How to Make a Character (If Conventional Methods Aren’t Working For You)

Everyone’s got a different method for creating characters, and ultimately, you have to find what works best for you. But if charts and graphs aren’t your thing, here’s my unconventional method of making characters.

1. Let the environment shape the character

How a human behaves and thinks is a by-product of the culture in which they were raised (regionally and/or nationally). For example, I believe all of America should have marriage equality, which is a controversial issue regionally and nationally. My parents believe in marriage equality. My region largely believes in it. But if I’d been raised in a household where marriage equality or being anything other than cisgender and straight was wrong, I most likely wouldn’t advocate for marriage equality. Not to say someone’s views can’t change.

Backstory matters. Your character’s identity is essentially a reaction to the culture and set of circumstances they live in. Nothing bothers me more than a character who obviously reflects the writer’s personal beliefs, but the character has no exposure to those beliefs or ideas in their history.

Also, don’t dump the backstory on readers. There’s no reason to drown them in boring text. Be kind. Don’t drown people.

2. Appearance and cultural identity (e.g. ethnicity, race, hair, skin, eyes, etc.)

Firstly, yes, there is a difference between ethnicity and race. Being “black,” is not the same as being “African.” There was once a boy in my high school World History class who did a presentation on the history of slavery. It was fine until he said, “So the African-American slaves were brought from Africa to the French West Indies.” Two things wrong with this. 1) They’re not African-American. They’re African. 2) Not everyone with dark skin is African-American. We are not the only country with people of African descent.

That’s right, America. There are other countries in the world.

Race refers to one’s physical appearance. Ethnicity, on the other hand, encompasses ancestry, language, and culture. Ethnically, I’m 50% Polish, German, and Irish and 50% Vietnamese. Racially, I am three shades of White and half Yellow (it is horrible trying to figure out which bubble to fill in for race). I have semi-squinty eyes and slightly darker than average skin. My hair naturally comes in four different colors: black, brown, blond, and red (I shit you not). I don’t even know what race I am, so I like to say I’m three flavors of vanilla with a hefty scoop of banana ice cream.

Getting back on topic, ethnicity and race are important factors in appearance and the character’s cultural identity. Maybe the character is confused about their race like me because they’re mixed ethnically (or they’re a genetic abnormality and don’t look like the rest of their ethnic community). Maybe they’re an immigrant from a country where blond hair and blue eyes is the norm, and now, they’re surrounded by brown-eyed, black-haired people. Maybe their parents are immigrants, and their home life is drastically different from the culture of the country they now live in.

(Pardon me for using the colloquial “they.” It’s just annoying for you and me to have to write/read “he or she” over and over again. “They” is also an all-encompassing term that includes non-binary genders.)

3. Gender/Sex

There is a difference between gender and sex, too. “Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles of men and women while “sex” refers to the physiological characteristics of men and women. You may have noticed I used the term “cisgender” earlier. That simply means someone’s gender identity matches with their sex. The opposite of “cisgender” is “transgender,” where sex and gender identity do not match. Some people are “non-binary” or “genderqueer.” They identify as neither man nor woman, both man and woman, as genderless, or something else entirely. If you decide to write a transgender or non-binary character, I suggest you research extensively (assuming you’re not familiar with the genderqueer community already). The community might appreciate your effort to make a fictional character to represent them, but if that character represents them badly, you’re setting yourself up to be attacked by people who are already tired of being insulted and oppressed.

5. Sexuality and sexual orientation

If you’ve read my previous post, you know I’m pansexual. This means I’m attracted to all genders, including non-binary, and I’m genderqueer. In short, I’m a pansexual, genderqueer female. This identity plays a huge part in my life, and inevitably, it will play a part in your character’s life. When you’re making your character, it’s important to think about their sexuality and sexual orientation. Are they promiscuous? A virgin? Gay? Do they have a fetish? Do they enjoy sex or avoid it?

Here’s a list of sexual orientations you may or may not have heard of:

  1. Heterosexual – one who is sexually attracted the opposite gender
  2. Homosexual – one who is sexually attracted to the same gender
  3. Bisexual – one who is sexually attracted to their own gender and another
  4. Pansexual – one who is sexually attracted to all genders
  5. Asexual – one who feels little or no sexual attraction
  6. Demisexual – one who only feels sexual attraction when they have a strong emotional connection with someone.

There are more orientations out there that I invite you to explore if you want to make a character who doesn’t conform to heteronormativity–a view that heterosexuality and a binary gender system are the “norm.” Sexual orientation and sexuality are more fluid than many people know or want to acknowledge, and I would love to see more fictional characters who aren’t heterosexual or cisgender.

6.Habits, hobbies, and quirks

We all have our own special something that makes us little, unique snowflakes. Characters are no different. Remember, you’re creating a person. If you don’t feel like this character is real, your readers won’t either. Love your characters, and they’ll love you (most of the time).

Habits, hobbies, and quirks are great ways to demonstrate a character’s personality. If you read about a character who constantly washes their hands–even when clean–you’re going to know something’s up. Maybe they’re mysophobic. Maybe something happened in their past that makes them feel unclean. Either way, you’ve already gotten a glimpse into who they are from their quirk/habit. Just make sure that if you write a character with a psychological disorder, you research that disorder.

Research, research, research.

7. The pitfall

We all know that your hero is supposed to be charismatic, likeable, and driven, right? Screw that.

People are complex, and we all have our faults. Characters are no different. So maybe your hero isn’t charismatic. Maybe they aren’t likeable. Maybe they aren’t driven. That’s just the way they are. This idea that your hero has to have all these qualities (with a bit of faults, of course) is a pitfall. Let your characters have a voice and nature of their own, and they’ll rise to the occasion. People are inherently interesting. I guarantee you can find at least one interesting thing about the most boring person.

Example: Fight Club. The narrator wasn’t charismatic, likeable, or driven in the beginning. He was a messed up SOB start to finish. But interesting. In fact, I bet you’re reading this because you’re frustrated with trying to make your character charismatic, likeable, driven, and [insert adj. from every character guide ever]. I’m not saying it’s bad to have these qualities in a character, but maybe your character just isn’t that way. And that’s okay. Find something interesting about your character and just go with it. Maybe you’ll discover they’re more than you originally thought.

About T.K.

I'm an LGBT writer, biological anthropology student, and an ardent aro(mantic).* *One who does not feel romantic attraction.
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