Building a Character: Finding Inspiration
Need guidance or ideas on how to create characters for your stories? We're here to help.
Every good book needs a protagonist, an antagonist, and a cast of supporting personalities playing off each other to bring a story to life. But how does an author come up with character ideas in the first place? Sometimes character concepts spring to life while standing in line at the grocery store, taking a shower, or trying to fall asleep at three a.m. They may evolve as a spin-off from roleplaying games, like turning the cleric you play in Dungeons and Dragons into a supporting character in your fantasy novel. Other times, character designs have to be carefully crafted to fit a specific need in a novel, push forward a plot point, clue the reader in to key facts, etc.
In this article, we’ll discuss character creation, and different ways of thinking through the makeup of a character: their appearance, personality, motivations, interests, desires. We’re not talking about a character’s backstory today; that’s another topic all on its own.
Static, unchanging characters have their place. Not every character needs a radical transformation over the course of a tale. Short stories in particular often don’t allow for the time needed to showcase significant change. However, for most novels, and especially series, readers expect some character development in the protagonists as the story develops.
Some authors start with an arc in mind as they create new characters; they know where they want the character to end up, then work backwards to determine their starting point. Others start with a unique character concept pretty strongly in mind, then work into the future determining where they’ll end up. It’s not necessary to know a character’s entire arc before you start writing, but we list this point first because it’s something to keep in mind throughout the entire character creation process. What are your character’s shortcomings? Where do they have potential for improvement and growth?
Your readers will be spending a vast amount of time with your characters. For this reason, crafting a three-dimensional character with an engaging arc that contributes to the overarching plot should be high on your list of pre-writing activities. Even if your supporting characters only appear on a few pages, it’s important that they feel like real people to the reader as well.
Start building your characters by considering the following character components:
A quirk is a quality distinct to a character that sets them apart from others. Quirks are often linked to a character’s behavior, mannerisms, or their perspective on the world. It’s these tiny but specific details that make them memorable.
Think of this peculiarity as an internal trait (like Ron’s inherent concern over the hand-me-downs he receives as the second youngest Weasley in the Harry Potter series) that manifests itself in a specific, repeated behavior (every time Ron attempts a spell, it doesn’t quite turn out right). The essence of a quirk is to let the readers discover a clue about how a character feels or their priorities. In Ron’s case, he’s always slightly embarrassed about his family situation.
Examples of a quirk
Using overly complicated words then giving the definition afterwards
Always creating a pros and cons list before making any decision, even over trivial choices like what cereal to have in the morning
An intense love of bouquets of flowers
Humming when thinking
Only drinking organic coffee
Need some inspiration? Try this Character Quirk Generator.
Weaknesses, Flaws, and Constraints
Without a major obstacle or two, the journey for our heroes might be over too quickly. Some might be physical barriers, like the dragon guarding the pile of gold, but others can be internal internal conflicts getting in the way of completing the quest. In Part of Your World by Abby Jimenez, the lead character Alexis’s insecurities and fear of not upholding her family’s legacy almost keep her from being with the love of her life.
By giving your character a weakness (real or perceived) you can use it as fuel for the character’s emotional journey and general character arc. Carefully select these flaws and position them in contradiction to the character’s desires, providing them another roadblock to overcome.
Examples of a weakness
Overconfidence in one area of their lives
Assumes the worst-case scenario in any situation
Detaches emotionally when things get complicated
Reluctant to ask for help
Always running late
Strengths, Advantages, and Skills
Just as every story needs a boulder in the road, your book requires someone to figure out a way to go around, under, over, or blast away that boulder. A character’s assets should be evident to readers early on in the book, and shown organically through the character using this talent in some aspect of their lives. This talent will be used to solve the big problem of the day. In Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, lead Alex Stern’s particular skill is the ability to see ghosts, or grays as those in her world call them. But she sees them a little differently than others, as she sees them in color. What seems like a cool little twist turns into a key element of the story.
A strength can also be perceived as a weakness early in the story. In The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, Joyce’s tendency to talk to anyone or everyone turns into an asset that cracks the case, so to speak.
Examples of a strength
Ability to speak to snakes
Logical in the face of danger
Stoic and hard to make laugh
Prepares for every eventuality
It’s pretty hard to write a book where your character exists without interacting with anyone or anything else. Relationships, both beneficial and detrimental, are a part of life, and make a compelling attribute to flesh out in your characters. How they react or don’t react to these stimuli clues the reader into the character. Every relationship Nora Seed has defines the story in The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, as she gets the chance to live different scenarios based on her perceptions.
