Whether you’re writing a screenplay, novel, or video game, you’ll need at least one compelling character to drive the plot forward. Now, making a character is easy. It’s making them real, compelling, and and integral part of the plot that can be difficult.
Whether you are crafting plot from character or character from plot, I am here to help! The art of building a character begins with five concepts: want, contradiction, vulnerability, disposition, and origin. Let’s get into it.
At the beginning, middle, and end of the day, any compelling character is one who wants something. A character with desire, ambition, goals – that is how writers move the story forward. But how do you decide what your character wants?
Wants can be complicated. Say you have a story about a group of heroes thrown into a quest to save the realm. The lead character, however driven they may be to save the realm, should want more than that. They could want to save the realm, but also to exact revenge. They could want to save the realm, but also to figure out who they really are. Both of these examples are usually going to be more interesting that ‘Character A wants to save the world.’
That is not to save that characters with only one goal can’t be interesting. In the context of a story, it is important to realize that the wants of the character don’t necessarily need to line up with the requirements of the plot. For example, you could have a story about a character thrown into a quest to save the realm, but their only concern is to maintain the well being of their sibling. That sort of want breeds conflict, and makes for an interesting story.
Think about fictional characters you’re particularly fond of. What do they want? What are their goals and how do they play out within the context of the story?
People are not meant to be described with clean summaries. Most people have contradictions – some of them glaring – in their personality, work life, values, what have you. It’s realistic, and breeds fascination.
Say your character is an assassin by trade, but a vegan. This begs several questions. Namely, how can an assassin be a vegan? Do they see themselves as little more than a tool? Does a vegan lifestyle help them cope with guilt? Or do they just think it’s healthier? Regardless of the answer, the contradiction itself creates questions, and the answers to those questions provide interesting insights into the character.
Everybody has a weakness or vulnerability. This, more than any other trait, makes characters relatable. This is where you really start figuring out what makes your character tick.
Think: Do they have a physical weakness? An Achilles heel? How? Why? Where are they emotionally vulnerable? Who do they care about? What do they care about? How much?
Spend time considering these questions. In any story, a weakness could be anything from a fear of thunder to an inability to trust their own judgement. They could have weak knees that make it difficult for them to walk long distances, or be extremely sensitive when it comes to discussing their family. As with the other options, there is a wide array of details to play with when it comes to interesting, realistic vulnerabilities.
This is where you start to move from who you character is to how your character behaves. Are they sunny and optimistic? Do they wear their emotions on their sleeve? Are they likely to reveal a vulnerability? A want?
Fleshing out your character’s disposition will help to reveal how they will engage with other characters, and with the events of the story. Even if they have the same wants, contradictions, and vulnerabilities, two characters of different dispositions will behave radically different within the story.
Everybody has an origin story. Even if the reader will never learn your character’s origin story, it is extremely helpful for a writer to know it. This is where you decide why a character does what they do.
Move beyond small factoids and details and write a real origin story. While those factoids are important, a story is what gives them meaning. Even if it’s only a paragraph or two long. Imaging how a character got to where they are will really help to flesh out who they are now.
Questions or additions? Let me know in the comments below!