Crafting Characters

I was asked by an old friend of mine, Lori, the other day how I created characters. This was a bit of a weird question to answer for me, because I really had to figure out what I did. Stories and characters come very naturally to me and I can safely say that I don’t have a set way of developing a story every single time. Sometimes I see a scene, sometimes a character, other times I get asked to write something with certain criteria in mind. The latter usually helps a lot – I find it’s always easier to write to a concept than it is to write to nothing.

Usually I don’t write down a whole bunch of things that a character does, fill in questionnaires in character, figure out every single thing about them – from their favourite colour nail polish to the birthday of their Great Aunt Mildred. What I do know or can work out quite early on, is what they will and won’t do in certain situations.

And this, I think is key.

Action informs character, not the other way around.

They say that actions speak louder than words and I think that this is especially true in films. But the key thing to figure out about your characters first is how they react to things.

There’s a really simple writing exercise that I think can help if you want to get to know your characters a little bit. It might be a good idea to try this anyway, to check that you’ve got a good handle on characters you’ve already developed too.

But imagine they’re waiting in line at the cinema and have been waiting for twenty minutes, there’s one person at the counter and the line is a mile long. They’re two people from the front of the line and someone cuts in front of them. How do they react to that?

Depending on your film and your character, the location could change (the post office/pub/garage/toilet), but the essence of the scene is there. Really think about it. I’m not even going to throw out examples of what they could do because it needs to come from your head. Chances are there are things that will feel instinctively right and others that don’t. Follow your gut and figure your characters out – give them a chance to do their thing. Because when you’re writing, their voices will really come through in your work. And sometimes they can completely surprise you.

Try it. See how you go.

2 thoughts on “Crafting Characters

  1. Whit says:

    Great post. I often do little exercises like this to see if my characters would surprise me. It also helps them distance themselves from simply being extensions of me.

    Case in point: I recently killed off a much loved character that I’ve been writing since I was 17. I wrote him into a corner and realised the only outcome would be his death or a total rewrite. Deus Ex Machina was out of the question. I forged on until I completed the draft and he bought the farm. He wouldn’t have had it any other way. If he were in the room with me right now, he’d sock me on the jaw before I tried to stop him, because that’s who he is. And I love him for it.

    I went back and redrafted, put it in a drawer and realised that though I didn’t want to kill him off yet, there was no way this particular character could make it out of the world I had put him in alive, being who he is and all. He’s still alive for now, but now I know who he is…. well we’ll have to see.

    • Alli Parker says:

      I love it when characters do things to surprise me – and they often do. I once had a character go from attacking my protagonist by smashing a wine bottle over his head to being completely starstruck by him when he realised who the protag actually was. It was so brilliant and so perfect! But, like you, that character (and script) are lying in a drawer, waiting patiently for me to pick what I like out of it for later.

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