The Key to a Great Story – Understanding Yourself When Creating Characters


If your character was stood in this field how would they react to being attacked?

If your character was stood in this field how would they react to being attacked?

You can read a lot about how to go about constructing a character from scratch; advice such as knowing their favourite music, knowing who they are related to, knowing their favourite colour, their last mode of employment, etc. This is all brilliant, and if you’re writing fiction set in the modern world, this is actually quite useful information for a writer to at least be aware of even if the reader never needs to find it out. However, if like me, you write fiction set in a world that you’ve created yourself, the sort of background information that you need to know, you’re going to have to create entirely from scratch yourself.

Character creation in fantasy writing is a great deal more complicated than you would imagine, especially in worlds that have been dreamed up by the writer. The sort of background information that you’re going to need to know draws upon the dimensions of your self-constructed world. While this post is not about how to go about creating a fantasy setting, the ability to create ‘who’ your story is about does rely on you understanding ‘where’ your story is set. Equally your characters in turn define your setting. They are interwoven in ways that can not be entirely separated from each other.

As a starting point, it is easier to imagine who your main character is first and you build your world around your characters. While you’re in the planning frame of mind, you’ll find that your ideas are very fluid; your character, your plot and the world it is set in develop as one. You’ll end up having ideas about who you want your characters to be, and as a result you’ll end up creating the world in which you’re setting your story. The reason being is because your world has defined your characters and have made them who they are.

For example, I am a person interested in history. I can consciously remember that it was while I lived in America when I was a child and I was studying the history of the state of Virginia that I truly became passionate about the subject in general. However, I had a pre-existing interest, because my parents like visiting stately homes and historic sites and I can remember doing that before we moved to America. That pre-existing interest though was sparked not just because learning about the early European settlement of the Americas was different, interesting and challenging to my young view on the world, it was sparked because the woman who taught me history at school was very kind, encouraging and I engaged in her classes more than I did in my others. That little period in my life shaped who I became; I now have two degrees in history.Having this sort of in depth understanding about how people can develop is absolutely critical in creating characters. My love of history certainly has an influence on my writing beyond character creation, but what studying the past has taught me is how to evaluate myself. It has made me reflective on my past, and of the decisions I have made which have influenced who I have become. It has also taught me that not everything which has influenced my life was within my control. Moving to America for example; I was eight, I had no control over it. My parents made that decision.

When you come to creating any character’s personality, not just your main character, you need to understand how they will react. Knowing their favourite colour or piece of music isn’t going to help you very much if you put your character in a situation where that information is irrelevant.

To start constructing a character you need to form ideas about how your character would react in certain situations. Here are a few examples of situations for you to experiment with; what I recommend you do first though is picture yourself in these situations and then picture your characters in them.

1. Combat – This is a good exercise for developing a character’s morals. They don’t have to honourable; they can be based in self-preservation.

  • Your character is stood in a field unarmed, being charged at by a deadly foe who will kill them. Do they stand their ground or do they run?
  • Same situation, but your character has a weapon. What do they do now? Do they react differently with a sword, a bow and arrow or a gun?
  • They’re alone and they are being charged at by multiple foes. What now?
  • They are part of an army, fighting an army. What are they thinking of doing?

2. Sensual Drivers – This is a good exercise for developing dynamics between potential romantic relationships between characters, using one of the most basic of human instincts as a starting point. Be aware that I am such an open-minded person when it comes to this topic my brain has fallen out.

Your character finds themselves in a situation where they have an opportunity to engage in lovemaking with another character.

  • Are they more willing or less willing than the other character? If they are as willing as the other, why is this the case for both characters? Is it the same reason?
  • Do the dynamics between people in your world mean that genders are on an equal footing or an unequal one? (Bare in mind that it is your world; women can be the domineering gender.)
  • What are they feeling about the prospect of engaging in lovemaking? Lustful, loving, frightened, nervous?
  • The characters are of the same gender; what are the power dynamics then? Is your character submissive or dominant or longing for an equal standing?
  • Is your character as open-minded about same-sex lovemaking as I am? It’s okay if they’re not, but ask why they aren’t? Is it a personal belief or a cultural one? Is there a difference between the personal beliefs of your characters and the cultural beliefs of your world?

So there are two exercises for you start with in developing characters. If you have similar responses for when you conducted the exercise on yourself to when you subjected a character to it, then you have a fantastic opportunity to really develop a character that you understand fully. I recommend though that you be very cautious about doing that; writers should write what they know and believe, but you need to limit that. Develop characters with parts of your personality in it, but fundamentally I believe you should create characters who are entirely unique. You might have to piece them together from yourself and from experiences you have had with other people, but what you need to do is create entirely new people. You need to write about your characters as if they are real people, who react on both instinct and experience combined as they encounter the plot you write.

Why is it important to know? Because the situations above can be subjected to a great number of variables. The weather conditions in battle for insistence can affect the character’s reaction. For example the film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when it starts raining in Helm’s Deep, how does that make the characters feel and do they all react the same way? And what happens when the blinding sun pours out from behind the ridge that Gandalf is charging down?The light pouring into Helm's Deep evoked different reactions from both sides...

The light pouring into Helm’s Deep evoked different reactions from both sides…

Find answers for all those questions you ask of your characters.

Then figure out why those are the answers.

You can draw on your personal reactions to those questions, but the key to understanding your character’s reactions is to have an explanation for why that is the reaction. Is it something to do with the cultural beliefs of your world? Is it to do with your character’s own personal experiences of the world? Is it a combination of both? In finding out the answers to those questions you’re well on your way to beginning to build a character from scratch and while also constructing the world in which your character is a part of too.

When it comes to developing your plot, with this basic knowledge of your character in mind, what you will know is how they will react to that plot point. And that is the most important thing to need to know about your characters. If it happens that knowing what their favourite colour is turns out to be important, then great you’ll know, but I think it’s best to know why they have that reaction to that colour.

On the way you might understand a bit more about yourself as well.

Check out this interesting article as well. It’s about how Freud went about understanding people and very relevant when it comes to creating characters.


7 responses »

  1. Pingback: If You Like It, Put A Ring On It | Faith Simone

  2. Pingback: Jaye Em Edgecliff

  3. Pingback: Keys to characterisation | Jaye Em Edgecliff

  4. Pingback: The Key to a Great Story – Protagonists | A Young Writer's Notebook

  5. Pingback: The Key to a Great Story – Combining Characters and Plot | A Young Writer's Notebook

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