A writer-friend of mine who has recently stumbled into some impending spare time asked me if I had any advice on the creation of characters. It turns out, I have some clear and relevant thoughts on the matter, and I thought the rest of the blogging world might enjoy hearing about it, too.
There are many hundreds, likely thousands of pins and charts, templates and directions regarding the creation of characters.
I believe I’ve even frequented parts of the internet which contain character generators, doing most of the detail work for the writer. Well, when my soon-to-be-college-graduate-friend (you go, girl!) said she was soon going to have enough time to start a novel about faeries and coffee shops and wondered if there was some such tool I favored, I responded with this template which I created through LiquidBinder (you really only need Word or some such writing program to be a novelist, but LiquidBinder captured my attention for a good while, and I missed it after talking to my friend – so that software relationship is ‘on’ again). Here is a screen capture of an unfinished template for one of Bill’s characters, only the picture and her name as the header:
Templates simply will not get you very far in the character creation game. Here’s why: all of those neat little fields just waiting to be filled in are nothing but NOISE unless they matter to a) the world, b) another character, c) the plot. Say you’re writing sci-fi, a description of the alien race invading earth is gonna go a long way to helping your world along. Say you’re writing a drama in which Christine looks just like the Phantom’s mother – you need her description for character-related purposes. And, as much as we like to think we live in a post-appearance world, how we look really does affect how we interact with things. And interacting with things is basically plot, so there. Hazel eyes, and the staunch repetition of the fact that a character has hazel eyes, is usually noise. Having one character shorter than another might mean your villain can dangle the nuclear launch codes over the hero’s head while they jump to reach it – which is too funny to be noise.
Many of the fields above will not openly feature in the story but are helpful in informing through negative information. Say, for example, that this character has a deadly fear of birthday balloons, but really nothing else. That means that she /will/ be fearless in any situation not containing birthday balloons. Sometimes, these fields are somewhat tangential. If a character’s dominant feature are large ears of which she is self-conscious, then it will inform her decision to wear large hats, loose hair, or minimalist earrings, as well as her mannerism of smoothing her hair over her ears or tugging on her lobes self-consciously.
Some will affect every line of a story by affecting the space in-between each line of the story via: subtext. The undisclosed agenda is the fountainhead of nearly all character-centered subtext.
The sacred rule of furthering plot, character, setting (or at least two out of three) applies to character invention and related details as thouroughly as any other aspect of your story. Describing a character simply for the sake of detail is, I repeat, merely noise. Describing a character because their dreams are your Checkov’s gun or their hair is a red herring is where good writing slides into the story. Detail is useless without meaningful context.
The final piece of advice (first template, second context) was to play along with the Beautiful People meme by PaperFury.com, as her questions always help me accomplish what the others strive to do.