Welcome to my first series! I’m excited to start sharing some of the tips, tricks, and systems I use when I’m designing a story, as well as my process for writing, editing, dealing with deadlines and writers, block, and anything else you could want to know.
I know many of you are probably thinking, “Why should we listen to you? You’ve never even been published!” You’re only partially correct. I have actually been published – a couple of times, in fact. I have stories and poems in various literary journals. And I have some self-published books laying around my apartment. That’s not what’s important.
What’s important is that I have written millions of words in the 13 years since I started writing. I have two separate degrees, one in creative writing, one in literature. I’ve spent the last 13 years dedicated to my writing. I never stopped – not even in university, when I really should have stopped. I spend nearly all of my free time daydreaming about the worlds that I’ve built. Creating lives for my characters, giving them depth.
My point being – people always say write about what you know. So I thought I’d write about what I know best – writing. You can feel free to ignore my advice. Hell, most of it might not even work for you. I’ve found in my life that writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of art.
Everyone will tell you the “right” way to write. Don’t read your work before you’ve finished. Always write in the same place, at the same time. Never write in the same place – write when inspiration strikes. Don’t edit as you write. Do edit as you write. Don’t write from beginning to end, start where you’re most interested. Do write from beginning to end, or you’ll lose interest in the boring parts and never finish. Don’t write in 1st person. Don’t write in 2nd person. Don’t write in 3rd person.
Guys, writing is an art. I think people forget that because it’s not as “obvious” as some other forms of art, like painting or pottery. Or even poetry. But it’s still an art, and writers are artists. We have to be inspired, have dedication, work, and hone our craft, just like any other artist. And just like any other artist – not every style of writing is going to be the same.
This is all to say – if you’re a writer – experiment! Do what works for you! Write weird stuff that you enjoy. Write boring stuff you don’t enjoy. Do what you need to do to discover your style and voice. Everyone will tell you what it should be – but only you can know what it is.
Finding Your Main Character
Writing about only designing and developing characters is a little tricky for me. I usually design characters at the same time I’m working on the plot of a new story – I find them to be linked in my mind. However, if I wrote about that whole process, this blog post would end up the length of a book, and I don’t think anyone wants to sit down and read all of that right now. So I’ve divided these up into several different blog posts. And since you can’t have a story without good characters, this seemed like the natural place to start!
Let’s start with the obvious question: who is your main character? Where do they come from? What’s their gender? Sexual orientation? Race? How do those things inform their personality?
Honestly, I don’t have a lot of advice when it comes to choosing the main character. Usually, when I come up with a story idea, the idea comes with a half-formed main character when it hits me. So I don’t normally have to do the work of designing a character from scratch to fit the story. But I can walk you through some of the questions I ask myself when I’m determining my Main Character’s (MC) personality.
- Where did MC grow up?
- Who are their parents? What is their relationship? How does the relationship with the MC’s parents affect their personality?
- Was their hometown big? Small?
- Who was MC’s best friend growing up? Are they still friends now? If not, what happened?
- Are they still in their hometown when the story starts? If not, why did they leave?
- What are the MC’s skills? How were they developed? Are they natural gifts, or did the MC have to work for them?
- How does the conflict of the story personally affect the MC? What’s at stake for them?
- What is the MC’s life goal? Where do the see themselves in the future? Not where do you see them, where do they want to be? Those aren’t always the same thing.
- How does the MC get wrapped into the conflict of the story?
Names are Hard
Admission time: I’m not good with names. Honestly – you would think someone with a creative mind like mine would do a better job naming their characters. But no I am somehow terrible at it.
But enough of my complaints! Clearly, if it was really that much of a problem, I would have stopped writing long ago. I’ve found solutions.
When I was younger, I used to just make up names – particularly when it came to fantasy worlds. That worked… some of the time. There are several names I designed that I still like to this day. But many of them haven’t made the revision cut as I’ve revisited old stories again.
These days, I tend to use name generators to give me ideas. Sometimes I pick a name and change it to something else. Sometimes I change letters around to create a more unique-sounding name. Sometimes I use exactly what is generated. It really depends on the character.
