genius has great pointed questions for developing a story around your main character’s flaw. However, the other characters’ flaws are just as important to driving your story forward. They should be what causes the issues the character has to overcome or cause the strife between the characters.

Remember to layer on multiple negative characteristics. Everyone has something they fear and hate. Everyone has more than one flaw. Emphasize those that move the story forward but have other flaws and weaknesses. People are a sum of many flaws and weaknesses and your characters (humanoid or not) should be as well. Then decide which ones must be overcome to resolve your plot. Not every flaw needs to be conquered by the end of the book. Your characters do not need to reach perfection. They just need to change.

In my first read of 2018, Turtles All The Way Down, John Green creates a beautifully flawed girl struggling against her phobias and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The romantic optimist in me hoped she would overcome it all, but as I read the final words, it was satisfying that she didn’t. She was more real and alive because she was still imperfect as the story came to a close. Give yourself and your characters the blessing of being imperfect and staying imperfect. (Plus, it gives you room for your character to grow when the publisher wants a sequel.)

Pearl in an oyster shell


Photo Credits

Main Image- Meeples on Keyboard 2 by jitterbug!– adapted by EMA Timar

My Little Pony vs. The Dragon by EMA Timar

Meeples on Keyboard 1 by jitterbug!

Come Let It Shine by Nicole Honeywill

RPG Books by EMA Timar

Pathfinder Books by EMA Timar

HMM for HMM! by Thad Zajdowicz

The Pearl by Omar Bariffi

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By | 2018-01-17T15:55:28+00:00 January 15th, 2018|Writing|31 Comments

About the Author:

Writer, Software Engineer, modern-day Renaissance woman and eternal student

31 Comments

  1. Raimey Gallant January 17, 2018 at 9:10 pm - Reply

    Hi Erika!

    I had to search around for this post, because it isn’t posted on your main blog page, I think because you’re going through some website changes? The only way I could access this post was from your tweet. Great post by the way. Really great prompts and resources. I’ll add this into my Facebook schedule for a few weeks from now. 🙂

    • Erika Timar January 18, 2018 at 11:20 am - Reply

      Huh. That is strange. I checked it with an incognito window, and it seems to be fixed. Thanks for letting me know.

      I am really dissatisfied with this theme. It seems to cause tech problems and makes things way more complicated than they should be. I am looking for a new one. Any suggestions would be welcome!

  2. Erika Beebe January 17, 2018 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    I love the tip how every character needs to have secrets from other characters whether intentional or not. I hadn’t thought about that one. Thank you so much Erika. Lovely post today 🙂

    • Erika Timar January 18, 2018 at 11:18 am - Reply

      Thanks, Erika. I remember when I first discovered Ash’s Guide. I had long since found my process for creating characters to act (essentially that is what roleplaying is), but it helped me put amorphous concepts into words. When I hit the background section and saw the secret it was an “aha” moment for me. I am glad I could share it with you.

  3. J.J. Burry January 17, 2018 at 10:34 pm - Reply

    Excellent post, Erika! I enjoyed your anecdote, and I love the questions you have for characters. I can see how they’d be useful to make dynamic characters, which is something I hope to have when my story is finished.

    • Erika Timar January 18, 2018 at 11:12 am - Reply

      Thanks, Jess. I have a lot of fun memories with my brothers growing up, and they definitely shaped my writing in surprising ways. I am sure you can create compelling and dynamic characters. Just keep learning and growing!

  4. Ronel Janse van Vuuren January 18, 2018 at 2:26 am - Reply

    Great post! Ah, homicidal tendencies are always a great flaw for a character to have 😉

    • Erika Timar January 18, 2018 at 11:10 am - Reply

      It’s amazing that my child-brain just glossed over that entirely when I was thinking about my character. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Lupa January 18, 2018 at 5:24 am - Reply

    A great take on adding flaws and some really good questions to ask. I especially liked how you made the creation of flawed character so step-by-step. Thank you for sharing!

    • Erika Timar January 18, 2018 at 11:09 am - Reply

      Thanks. I tried my best to break down my method, though I will say it sound a lot more orderly than the messy way it actually happens for me. However, by the time I am finished, all these steps have happened. Trying to define how you do something is challenging, but I have learned so much about myself and my process through these posts.

  6. Louise January 18, 2018 at 6:20 am - Reply

    I love this post! I never thought to ask ‘Why, How and When,’ before. This sounds like a great way to add dimension to characters, and I’m going to take a look at mine again to flesh them out!
    Thanks for sharing all these awesome resources too 🙂

    • Erika Timar January 18, 2018 at 11:05 am - Reply

      Thank you so much, Louise. I am so happy that it has provided someone with a tip they can use. Since I created characters naturally it was a lot more difficult to break down what I do for these posts than I anticipated. I was really concerned they just rehashed ideas people have heard before so getting a comment like this really brightened my day.

  7. Megan Morgan January 18, 2018 at 9:17 am - Reply

    Great post! I too like characters much better when they’re well rounded–just like real people have their good and negative traits, characters should too. I’d never thought of using the roleplay approach to build a character. I’ll have to try that out!

    • Erika Timar January 18, 2018 at 11:03 am - Reply

      Thanks, Megan. There is a slightly different focus on RPG character generation resources. I think it provides a perspective that writers may not have come across and hopefully will find useful.

