This is part of a series of blogs I’ve done over the last year or so, sharing some simple starter tips that I think I would have found useful when I first started writing but with a lot of the useless parts left out!
Today’s blog is a just to cover the basics of how to map out who your character is, because you do not want to do what I’ve had to, which is go back to edit your story because you’ve given your main character a different eye colour almost every chapter.
You starting blocks are simple:
- Geographic location
Even if your narrative isn’t discussing these themes, they are still important to think about. Some of this will play into your world building, but whether you’ve chosen a fantasy setting or a real one, the fact is that where we grow up, our religion and our ethnicity, have a huge impact on your beliefs and actions. As will the people that are around your character, even if you never intend to bring up their family, it will help build their backstory.
I only mentioned birthday, however, because it’s very easy to accidentally mention a birth month off- hand when you are writing, only to discover you’ve given them multiple birthdays.
Super basic but you need to have these nailed down to not repeat my mistakes.
You need to think about:
- Eye colour
- Hair colour
- Skin tone
- Face shape
- Build (stocky, lean, thin, wiry, plump etc)
- Muscle Tone
- Clothing style
I had a drama teacher that used to say that when she’s trying to understand a character, she would start with their shoes. You would be surprised how much things like clothing can inform your character’s personality.
I included their smile because I think this is important, so much about describing someone’s emotion is built by these small motions in their face. The classic crooked smile, or dimple, is a great example. However, it’s worth thinking about other things like, when they smile do their eyes crinkle at the corners? Or does it show their black bags? Does their forehead crinkle, do their eyebrows raise? If someone has laugh lines or frown lines, what does that say about them? What can we tell our reader about our character without stating it explicitly?
It’s important to have a few stock traits planned out. This will either be inform your character’s back story, or be formed by their back story. I.E if they are grumpy all the time, why? Or, if they lose sleep because of bad dreams from a tragic backstory, the surface result of this would be grumpiness. These can help play into each other.
- Happy or sad?
- Trusting? Or Aloof?
- Blunt? Honest? Or secretive and reserved?
- Outgoing or Introverted?
- Confident? Good in a crisis?
- Funny? -What type of humour? Dry? Sarcastic? Or brash? Or juvenile?
- Morning person? Or night owl?
- Kind or cruel? Or- in what situations would they be one of the other? People are not that black and white
- Cry easily? Or not at all?
The question you need to ask yourself after answering each of the above, is why? Why don’t they cry? Why are they angry? etc. This leads nicely into my next point.
Now, I’m not talking about doing a J.K.Rowling and having several generations of their family tree mapped out with a tragic back story TM each. You do need to have a little think about their life prior to the story’s start, even if you don’t intend to mention it, it might help you build the elements I mentioned above this, or, if you’ve worked out the above first, you need to figure out the ‘why’.
There’s a thing in drama and writing that’s referred to as ‘Chekhov’s gun‘, essentially, this is the principle that if there’s a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must be used by the last. At least, that is how it was explained to me.
What does your character want?
And why do they want it?
You cannot just decide that your character is going to be grumpy without thinking about the why. Even if you never intend to mention it. These things don’t just happen in real people for no reason and it will make your character feel shallow to a reader.
The ‘why?’ is what drives your character. It informs their motivation in every scene and in the overall narrative. Your reader wants to root for your character’s goals, whether or not they are explicitly expressed. They will not care about a character who has no purpose, no drive, no goals.
Let me give you an example, using a cheesy romance novel framework:
your character had a lonely childhood, they are blunt and naturally reserved, which made making friends difficult but only because she had parents who were shitty and absent, so she’d rather rely on herself. This self reliance becomes a crutch, at the expense of her happiness because she can’t be let down if she doesn’t allow anyone the chance to be do so. So our motivation here is: loneliness and lack of connection. This helps us create what will be the main conflict in the narrative when Mr Hunk Mcdreamy walks in and she can’t get out of her own way. Thus, you are going to root for the happy ending, you are going to care when she inevitably panics when things get too real and she ruins it (like she ruins everything, ergh) and you are going to happy as a reader when that inner hurt is healed and she sails off into the sunset with Mr Hunk Mcdreamy.
Without that (admittedly shallow) backstory, you wouldn’t have cared about the main character meeting the love interest. Humans are empathetic. You need to make them feel things for your character and care about what they want.
A big example of this is in Harry Potter (as much as I don’t want to refer to she-who-must-not-be-named-again, it’s an easy well known example, so apologies). Harry had a lonely childhood, in which the adults in his life let him down and the more aware of this he becomes, the angrier it makes him. This informs everything he does, the found family he builds around him at school, the reason he throws himself into dangerous situations without seeking help from adults and it’s ultimately the reason he chooses to sacrifice himself for everyone in the battle of Hogwarts, which ends up being the key to defeating Voldemort.
Do you need to do this for every character?
Absolutely not. The whole Chekhov’s gun thing applies to irrelevant information as well. The depth to which you develop your character map, is really dependent on how much they will feature in your story and it’s relevance to their role in your story. For your main character’s, it’s worth having a good idea of these things but for those on the periphery, it’s rarely helpful to spend too much time on it.
(This advice is contrary to a lot of writing advice out there FYI but I think it’s too easy to over-correct and get bogged down in the details, which ruins what you might create organically in the moment.)
A lot of the character mapping advice out there has rubbish like, what is their favourite breakfast? Favourite book? Blah, blah. This will not tell you who your character is. Most likely those details, if relevant, will come out naturally as you write.
You can find the other writing blogs I did below, I hope this was helpful!