No matter what genre or plot a character will belong to, a well-crafted relationship can transform a flat character into a textured one.
Examples of relationships between characters, or a character and the world around them:
They’re the new person in town.
They think their significant other might be out to murder them.
They discover the house they moved into has three ghosts.
They recently lost a loved one.
They have a lifelong feud with a neighbor over whether or not to cut down a tree on the border of their properties.
A key component in any book is what motivates the characters. Intrinsically linked to the plot, these driving forces push the story and the characters toward (or away from) their destiny. The antagonistic behavior that drives the two rivals in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus pushes and pulls the two main characters as they careen toward doom.
Look to basic human behavior to find inspiration for your character’s reasons for the choices they make.
Examples of motivations
Fear of losing a parent
Fear of upsetting the current world order
Want to be valued by society
Want to be free
Pro-Tip: For a more in-depth look at character motivation, read Learning What Drives Us Through Character Motivation.
How your characters perceive the world, the rules they play by, and the morals they adhere to all lend insights to help readers understand the choices your characters make along their journeys. Map out each player’s core beliefs and values and align them with or juxtapose them against those of the world they live in. Markus Zusak explores philosophy using Death as the storyteller in his book, The Book Thief.
We want a character to demonstrate their philosophy through how they interact with the world, rather than tell us point-blank what they believe. It’s a writing cliche, but it’s true – show, don’t tell.
Examples of philosophies
Expecting others to follow the rules
Believing everyone has a price
Believing in spirits
Believing the government is putting microchips all babies born in a hospital
Believing vegetables have feelings
Jobs or Hobbies
Everyone has to fill their time somehow. When you meet someone for the first time, one of the earliest questions that will pop up is “What do you do?” Consider how your characters spend their days and nights, both personally and professionally. What character’s careers and hobbies inform readers about their choices in life, and give us a sense of who a character is outside the circumstances of the plot.
Play your character’s occupation against their personality traits for some good conflict. If the action is happening in their downtime, contrast it with a dull office job. Tessa Bailey makes a bold career choice for her lead character Georgette in Fix Her Up by giving her a career as a professional clown. And no, this is not a horror story.
Examples of jobs
Librarian who spends their nights in a punk rock band
Stacking shipping containers
As writers, sometimes we want to give in to the classical all-encompassing fact-packed paragraph description that introduces a character when they first enter the story. (Or, even worse, the “character studying themself in the mirror” cliche.) A better idea is to let the reader fill in the blanks with some general information and then add in one strong trait in the character’s appearance that sets them apart from the others. For example, Katniss in The Hunger Games is easily identifiable to those around her because she always wears her hair in a braid, which is seen as an act of defiance. Additional appearance details can be sprinkled in over time.
Adding diversity to your cast of characters grounds your story in reality, giving it a more three-dimensional feel for readers. Avoid cliches and generic character concepts so your characters stand out in the reader’s mind. (We’ll be covering character archetypes later on, which make for good starting points, but be sure to bring your own twist to them if you use one!)
Don’t be afraid to do image searches online to find concept art or photos that remind you of your character. Additional inspiration may be found from art books or RPG rulebooks. Nothing wrong with thumbing through the pages of the Monster Manual for inspiration on a villain’s aesthetic.
Examples of physical traits
A unique eye color
Wears pastel sweaters
Consistently has dirt under their fingernails
Tips on Creating Realistic Characters
Once you’ve determined your character’s primary traits, it’s time to combine them to define their personality, values, and attitudes in an authentic way. Here are a few tips if you need help pulling it all together.
Read books in your genre and make a list of characters that appeal to you. Study what it is about each one that draws you to them. Document the character’s personality traits and how the author uses each one to bring the character to life.
Borrow from real life
Even if your story is set in deep space eight million years in the future, it’s still possible to draw upon the everyday world around you. Examine your family, friends, coworkers, barista, dog groomer, or random passer-by, and think about what gives them authenticity and sets them apart. Take a page out of their life and use that as the basis of a story. Consider giving them credit in the acknowledgements, too, if the influence is significant. Tyler Jenkins-Reid openly discusses how The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was inspired by Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth, and Ava Gardner.
