Exciting characters make the most compelling stories—at least in my reading experiences. Maybe that’s why my stories almost always begin with a character rather than a plot. Well, except one and I’m working on that.
One of my first characters, Meegan Redoak, is still rattling around in my head. She and her friend, Skrie, are orphans in a harsh world. They’re running from their respective pasts and discover that family is more than the unit into which one is born. All my characters are searching for safety and peace. I think it’s what many of us strive for.
How do I create characters?
For me, it starts with a set of dice. I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons so long that using four six-sided dice just makes sense to me. I decide ahead of time what role this character will play in the story. Will they be the leader? The thinker? The sneaky one? The scared one? Those choices decide how I distribute the dice rolls.
Each character has at least six traits that determine how they interact with the world. Based on the D&D rules, those traits are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution (Stamina), Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma (Personality). I use four six-sided dice and throw away the lowest die. A roll using that rule yields a number between three and eighteen, ten is considered “average.” Rolling the traits in order can give you an interesting character, but also one that could fail quickly. I generally roll the dice six times, jot down the numbers, and assign the numbers according to the role the character will play in the story.
Using this method almost always makes me place a low value someplace. That small number is the character’s biggest flaw. Is the character strong as an ox, but has the stamina of a 10-year-old? Or is she smart enough to break into the highest security servers, but doesn’t have the sense to come in out of a hurricane? Those are some of the ways I’ve built characters for games. How you develop your characters is unique to you, I’m sure.
After I’ve decided what role a specific character will play and I’ve built the framework, if the character hasn’t already named themselves to me, I go in search of their moniker. In my fantasy setting, a family group was thrown across the multiverse at the whim of the gods. Their last name is always Alterian. Their stories involve adapting to new ages, new worlds, new information. They are all tied to my first, unknown Alterian, character—Ashja.
I was one of four writers of this unfinished saga. We took turns driving the story forward, and the story progressed as we played the game. Bouncing story ideas off each other as we chatted after play sessions, we led each other through a merry adventure. It lasted until we invited a disruptive influence to play in the group, and the story lost momentum. The guys have given me permission to complete that story, and it is one of the projects on my plate.
How do I flesh out characters?
If I’m playing a game, I go to the sourcebooks. For the purpose of a story, my process is a bit different.
Frequently, the characters will chat about themselves with me. Some trust me right away and tell me their entire life story in one swell foop, others are more reticent and tell me little bits at a time. I’ve known Meegan and Skrie for so long that sometimes I think they are real people. But I know they aren’t—at least not on this plane of existence.
One source I use for story characters is the Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, by Linda N Edelstein, Ph.D. This book gives me ideas and concise information on different personality types. I have one character who is waiting for me to sit down and write her story before she tells me much. In fact, she and her partner are reticent. I can relate their accounts after the triggering event, but I can’t know much about them until I sit down and am ready to hear their stories.
If you aren’t a writer, this sounds a lot like bunk. But writers understand. It’s as if a portal from another part of the universe is open in my head, and someone from the other side wants their tale told here. I’m willing to comply.
And now that I’ll have the time, I’ll be able to open my minds’ eye and listen.