Character Creation: Why Is It Important And How Can You Do It?
There are two main parts to every story: internal and external conflict. These are also known as character and plot, respectively.
One of the age-old debates in the literary world is which is more important to the story. Neuroscience has answered this question with fMRI technology. According to Lisa Cron’s book, “Story Genius,” the character’s journey is more important. Why?
It’s how our brains process the story. On page 109 of “Story Genius,” Cron writes, “Cognitive psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley… defines fiction as ‘a simulation that runs on the software of our minds.” We use stories as a way to evaluate different social situations and how we would react to them. Basically, it allows us to experience the situation and reap the chemical rewards of navigating it successfully without ever being in the situation for ourselves.
Your character’s journey to change is what makes the story compelling to readers.
You need to relate to the character on some level. Our brains are wired to relate to the character, not the plot. If the character is not relatable, then the reader stops reading.
That begs the question: how can you create a relatable character and make the story compelling?
First, by understanding a few key points:
- The character’s journey and how they learn, grow, or change based on the events that happen to them is what makes a good story. They must finish the story as a different person than the person they were when the story started.
- A character’s story starts in the middle of their journey. They already have a past full of memories and experiences that shape who they are and how they will react to the situations you throw them in. No person is a blank slate. You must shape their past and how it made them who they are.
- The character has a desire for something they believe will make them happy. That desire drives them.
- The character has a core misbelief that prevents them from learning, growing, changing and getting that desire. A specific event made them believe what they do, and a series of other events reinforced that belief. The belief served a purpose and was a logical explanation based on these events. See number two.
- As humans, we are wired to resist change. So, something external must force the character to begin the journey to change. By the end of the story, this change will give the character what they most desire or something else they didn’t know they wanted or needed. It may or may not make them happy; that is up to you.
So how does this work in a story?
Here is an example from my current work in progress:
For number three, my character desires success because that is the best revenge. But what does success look like to her and why is she trying to get revenge? Success to her looks like getting a job at the local historical society from the town of her birth because she has a passion for local histories. She wants to prove to everyone in her hometown that she won’t end up like her mother, who was the town’s mooch and ended up dying by suicide. They have treated my character like trash and told she would end up just like her mother.
The questions I asked to get to these conclusions were: What does my character want (external, concrete, and measurable) and what would it mean to the character to get this? What does the character seek (internally) and what would it mean to the character to get it? Why do they want these things?
For number four, the misbelief she has is that she can’t trust anyone to help her be successful. The lie she tells herself is that accepting help from anyone would make her success “not real.” The series of events that made her this way were all rooted in childhood: growing up living on handouts her mother procured and hearing the horrible way people talked about her. I specifically outlined a scene for the first time she was old enough to understand what was happening.
The questions I asked to get to this answer were: What would be a misbelief based on what she wants that would keep her from getting what she wants, or at least inhibit her progress? What is the lie she keeps telling herself that would keep her from facing this misbelief? What is her greatest fear?
A couple of bonus questions for backstory: What specific event in their childhood or past made the misbelief take root? What are three or more other events in her past that are crossroad moments where she could face her misbelief to get what she wants, but she chooses a way out, so she doesn’t have to change, and it reinforces her misbelief? Write out these scenes in their entirety. You might use them in your writing.
And for the last point, my character is faced with having to trust the last person she would ever trust due to extenuating circumstances. He is dangerous and unreliable. But, like the heroine, he is on his journey of change. The same external event that forces her to change forces him to change, too.
Questions I answered for this last point are: What would force the character to start the journey of facing her misbelief without giving her a way out? What would be the “point of no return” for her, where she can’t go back? What will her core belief be at the beginning (the misbelief) and end (the new, universal truth she learned)? What do you want your reader to go away thinking about or learning from your story?
I answered all of these questions for every one of my major characters.
It’s about creating realistic characters that resemble people. They are more relatable that way.
There are several methods you can use, depending on how your mind works:
You can answer these questions in any order and use any method you would like.
- Answer these questions from your character’s point of view, in their voice. This allows you to get into their mind in a more personal way and identify the character’s voice before you even start the work.
- Answer these questions in a third person point of view, like someone examining the psychology of someone else. It’s a little more distance between the character and you, but it can give you an objective point of view. Often times, your character won’t be aware of their deepest held beliefs and faults, and this can allow you to explore those without the character knowing of them.
- Journal using these questions as guidelines and see where it takes you. Using the character’s point of view is more useful for this exercise.
Once you have your character’s internal journey nailed down you can focus on other aspects of character building such as character questionnaires and their appearance, what they do when stressed, habits, and other such details.
I hope this quick overview of how to create effective character journeys to create a compelling story helped. By using this method, you can save yourself a lot of time in the editing process. What other questions and methods do you use to create your characters?