You’re sitting at your computer with this amazing story idea and know exactly how to start it. The problem? You have no idea how to create the main character. Believe it or not, creating a character is something people often struggle with, me included, and takes a lot of time and effort to make an entire person from your head. No one wants a Mary Sue character. So here are nine tips to create a unique character for your next big hit!
1. Write a List of Flaws
Writing flaws is almost easier than writing a list of character strengths. I prefer starting with the flaws because I’m able to connect with them better than starting with a flawless character. Find several flaws to your character and write a brief reason why they have those flaws to add detail. I try to find a least five major ones. For example, if your character hates reading, explain it’s because they can’t focus for long periods of time or maybe because they couldn’t afford the luxury when they were younger. Always have a reason behind their flaw. Many writers tend to struggle with making their characters have flaws because they want them to succeed in everything. There are also the common flaws most characters seem to have nowadays, such as the inability to cook. Think outside of the box when it comes to flaws.
Can’t think of a flaw? Think of something that annoys you that someone you know does. Often times we are more able to find inspiration from those around us, as awful as that sounds. Does your friend chew too loud? Does your brother brag all the time? Does your friend suck at driving? Is your sibling just too obsessed with TV or music? Does your mom eat too much sugar all the time? Does your grandpa only watch westerns? These are just a few ideas that may be considered flaws. Gather information, jot it down, and make a list. You can create an entire list of flaws and choose which ones your character should have. Maybe your main character only watches westerns and is obsessed with Keith Urban, or maybe they really suck at driving and is forced to drive a beat up car. The flaws ultimately make the character the most identifiable and helps better to form the story.
2. Write a List of Strengths
You probably saw this one coming. Similar to writing the flaws, write a list of strengths your character might have. Try not to be too vague when it comes to strengths! For example, if your person is highly intelligent, describe what subjects they are best in. Math? Science? Literature? How did they become intelligent? Genetic? Was forced to do well in school? Someone inspired them to pursue a certain subject? A Role-model? Always have a reason for their strength. Write several sentences on why they have it. If they are an excellent cook, maybe it’s because their entire family sucks at cooking and they had to take over? Maybe they were forced to watch Food Network at their grandma’s house during the summer and learned that way?
Remember to not create a large list of strengths. Stick to five major ones and branch off from there. For every strength a character has there should also be a flaw. Try to make the flaws you have chosen work well with the strengths. Your character may be highly intelligent, but they suck with flirting or dating. Your character may be an excellent cook, but they struggle with their weight because of it.
3. Find a Character You Already Love
This doesn’t mean you copy a beloved character from your favorite novel or show, but there is a reason you love that character. What is it you love about the character? When you figure out why you love that character so much, take your favorite trait (just one) and build a character from there. For example, you may love Hermione Granger from Harry Potter because she always knows what to do. You love her cleverness. Write that down as a strength and find another character you love, such as Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You love Buffy’s leadership skills and her ability to command anyone. Take those two things you love about two rather different characters and morph them into your own. Your character may be an extremely clever leader who can lead an army of students or an actual army.
As I have already mentioned, with strengths comes flaws. Think of your favorite characters once more and think of a flaw they may possess that works well with the strengths they already have. For example, Damon Salvatore from The Vampire Diaries has the major flaw of reacting to every traumatic situation with violence or without proper planning. He’s a loose cannon most of the time. So combine that major flaw with your character. Your character is now a clever leader who tends to freak out and cause damage if something personal happens to them.
4. Find a Music Genre/Band
Writers often use music for inspiration because it’s something that can play while their fingers jab at the keys. Using music to create a character can honestly help you figure out exactly what type of a person your character is. Listen to the radio or Pandora or Spotify and stay away from your own playlists. Listen to new music, new songs, new genres. Have it playing on shuffle as you pace the room and figure out your character. It may take some time. Once you hear a song that catches your interest, jot down the name of the band and the genre you are listening to and listen to more bands similar to the one you were listening to.
Just like with the strengths and weaknesses, have a reason why the music matches your character. Is it the beat of the music? Is it the lyrics? The scratchy voice of the singer? The story behind the song? Write it down and expand from there. For example, for one of my characters named Joanna, the bands Halsey and The Pretty Reckless matched her perfectly because the lyrics told a similar dark story to how she thought of herself as well as how she grew up. Maybe hip-hop matches your character because your character is actually really upbeat and loves dancing.