On that note – there’s a reason this is the second point in this post. I always design some of the character’s background before I choose a name. I find that having some personality in my head makes it easier to decide on a name that really fits my character.
Sometimes the name comes with the character when I design them. Sometimes, those names are quite cliche. But in my experience, it’s pointless to try to fight those names – they stick, no matter how hard I try.
But anyway, here are the generators I use:
Behind the Name: I like this generator because you can select what nationalities you want to target, tell it to use common or uncommon names, or tell it to generator just a ridiculous number of names in a row.
I usually choose all categories so I can get a lot of different names. I also use the ‘First name and 3 middle names’ category just so I can get a lot of names to choose from. Then I generate!
As you can see, you can get some pretty unique names using this generator – which is my goal. I don’t want to get the same names over and over again. Plus, it even works for fantasy lands. If I were looking for a fantasy name, I would take the first name that generated and adapt it.
Teimurazi = Temuiraz
Sounds like a villain to me. See how easy that was? Plus, I could use any of the other names generated for other characters, or even the same one if I was looking for a first or last name. Plus, as you can see in the upper corner – if I didn’t like any of those names, I can simply hit “regenerate” and continue my search.
Another good generator I use is Fantasy Name Generator. I love this one because – unlike the last one – it generates just a ton of options. Not only does it have sub-categories for every type of fantasy, sci-fi, etc kind of story you could possibly want to write – it also generates 10 names at a time when you use it. I’m not going to include screencaps because there’s just so much information on the website – you should just go check it out yourself!
The Supporting Cast
I would argue that your supporting characters are just as important to design as your MC. If you have a great MC and boring SCs, people aren’t going to want to read your story. Sorry, that’s the honest truth. So make sure you put in the work when you’re creating your supporting cast! Here are some archetypes to think about when you’re designing your story:
This is always my first stop after I’ve created my main character. Who is the villain of the story? What drives them? What’s their story – how did they become evil? Are they unapologetically evil, or do they believe themselves to be doing good? Does their evilness come from their ambition, or from a desire to do good (and a belief that the only way to do good is through evil means?). These are all important questions.
I tend to design my antagonists just as thoroughly as I design my main characters, and apply the same set of rigorous questions to them. I encourage you to do this – no one wants a flat antagonist. Readers want to know what makes them tick, and why they do what they do. They want to know what threat they pose to the MC, and why.
Note: The villain is so important to the story that I’m going to dedicate a future article to designing your villain. Stay tuned!
The Love Interest
I don’t always have a love interest for my MC – sometimes my MC is a strong independent woman who don’t need no man. BUT I’m also a hopeless romantic, and I love a good slow-burn romance. So I do often find myself designing the perfect love interest for my MC. Here are the questions I typically ask about my Love Interests:
- Where did they meet the MC?
- Who fell for who first?
- When was/will be their first fight?
- Why is the LI in love with the MC?
- Why is the MC in love with the LI?
- What makes them a good couple?
- Is their relationship healthy?
- Who confessed their feelings first?
- What does their love story have to do with the main conflict of the story?
- Does their relationship last, or is it doomed to fail?
I also spend time on the questions I also ask of the MC – where did they grow up? Who was their best friend? How does the conflict of the story affect them? Etc.
The Partner in Crime
This is my favorite archetype of Supporting Character. You can also call this one the “Best Friend” or “Sidekick” but I like this name better. This is the ride-or-die character. The one that’s inseparable from the MC. These are often some of my favorite characters in stories – think Sam Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings, or Ron Weasley in Harry Potter. You get the idea.
I love these characters because they’re often loyal to a fault – which is awesome in a friend. When I’m designing this kind of character, I usually ask myself these questions:
- When and where did they meet the MC?
- Did they become friends immediately, or was there a time when they didn’t like each other?
- Do they ever fight? If so, about what?
- What do they do for fun?
- How do they bond?
- How did the friend get wrapped into the MC’s conflict?
- How do they affect the plot? Are they a catalyst? Do they betray the MC? If so, do they come back? When?
It’s important to figure out how your characters affect the plot of the story – or the character development of the MC. If they do neither, readers will wonder why they’re in the story at all.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of character types – just the ones I find myself using often, or that I consider the most important. But there are dozens of other character archetypes you can pull from when you’re designing your characters. Or just skim it for inspiration – that’s what I do!