  8. Kathy Steinemann January 18, 2018 at 9:32 am - Reply

    Thanks, Erika. Excellent points.

    You mention Superman. I think part of his appeal is that he does have flaws, his susceptibility to kryptonite being the biggest. And he can’t see through lead or protect himself/others from magic.

    He also has weaknesses. Maybe I should refer to them as “humanity,” even though he’s alien. He loves, and when one of the people he loves is in danger, he responds. He also feels a compelling need to protect the innocent. Villains leverage that to lure him into dangerous situations.

    So maybe Superman is the perfect protagonist after all?

    • Erika Timar January 18, 2018 at 10:53 am - Reply

      Superman has definitely evolved as a protagonist with flaws, but I was referring more to his early years when comic books reflected an ideal rather than reflecting the grayer sides of life. Aside from physical weaknesses, even the weaknesses you mention are virtues rather than flaws. He is still a compelling character, obviously. The love he has received through the years is proof of that. However, for me, he is still too ideal, more fairytale prince than a person. I know it isn’t a popular belief even in my circles, but I prefer the comics after the shift in the 70s where the heroes themselves have issues instead just dealing with others’ issues, such as Spiderman’s lack of confidence and Wolverine’s anger issues.

  9. Victoria Marie Lees January 18, 2018 at 10:39 am - Reply

    Excellent tips here, Erika! No one likes perfect people, so why would a reader like a perfect character? Secrets and flaws and the why, how and when they develop are key to three-dimensional characterization. I would add that the writer places the answers to these questions into the story when the point-of-view character is facing a decision or situation that would make them think back to the “when, how, why” of their secrets or flaws. Characters use their own specific past to help them decide what to do in their present situations. Thanks so much for these tips. I’ve shared them online. Enjoy your week.

    • Erika Timar January 18, 2018 at 11:01 am - Reply

      You are completely correct the “when, how, and why” of their secrets or flaws drive their responses throughout the story. Thanks for all your support, Victoria.

  10. Charity Rau January 18, 2018 at 11:37 am - Reply

    Great advice. I really like the character questionnaires. I always find they help to flesh out the characters. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Erika Timar January 19, 2018 at 10:55 am - Reply

      Thanks, Charity. I love doing the questionnaires for characters too. Sometimes, I do them just for fun after my characters are already fully-realized. It’s a guilty pleasure and much more fun than taking them for myself.

  11. Chrys Fey January 18, 2018 at 11:53 am - Reply

    I love to flaw-up my characters. lol Sometimes, I give them my bad habits and attitude because those are easier to recreate. Even my urban fantasy heroine who is superhuman in many ways suffers from anger, grief, feeling alone, and confusion over her feelings of love. She has scars from the past and many flaws, and it’s those things that make her interesting. More so than her powers.

    • Erika Timar January 19, 2018 at 10:56 am - Reply

      Your heroine will shine all the brighter for her flaws. Is your story YA or adult? I have an urban fantasy YA WIP.

  12. Joan Curtis January 18, 2018 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    I absolutely agree our characters must be flawed. Otherwise they are not human. But, if the flaw becomes annoying, as a reader, I stop enjoying the story. So, there’s a fine balance. The main character in my first book clearly had major flaws. And the secondary character even more. I found that writing them was much more interesting than writing about perfect people. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important topic.

    • Erika Timar January 19, 2018 at 11:01 am - Reply

      There is definitely a balance to showing a character’s flaws on the page. You have to make the character respond in believable ways and not just succumb to a flaw because you created them with it. It has to feel organic. Also, you can’t beat your reader with it over and over. For my March post, I am going to talk about how to prime your reader so they fill in more than you have to write. How you introduce a character is as important as the work you put in the background.

  13. Iola January 18, 2018 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    Excellent post! I’m still struggling with characterisation, and I love your list of questions. Simple, yet not so simple.

    • Erika Timar January 19, 2018 at 11:02 am - Reply

      Thanks, Iola. I hope it helps further your education on how to create characters.

  14. Adam January 18, 2018 at 9:30 pm - Reply

    This is a very thorough character creation process.
    I often focus on skills, since those are one thing a character chooses, and they carry the implied story of “when, where, and why did the character learn these skills?”
    There’s an old film called “So I Married an Axe Murderer”, and they do a great job of building suspicion exclusively through the skills a character demonstrates.

    • Erika Timar January 19, 2018 at 11:06 am - Reply

      Skills a character chooses are important and show a lot about who they are. For a lot of secondary characters I build from a goal and usually, this is focused on a skill set. Great insight into the movie. I’ve seen it and remember enjoying it. But that was so long ago (well before I looked at any entertainment in terms of story craft). I will have to use this as an excuse to check it out again.

  15. Hoda January 20, 2018 at 11:07 pm - Reply

    Wow, what an amazing post! And so detailed. Thanks so much for sharing these. I always love seeing character questionnaires.

    • Erika Timar January 21, 2018 at 2:59 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Hoda. Questionnaires definitely hold a soft spot in my heart as well. I hope some of the tips help you in your character generation.

  16. Dawn Byrne February 4, 2018 at 10:17 am - Reply

    Nice post. Thank you for the supplemental resources. Really makes a writer think more in depth about their character.

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