Think back to a movie where the character unexpectedly came to life. What memorable role was it? Who was the actor? How did that person seem larger than life? Thinking back to movies where the actor went beyond the expectations are seldom, but they are with us forever. Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight comes to mind, Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, Charlize Theron’s role in Monster, and Sir Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. What made these characters stay with us long after the movie ended besides the phenomenal acting? Was it something as skin deep as their beauty? Perhaps we were drawn to their flaws, their attitude, or the way they carried themselves is what we remember. Or was it the story itself?
A good story can hold its own, but it’s the character that makes or breaks the novel. One-dimensional characters will always fall short of the potential your story holds. Whether you’re writing a gripping horror, a romantic tale, or fantastical sci-fi, you need a well-rounded protagonist or antagonist. But, not every individual needs to seem so at first glance. An example of this is Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. He’s cocky, blase, and a scoundrel out for money. Despite his flaws, at the end of the movie, he comes back to save Luke Skywalker from Darth Vader in the trench run on the Death Star. Can you imagine what Star Wars would have been like if Han was the lead? It is a valid argument to say it would still be an excellent movie, but I would argue it wouldn’t possess the same impact. Now, knowing the character, a single novel, adventure, or movie would be great. So, how do you come up with a flawed individual worth following?
I would almost declare: there is no right or wrong way to develop a character, but there might just be. Some authors build based off looks or clothing or perhaps a locale. For myself, I build from the inside to the outside. I find out what his or her generalized qualities are. You can craft this from scratch for a unique individual, or you can cheat. I use something everyone can relate to just by being born: zodiacs. Whether your character, or yourself for that matter, believe in them is irrelevant. People born under a particular sign tend to act similar, the only difference is life choices, how they were raised, and locale. These crucial points shape people into different “characters.” Pick a zodiac you know well, like your own, or scroll through and find one that highlights the qualities or negative traits you want to exploit. Each zodiac boasts six to ten different qualities. Choose three from the positive and negative side to focus on, and bring these to the forefront.
Do you want your lead to be easily duped and tragic? Are they a leader? Is this an origin story and finding out who they are or are they already established? A great origin story is Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. An established character would be Commander Shepard from the video game trilogy Mass Effect. Can you remember a movie or book where someone was always falling for the wrong person or scheme? A Game of Thrones’ Sansa Stark comes to mind with her naivety.
Let’s build a character now. For this, I will choose the Aries zodiac. Remember, not every trait will be expressed in every Aries.
Positive: Adventurous and energetic, pioneering and courageous, enthusiastic and confident, dynamic and quick-witted
Negative: Selfish, quick-tempered, impulsive, impatient, foolhardy, and daredevil.
Judging from the lists above, does anything call to you? What combination would make a conflicted person? For this example, I will choose a female who is twenty-five years old. For her positive traits, let’s make her confident, quick-witted, and adventurous. Now for the negative: quick-tempered, impatient, and impulsive. Do you see an internal conflict arising from my choices? If yes, then you are on the right track. But what is our character going to do? Let’s make her a sword-wielding soldier in medieval times, and she’s not in charge, but a position or two away from the top rank of her squad. Can any conflicts arise from this circumstance?
Now, to hone in on two particular wants or desires. You can have more, especially if your story is a continuation, but let’s focus on two. We want these desires to conflict, so she is pulled in two different directions. Perhaps she wants to be religious and follow the covenants of her deity which forbids killing, but she also intends to be the best soldier. Maybe she seeks to leave the service but is confident if she does and is not there to watch her squadmates’ back, they’ll die. Or it can be something both simple and strong. She wants to be the best soldier, and she wants a family, but living a soldier’s life isn’t ideal for children or a relationship. Will the internal war reach a precipice and she must choose one or the other?
Once you nailed down your internal conflict and her traits, now it’s time to give her personality. Is she snarky and sarcastic? Is she genuine and pleasant to be around? Does she talk in a soft voice or is she strident? Introverted or extroverted? Mayhaps a combination of both? What about a romantic interest? Is it just budding or is withering? Is she happy or disgruntled, both professionally and personally?
If you’ve answered these questions, go on to beliefs and moral code. Can someone be religious and quick-tempered and an adventurous extrovert? What about confident, agnostic, and an impulsive introvert? Any combination is possible.
Features are the next on the list. I am not referring to eye color, hair color, or ethnicity. I am talking about scars, tattoos, and deformities. Does she have a tattoo? If so, what is the story behind it? Remember, in the planning stages, you don’t need all the answers. Sometimes writing a few chapters will bring them to life for you. Another factor is to not reveal everything on the first go-around. Yes, she has a tattoo of a dragon on her right shoulder, but the story doesn’t come until the second novel. Remember to foster the intrigue. What does it look like? A green dragon head wreathed in flame. That short description is enough for someone to create a mental picture. Imagine a segment of her ear is missing from a knife fight. Her right eye sits a little lower than the left. Though we want our characters beautiful, not everyone in your novel can be models. It’s okay to have a good-looking man or woman, even a couple of them. Are they around for your main to become envious or covetous?
Now we have a solid idea about the core of her, what does she look like? Is she tall, short, voluptuous, curvy, skinny, fat, or athletic? Does she has long legs and a short torso or just the opposite? What kind of lips does she have? Full lips, downward turned, heart-shaped, thin lips, uneven? What about her nose? Is it snubbed, bulbous, celestial, aquiline, or broken? Maybe the ridge is tall and makes her eyes appear deeper than what they are. Her eyebrows? Eye shape and color? Hair color and length. Is it wavy, curly, straight, fine, thick?
You may think this is too detailed, but it’s not. You can add these little snippets throughout a few pages to paint a tapestry. There is still much to discuss, like the body shape. Is she tall, short, average height? What is her best physical feature? What aspects of her physicality, mentality, emotional availability, or personality draws others? What part of her does she hate? What is a turn-off for others?
To me, the hair/ eye color and ethnicity are trivial matters in the grand scheme. These aspects I decide almost last unless I am building a particular character or race from a segment of my world. Maybe this female we created is a goblin? Wouldn’t that be interesting? She’s the only goblin in a squad of humans and dwarves…. Regardless of race, sex, or ethnicity, let your character speak to you. There are a thousand ways to build, and this is but one. Take out what works for you and file away the portions that don’t, but don’t discard. You never know when your next protagonist will come knocking.