Write It Sideways

How to Jumpstart Character Creation In a Story

Today’s post is written by Anna Lindwasser. Thanks, Anna!

Recently, I was challenged to write a short story within four days. I had a plot in mind, but my main character was faceless and dull. I had to give him some interesting traits, and fast.

Rather than attempt to cook up a whole new character from scratch, I decided to use one of my old characters, Kit. Using Kit led to the creation of a whole new character. His name is Avery. Once I had created Avery, I discovered that I had a useful shortcut on my hands.

About Kit: I’ve been developing Kit’s personality and history for years. Because I’ve known him for so long, he’s familiar ground. I don’t have to worry about getting his voice right, I don’t have to think about what his motives are or what he’s thinking or what he’ll do next. Because Kit is so easy for me to write about, Kit makes an excellent template for a new character.

To transform Kit into a new character, I changed the following things about him:

Plot

Though I started out using Kit’s name and vague description, I made a conscious effort to change something about him during the first part of the story. I chose what had to be changed for the plot—he had to be more nervous and effacing than he was.

The story was about a college kid taking a girl on an awkward date. Kit could make things awkward, but he’s far more controlling and angry than this story’s main character needed to be. So, Kit’s rage went out the window and was replaced by other traits.

Appearance

Kit had brown hair and glasses; the new character would have black hair and perfect vision. Kit had brown eyes; the new character would have blue. Kit was tall with a bulky build; the new character would be slighter and shorter.

Here, I simply tweaked some details. Later, once I’d changed more about the new character’s personality, a more complete image emerged.

Family

Kit is supported primarily by his father, who makes plenty of money as a defense lawyer. He doesn’t have a job, and is only tangentially interested in college. I changed those details and gave my new character a job in a second hand clothing store, no parental support due to lack of funds, and a college career which is moving one class at a time, also due to lack of funds.

I reversed Kit’s situation and gave the alternative to my new character.

Relationships

I deliberately chose a character of mine who was in an established relationship. That way, I’d have to change this when coming up with a new character for my first-date story.

Kit has a girlfriend named Mona, and an intense, protective friendship with a teenage boy named Rue. My new character was on his first date, ever. He has noncommittal relationships with everyone around him—the opposite of Kit.

My new character was, in many ways, the opposite of my old character. By simply reversing aspects of Kit’s personality, I was able to generate a new character with some flesh to him. He wasn’t perfect or fully developed, but I had a working start.

At this point, he was different enough that I could give him his own name, Avery. Once I had a name and some general details, I could flesh him out independently of Kit. Using Kit helped me to get past the initial paralysis of having to generate a whole new character from scratch.

Applying the Method

Obviously, not everyone has characters they’ve been developing for years.

If you’re new to writing, you might not feel like this method applies to you. If you don’t have any old characters to recycle, you can try using people you know, or other fictional characters. The process is very much the same.

You might think that you should take extra care to change the character if you use one that belongs to someone else, but whatever effort you think you should put into that is that exact same amount of effort you should put in to altering your own character.

No matter what you start with, you want to end up with a unique new character.

Anna Lindwasser is a writer living in NYC. Her work has appeared in The Shine Journal, Downtown Brooklyn, and LearnSomethingUseful.com. She is currently studying to become a teacher, and working on a novel.