How To Build A Character From Scratch (And It May Not Be The Way You Think...)


Many writers, in setting out to write a story, do not worry about establishing a character or even a plot before they begin, and simply launch into creating a narrative as a kind of holistic act. That’s completely fine — indeed, part of the joy in writing fiction is precisely that ‘jumping into the void’ and permitting some ‘other voice’ or one’s own buried voice to break free and tell a tale.

But if you wanted to start out from scratch and ‘build a character’, you could do worse than follow these steps. (I’m simply going to list out some steps here —- these things are so axiomatic that you will immediately be able to think of several examples from stories you love straight away, with minimal effort.)

1. Start with Nothing

I once knew a writer who had a whole filing cabinet full of notes about his main characters, detailing everything about them from their dates of birth, food preferences, family relationships and almost everything else, even down to their favourite socks. I’m not sure if it worked effectively for him, but I think I would have found the files stifling rather than enervating as a writer. And I think readers would have found that level of detail a bit excessive too, depending on how much of it was conveyed on the page. A better point to begin might be with nothing.

2. Take Things Away

So if you start with nothing, the next step would be to add in some chief qualities, right? Wrong. The best way to develop a character who is both appealing and attractive to both the writer and the reader is to have something missing in their make-up or environment.

Think about it: every character you can think of in literature is missing something — it might be a vitally needed personal quality, or it might be something that they crucially require in their surroundings. Conversely, when you think about those same characters, has the author started by listing out their attributes? Hardly ever, right? More likely than not, your favourite characters in fiction have grown on you based on their needs, their essential and desperately required wants.

So start developing your character by removing something from the zero you have.

Should you take away anything? Randomly? No, start on a gradient.

3. Take Away Things On A Gradient

Depending on the length, shape and genre of your story, start with lesser needs and build up to major needs.

Characters at the beginning of longer stories usually start off bothered by relatively small wants, irksome situations, background worries: they have awkward or uncomfortable family situations, they are caught in situations which prevent them doing what they wish, they are trapped but surviving well enough.

These needs then increase through the story — in fact, this building curve of needs forms the backbone of the plot. First, the character loses something of more major importance, like a social situation or a relationship or something slightly more serious; later, they lose perhaps education, health, friends, a sense of security; towards the end of the story, their lives might be (and often are) at risk.

This curve is no accident — it needs a building sweep of growing needs, starting with relatively minor inconveniences and escalating to disasters, to grip and pull the reader along. Start with a life-threatening situation and curve down to a merely irksome annoyance and readers will abandon your story in droves.

Naturally, a shorter story has to jump in earlier with more serious losses or drastic situations; and a darker genre of story also needs to pump up the ‘life/death’ element sooner in the narrative.

4. Discover Or Restore Things (Or Not) At The End

In stories with positive endings, the character finds the quality that he or she was missing, or the item, or the relationship, or the work placement or the social standing or the spiritual equilibrium or whatever it was they were lacking at the beginning as part of the climax of the tale, leaving the reader inwardly satisfied. In darker stories, the character perhaps almost finds whatever it is, but fails, leaving the reader chilled and feeling a little vulnerable.

And that’s it.

How you manage the above will determine the effectiveness or not of your fiction.

Very rarely do authors describe their characters in minute detail and expect the reader to have any affinity for them: by far the majority of characters in literature follow the pattern above. When you think about them, you don’t usually have a vivid picture of anything except what they don’t have — it’s their needs, immediate, medium-term and long-term, that hook you in. The character may even be repellent in terms of the things they do in the story, but if their losses and pressing requirements and vital needs resonate powerfully enough, you as a reader will still ‘like’ them on some level: affinity flows towards gaps.

You might not, as I say, write stories in this way: characters may simply leap from your imagination into a tale and take it from there. But even your spontaneously created ‘beings’ will be composed of needs rather than attributes — and what is even more interesting is that the more you emphasise those needs, the more alive the character becomes, for you and for the reader.

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