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Astrid Cooper - on creating characters.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked is about creating characters. So, here is my 'take' on the subject. And of course, I hasten to add: I am not an expert, nor is 'my' way the only way.

Most people ask: Where do I begin? If you are writing commercial fiction, then the answer-(apart from knowing your target market)-has to be: creating characters.

Whole writing how-to books have been devoted to this subject, so what I have to say is a summary.
  • A deficient plot can be rectified, but can deficient characters? Not easily! Characters are your story; your book.
  • Readers, (editors, agents and general public) are looking for unique characters. Characters must have conflict, motivation, emotional impact, reader identification, and must be sympathetic-i.e., the reader identifies with the characters.
If this does not occur from the very first page of your book; REJECTION!
  • One minute hook.
These days a writer has only a few moments to entice the target reader. "Dazzle" from line one page one. Does this sound ridiculous? Unfair?

A reader CAN tell if the book and the writer has the elusive 'x factor'.

I've read for many writing competitions and after reading for hours, you are tired, irritable and when that next ms presents more of the same, you just cannot read on-it is a chore. But if the next ms you pick up has that spark, you are STIMULATED. You read on.
  • Beginning your story. Where is the best place to begin?
  • Character in conflict or danger-facing the 'call to adventure'. Often the character rejects the FIRST call to adventure. What does all this mean?
E.g., Obi Wan Kenobi offers to train Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Jedi. Luke refuses, stating that he has to go home and work on the farm. Luke rejects the FIRST CALL. It is only when his uncle and aunt are killed by the Empire that Luke responds to the call to adventure. He answers the SECOND CALL.
  • Consider every film and book. Identify the call to adventure. That call will come close to the opening.
  • The call to adventure usually involves your point of view character - i.e., the character who tells the story.
  • And that is another question-WHO will be the main POV character?
Ask yourself: Who has the most to gain (and often the most to lose) in your story? Star Wars, is Luke's story. It is the transformation of a farm boy to Jedi Knight, the one man in the universe who can defeat the Empire. Who else CAN tell this story?
  • The pov character defines the nature of your story.
E.g., if you are going to tell the Cinderella story from the POV of the stepmother, how different would the story be? Reader sympathy might not be with Cinderella but with the stepmother who is anxious to find husbands for her 2 ugly daughters while looking after Cinderella-the beautiful spoilt daughter of her dead husband.
  • Story defines characters and characters define story!
Consider the natural evolution of a character in the story, the events change the character. The hero's journey is the journey/the change/the transformation of a person because of what occurs during the story. The Luke Skywalker example illustrates this perfectly.
  • In the film Titanic, whose story is it? (i.e., who is the POV character?) I would suggest that it is Rose. Jack is a main character, but he is not changed or motivated to the same degree as Rose. Rose flings off the shackles of her class to pursue her dream; Jack is the catalyst for Rose's transformation.
  • Look at films and books and explore motivation, characterisation, the call to adventure and pov characters.
  • Many writers allow the character to develop over the course of the book. This is my choice, but I also use other tools to create characters.
  • Do you think and visualise your characters for days, weeks, months before writing? Characters can come via dreams. All these work for me.
  • Other ways of creating characters.

  • What do they look like? You need to KNOW your character! If you were asked by a Hollywood director to suggest which star would be cast as your character -- would you know? Maintain a file for each book: photos of characters can be taken from magazines. Often I have written a story purely from seeing an interesting face in a magazine. I have asked myself: who is this person and what does he want, do, see . and so on.
  • Character files also help you to maintain records of your characters book by book. My current work in progress has over 30 characters. I have to have some easy way of keeping track of them, their appearance, their purpose in the story, so I make character files.
  • Character questionnaire/biography. There are examples on the 'net, ranging from a simple one-page questionnaire, to an intense example that could be more than 21 pages of questions.
Does this seem a waste of time to you?
  • Much of the information is NOT going to be published, but YOU-the writer-must know your character, so you can make them 'real'.
Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek) used character questionnaires. He sat down and 'interviewed' SPOCK and wrote down the received answers without any hesitation. A week later, Roddenberry re-interviewed Spock and was surprised and delighted by the answers. What has happened is that the subconscious had been actively working on the character between first and second interviews. This will work for you, too!
  • DO NOT think about the answers. DO NOT edit. LET THE CHARACTER SPEAK.
A very basic character questionnaire would look something like this-tailor it to your needs!

Character Questionnaire
Title Of Book:
Nickname And Why?
Date Of Birth
Star Sign
Traits Applicable To The Star Sign Exhibited By Character:
Hair Colour And Hair Style:
Eye Colour:
Distinguishing Physical Characteristics:
Favourite Clothes And Other Possessions:
Favourite Possession And Why?
Religious Beliefis (Or Spiritual Beliefs) If None, Why?
Main Strength?
Main Weakness?
Life Goals. Short, Medium And Long Term.
What Action Will Character Take To Achieve These Goals?
Biggest Secret?
Attitude To Opposite Sex And Why?
Mannerism When Angry?
Mannerism When Happy?


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