Riley-Style Writing Tip!
Here’s a trick I use when designing my characters:
Before I design the full plot of the story, I sit down with a pen and notebook and write down all the information I know about my characters. I start from the beginning – where they grew up, then I write down everything I know happened to them up until the story begins. That way I feel as though I really know my characters before I start to write. Plus, it helps me weave their backstory into the narrative in a more meaningful way.
Above is an example. I chose a two-page spread in my notebook – which is pretty rare, usually, my character backgrounds stretch 4+ pages once I finish them. The only ones that end up this short are the backgrounds of my MCs – as so much of their story is told in the actual plot. So this is just the background of what happens to get them to the main plot of the story.
I’m not going to lie – character design is actually one of my favorite parts of creating a new story. To actually nail down what my characters look like really brings them alive.
I also find it to be one of the most challenging aspects of character creation – because if I’m not careful, my characters all end up looking the same. Even in my head – I’m not sure why, but sometimes when I describe my characters, they just end up looking the same when I picture them. Which is why I usually take the time to sit down and draw my characters when I’m designing them.
It doesn’t have to be a fancy drawing by any means – just a sketch to give me an idea of what they look like, what they wear, what their expressions are… something tangible.
Sometimes I can sketch my characters right the first time – take this sketch for example. This moody boy came out in one sketch, and I knew immediately that I’d done him justice. From his brooding to the jewelry he wears, to the cigarette he smokes – his personality and his features were perfect.
Now, I don’t always have such luck. Sometimes I fill my notebooks with sketch upon sketch of the same character, unable to quite capture them.
Anymore, I took a good long look at my internal image of the character at that point – because I often find, when I can’t picture my character correctly, it means that I’m not picturing the correct race for the character.
Take for example this guy over here. Forgive my messy sketching – I don’t usually plan to show these to people, but I wanted to use some examples.
I thought sketching someone with blue hair would make him super recognizable, no matter how I drew him. But, to my frustration, I filled up page after page of sketches of him that just weren’t… quite right. I tried different styles of art – more cartoony, less cartoony, anime, and more. Nothing worked.
So finally I complain to my roommate, showing her my sketches of him. And she says, “You know, I always picture him as Asian.”
And there it was – the missing piece. I immediately sketched this – and though the sketch itself is messy, I could tell I’d done him justice this time. Finally.
I have no idea how long it would have taken me to figure that out if I hadn’t disliked my sketches so much – I may have written the entire book without figuring it out. I wouldn’t have liked that at all – especially since the book in question is a romance, which requires a fair amount of character description throughout.
Another good example of this is this character: it took me several rounds of sketching to realize that I wasn’t getting her race right. This one came after the boy above, so I was more aware of it this time. I had an idea that I had her race wrong when I was describing her in the text of the book – I just couldn’t nail down the words. So I returned to my sketchbook. It took me a while to get to this.
You have to understand, it’s not that I didn’t like the other sketches. Take a look at the one below:
That was supposed to be the same character, and I liked the sketch itself a lot. But the way she looked just… wasn’t right.
The point of all of this being, spend time getting to know your characters as you’re designing them. If you’re not an artist, you probably won’t want to sit down and try to draw them. But spend some time describing them through text – I think it can have the same effect. How do you describe them? Does that description sound right? What does their hair look like? Skin tone? Height? Weight? Complexion? Build? What are their favorite clothes to wear?
The more time you spend getting to know your character, the better they’ll turn out. I promise.
And Have Fun!
I know I just gave you a lot of information to process – as well as some new tools and some awkward-looking pictures of my characters. I just want to take a moment to reiterate – no one writes like this if they don’t find it fun. So make sure you have fun! That’s why I spend so much time designing and drawing my characters. I love to do it.
The tricks I use may not work for you. As I said at the beginning of this post – writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of art. You have to experiment and find out what systems work best for you.
On that note – please share them! I’m always looking for new ways to play with my characters and plots. How do you design your characters? What questions do you ask about them? Do you use character creation sheets? Do you draw your characters? I’d love to hear more about your systems as well, so please leave a comment and share!