There are three ways to make people:
- When a mummy and daddy love each other very much, they have a special cuddle and nine months later you appeared and ten years later mummy and daddy get divorced and now you’re fine but periodically just… no never mind, it’s fine.
- You can pick a name from a baby name book, fill in one of those character sheets with 76,935 questions about eye colour and preference for driving a manual or automatic, for sleeping foetal or starfish.
- You can just kinda know who these people are.
You can pick your favourite, but we’re going with 3.
But wait but no, you say. That’s useless advice.
Well yes it is, young writer-buddy. But also it’s the truest thing we’ve got.
Look, there’s the technical side to character building – your fictional dudes need an actual story, they need to start at A and get to B via the rest of the alphabet, they need to have things they want and things they need (super hint: these could be the diametric opposite for the full fuck-em-up effect), they need conflict and intrigue and daring and fear. They need to be people who, as our spirit animal Chuck Wendig says, you find “compelling and upsetting”.
But there’s also the metaphysical side to character building. Fundamentally, they need to be – at the very least – your friends, and ideally people you can utterly inhabit. People you are obsessed with. People for whom you are prepared to bury deep into their psyche and to understand why they behave the way they do in order to drive your story forward.
And you don’t get that by answering endless basic questions about where they live and what jean-shape they prefer (flares. For the love of Glob can we have flares back please?), and giving them contrived tics. Ahem Brad.
You do that by rolling up your sleeves and diving into them, guts and all.
Get writing with them.
Throw things at them.
Make them do things, and then make them do the opposite – does that seem like the right thing for them or is it completely out of character? Would they, maybe, cry after having sex or is that completely freakin’ unlikely? Would the bad-boy-turned-sort-of-good vampire really try to force himself on the slayer? Would the leader of the rebellion really settle down with the crap guy at the end? They might. Or they might not.
Make your guys want something and then take it away.
Make them think they want something and give it to them. Experiment. Go in deep. Try it out.
Here’s a thing about going in deep. You have to be brave. It is entirely possible – even likely – that your characters are in some way extensions of you. That they represent the dark and winding alleys of you that you want to explore, or don’t want to admit exist, or that you’ve had a hint of and want to sniff out.
This can be a hard pill to swallow. Our culture is predicated on the idea of something-like-civilisation, and that includes a desperate repression of our animal natures. There has never been a more true piece of fiction than Jezebel’s in The Handmaid’s Tale; it doesn’t matter how much civilisation we implement, there will always be a need for an uncivilised outlet.
It’s hard to admit we sometimes think about animal things, like primal violence and sex, but we do. That doesn’t mean we necessarily want it. Thinking about it and doing it are two very different things. And that’s not to say all characters have to represent the supposedly worst aspects of ourselves. It’s just to say that sometimes they do, and that’s totally fine.
Remember it doesn’t even need to be as dark and serious as kicking and fucking. These are simply the extremes on the spectrum. Along the way are infinite other possibilities: I’m a confident person but inside I’m dying. I still wonder what would have happened if I chose not to come back from Australia, age 23. What would happen if I didn’t love tea? Will I ever be satisfied or will I always want more? What would happen if I was to lead a band of teenage ghost hunters across London? How do I resolve my politics and my desires? What does all this mean on a page as told by someone else? We need answers goddamit!
In short, you need to be a little bit of an egoist, a little bit of a delusional fantasist, and fearless experimenter, and your own psychotherapist. Sounds like a great night in tbh.
Ready to write? Here’s your prompt
Get your 30 minute timer ready. You’re gonna dive in…
Grab a character, any character from your catalogue of pretend people. Or if you don’t have one, pick an existing fictional character who you lurve. Or make up someone entirely new. Or use yourself. Or your BFF. Or anyone.
Now do this: make your character want something more than anything in the world.
Make this thing the opposite of the thing they actually need – they might want more friends when actually they need to like themselves. They might want money when actually they need to understand contentment. They might want a space rocket when actually they need to be a leeetle bit more realistic…
Now take this thing your character wants… and give it to them.
Set your timer for 30 minutes and GO!