The more specific and unique each of these components is, the more realistic the character will feel. Remember to assign these character components to your characters not just for fun, but to hook them into your story, making the traits work for or against the plot. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sam’s ability to find good in everything is more than an endearing factor about him. This strong character trait pulls Frodo through dark times and makes him the most suitable companion on the road to Mordor.
Choose an Archetype
There are a huge number of character tropes to pull from, with some well-known collections of personality traits repeating and persisting across time and space. These archetypes are recognizable because they resonate with readers.
Michael Hauge defines four primary character types:
Hero: The main character driving the story, who get the most page presence.
Nemesis: Stands in the way of the main character, typically the villain
Reflection: Sympathetic and supports the main character, provides someone for the hero to talk to, to share information with the reader
Romance: The romantic interest of the main character, who will end up supporting the hero’s goal
The hero’s journey features additional classic archetypes:
Mentor: Teaches or helps the hero through a new situation.
Ally: A friend of the hero, provides assistance.
Herald: Relates the curse, the prophecy, the invitation or the threat that motivates the hero.
Trickster: Sometimes comedy relief, sometimes the one that points out the serious facts.
Shapeshifter: Their loyalties are vague, until the hero is in a crunch, then they show their true colors.
Guardian: Wields power and stands on the threshold of what the hero wants.
Shadow: The main opponent of the hero.
Some archetypes based on psychology are:
Sage: Keeper of all the knowledge and carefully considers each decision.
Innocent: Always kind and trusting, optimistic and sometimes naïve.
Explorer: Trailblazers that refuse to follow a map. May be in opposition to the Sage.
Ruler: Natural born leaders. Might like to give orders.
Creator: Inventors, Magicians, Scientists. They create new things, and strive for perfection.
Caregiver: Trustworthy, loving, consistent, offering a shoulder, a hand or an ear to the hero.
Magician: Somehow they accomplish the impossible. Usually at a cost to them, like draining their energy.
Outlaw: Believes rules are made to be broken.
Lover: Attuned to all the senses, they are creative and artistic.
Jester: Capable of taking the pain out of any moment with their fun-loving attitude.
Every person: Believes everyone is created equal and everyone belongs.
For even more details on character archetypes, check out 15 Character Archetypes For Your Next Big Adventure.
Take any (or all) of these archetypes, add in some personal details, and a character can start to formulate.
A quick way to create a cohesive character personality is to assign each of the key players in your book an Enneagram type. These nine personality categories are a way to classify human behavior and most likely you fall into one of them as well. The shortcut here is that someone has already done the research and strengths, weaknesses and potential arcs are already defined.
1- The Reformer
The Rational, Idealistic Type: Principled, Purposeful, Self-Controlled, and Perfectionistic
2- The Helper
The Caring, Interpersonal Type: Demonstrative, Generous, People-Pleasing, and Possessive
3- The Achiever
The Success-Oriented, Pragmatic Type: Adaptive, Excelling, Driven, and Image-Conscious
4- The Individualist
The Sensitive, Withdrawn Type: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental
5- The Investigator
The Intense, Cerebral Type: Perceptive, Innovative, Secretive, and Isolated
6- The Loyalist
The Committed, Security-Oriented Type: Engaging, Responsible, Anxious, and Suspicious
7- The Enthusiast
The Busy, Fun-Loving Type: Spontaneous, Versatile, Distractible, and Scattered
8- The Challenger
The Powerful, Dominating Type: Self-Confident, Decisive, Willful, and Confrontational
9- The Peacemaker
The Easygoing, Self-Effacing Type: Receptive, Reassuring, Agreeable, and Complacent
Discover Each Characters Voice
As you know, language is a powerful thing. Just like your writing style or the way you tell your stories defines you as an author, the way each character in your book speaks distinguishes them.
Ask yourself how a character speaks. Men tend to use fewer words than women. Do they have a catch phrase? Do they never use contractions? Do they call another character by a nickname no one else uses? Romance novels use this linguistic trick to create a bond between characters with terms of endearment, like Sweetheart, BooBear, etc.
Creating a Character
Developing a fictional character's voice takes time. While it’s not essential to have all these elements locked down before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, mapping out a few qualities and assigning them to characters will help give you a starting point to shape the journey each player takes.