5. Create Their Past
Everyone has a past and a reason they’ve become who they are today. You can write down major moments in their past to help shape them. Start from their childhood and end right before the start of your story. As with everyone’s story, start with the parents. Were they good parents? Bad? Are they married or divorced? Single parent? Were they abusive? Were they hardworking? Always start with the parents because they ultimately shape your character’s childhood. If they have an amazing relationship with their parent(s), think of why they do. Was the parent more of a friend than a parent? Was the parent a kind and gentle soul? If they have a horrible relationship with their parent, think of why they do. Were their parents neglectful? Were they too strict? Were they abusive? Were they work-obsessed? By starting with the parents, the rest of the character’s past is more easily put together.
Another trick to creating their past is by adding at least three or four major events that still affects them today. At age six they learned to ride a bike, which is why they are now a professional. At age twelve they met their future best friend during lunch when they both lunged towards the last chocolate pudding. At age fifteen their mom died from cancer and they were forced to become an adult since then. When the big events are written down, smaller events can easily be branched out from there.
6. Create a List of Likes/Dislikes
This is a simple one and similar to a character’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s also a great place to start if you still have no idea what type of a person they are. Start with broad things they love and add several quirky, more detailed, likes. Your main character loves to read, but especially when it comes to romance. Your character loves to bake, but mainly vegan desserts. Your character loves to run, but only to be able to eat at the bakery around the corner where they order maple bacon donuts. Start broad and narrow it down.
When finding dislikes, the same methods apply. Your character hates driving, especially in the city. Your character hates talk shows, mostly because of they’re fake. Start broad and narrow it down. As already mentioned, always try to find a reason to why they do something, like something, or hate something.
7. Take Personality Quizzes
Once you begin to have a general idea of what kind of a person your character is, one way I have found to better round the character is by taking personality quizzes as if I were the character. One personality quiz I love is the 16 Personalities quiz. Taking this quiz in the mindset of your character can give you better ideas on how to shape your character. For example, your character may be an INFP (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, and Perceptive). From there the website gives you an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of their personality type and how their relationships are as well as career paths. You may not base your character completely off of their result, but it can give ideas on how to develop their personality.
There are many other personality quizzes out there to take as if you were your character. Try to take at least a few, even if they are silly ones.
8. Swap a Character’s Situation
During one of my literature courses, my professor was asking us to identify what traits the main character had in the book we had read. We all struggled because the character was a bit dull. But my professor gave us a rather brilliant suggest: Put the character in another novel. This may sound confusing, but it really helps! What you do is take a character (your character, for example) from any novel, show, or movie, and put them in another novel, show, or movie and figure out how they would handle the situation themselves. For example, let’s take Hermione Granger out of Harry Potter and put her in Katniss Everdeen’s place in The Hunger Games. It becomes an entirely different story because the characters are rather different. While Katniss handled the hunger games by using her hunter instinct and killing when she had to, Hermione would likely not shoot arrows at people and would instead use her cleverness to find a way out of the arena. She might have even done research on it over the years.
Swapping a character’s situation can help you better understand their motives and even strengths or weaknesses. If you decide to take your character and put them into the hunger games or Hogwarts or Narnia, try to think of how they would handle the struggles the main character dealt with in their series. No one handles a situation the same way, and every situation shapes a character uniquely.
9. Create a Goal
Finally, creating a goal is the ultimate character developer. All characters need something they work towards in a novel, whether it’s obvious or not. Creating a goal is usually the first thing thought of before the novel even develops, but sometimes it shifts and can be lost in the story. So think of one major goal your character is shooting for as well as several problems the character faces when pursuing the goal. For example, if your character’s goal is to move to the big city, the character may face financial struggles, relationship problems, and several other bumps along with way.
For my novel The Deal Maker, I created one single goal at the beginning, which was for Joanna to save her sister from her life on the street. And she met a lot of issues along the way, and her goal ultimately changes slowly as life becomes more complicated.
I hope these nine tips help you to develop the ultimate character, even if it helped just a little. Remember to have fun and enjoy the character development process because it’s truly one of my favorite things about writing. Good luck on your next series!