Let's Talk About Writing Characters For A Minute
rating: +48+x

Several years ago, the excellent FortuneFavorsBoldFortuneFavorsBold (creator of Thaddeus Xyank, SCP-2000 and the Department of Temporal Anomalies) wrote an essay known as Let's Talk About Character For A Minute. For a while, that served as somewhat of a Bible to myself, and guided how I thought about characters. Consider the following a sequel to that essay, and a culmination of those thoughts.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, I am IhpIhp, a primary writer behind the S & C Plastics Canon, and for some reason, people think that I write characters well. Several people have told me that they have trouble writing effective characters, so that got me thinking: "Maybe I should write an essay about how to do that".

A lot of amateur writers (and let's face it, a lot of professional writers) have trouble writing strong characters. And it can be hard because there's no real right way to do it. Even I'm not 100% sure of my process— but this is the most simplified one I've been able to put together. Hopefully, it helps.

Part 1: What is a Character?

This may seem like a simple question, but it's one that bears asking, because a lot of definitions I see of it are outdated.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a character as "A person in a novel, play, or film". This doesn't work for two reasons. For one, it's outdated; the omission of video games is noticeable to our rather nerd-centric audience, but it also discounts things like television shows, comic books and short stories from having characters. Kinda elitist, don't ya think, Oxford?

The second reason is that it defines a character as a 'person', and that implies 'human', or at least 'humanoid'. While most sci-fi writers will agree that aliens count as people, something like a rabbit would not count. But that doesn't quite work, because xenofiction1 allows for a variety of non-human perspectives.

So, the definition of character I'm going with is as such:

A fictional or fictionalized entity existing within the confines of a narrative medium.

This covers everything from Harry Potter to Mrs. Frisby2 from The Secret of NIMH to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Daniel Day Lewis's portrayal of the 16th President of the United States in the film Lincoln. This can also cover the idea that geographical locations and inanimate objects can be their own character.

Part 2: Starting from Two

Let's assume the default, 'blank' character for the purposes of the Foundation is a human being. One thing that can generally be agreed upon is that humans are affected by each other, and their environment, whether it be geographical or social. Someone growing up in Brooklyn is going to have a very different childhood than a kid in the English countryside, and they're both going to have very different experiences from someone born in Kolkata. More than anything else, people are shaped by outside forces.

Because of this, it is impossible to write only one character, and have that character come out strong. Writing a character in a vacuum results in them having little personality of their own, because personality comes from other people. This is why, in fiction, a character is never alone— there's always something keeping them company, even if that something is their own thoughts about their goal, their situation, or other people. Even the setting itself can become a character, given enough time.

If you're just starting, then try just making a pair of characters. Choosing a name and gender is a good place to start— Behind the Name's Name Generator has done wonders for my writing in the past, but feel free to draw on any sources you want; I've named more than a couple of my characters after individuals found in Sci-Fi TV Shows.

From there, you need to pick concepts for these characters, and a dynamic for them. Examples of character concepts for duos pulled from my work include:

  • A pair of UIU agents, one struggling with the fact that she can't tell her wife about what she really does on the job, the other trying to keep his partner from spitting in the Foundation's face constantly.
  • Fraternal twins, both agents on the same task force. One's far more aggressive than the other, while the other is more relaxed.
  • A pair of occult researchers. One is able to perform great feats of magic, and the other knows the theory, but not the practice. There's a budding relationship between the two of them.
  • A pair of researchers in the same department, one of whom is the head of it. They're in a romantic relationship, often strained by the emotional issues of them both, and they want to see each other happy, but can't express those feelings correctly.

The dynamics are where it gets interesting; they could be lovers, friends, co-workers, rivals, even an anomaly and the researcher interviewing or observing them. In each case, they're going to affect one another.

  • The lovers have most likely known each other for quite some time— anywhere from months to decades. Their interactions have rubbed off on each other. Maybe one partner figured out they liked a certain piece of literature from the other recommending it. Maybe the relationship is failing as the two grow apart from an increasing workload and gratuitous amounts of red tape forcing them to be unable to interact with each other on a regular basis.
  • Friends can know each other for almost any length of time. Some people can just hit it off immediately over something as simple as a messenger bag that has a personalized pin on it, or an overheard reference across the room that they pick up on. They may talk shit about their department heads, and they definitely have at least one inside joke between them. That being said, friendships don't always last; maybe these two are starting to get on each other's nerves due to some fundamental clash of personalities or interests. Maybe they're going to be separated by some great distance, or they just grow too busy for one another.
  • The co-workers probably have a more professional relationship. They each have their own lives, but their social spheres intersect within the professional environment. Maybe the two of them hang out after work as drinking buddies, but they don't know each other that well. That could change.
  • Rivals can have an interesting dynamic. They could be completely evenly matched and cutthroat, trying to sabotage each other at every turn. Maybe one is exercising their position over the other, making their life a living hell. They could be completely cordial, acknowledging that their interests are opposed, but they're going to be professional, goddammit.
  • Anomalies and researchers are a very interesting dynamic. It may seem that one party has complete power over the other, but this isn't always the case— the Foundation may be able to contain the anomaly, but how long until someone trips up in the procedure? The anomaly may be able to press the boundaries of its containment procedures, but who's to say the Foundation doesn't have twenty contingencies in place? There's always a tension here, because both parties can feel like they have control of the situation, but if something slips, that can break.

None of these are mutually exclusive, and they can evolve. A lover can be or become a rival, a co-worker can become a friend, and an anomaly/researcher relationship can even fit into the lovers category. Just look at the Lesbian Hunger Doggo Saga for proof of that.

Of course, these are just a few examples, and all of them are Foundation-centric; examples of two-character dynamics within the various groups of interest could be:

  • An initiate into the Horizon Initiative's Shepherd Corps and their mentor.
  • A preacher in the Church of the Broken God, and one of their followers who's starting to question their faith.
  • An anartist and their artwork— even if that artwork can't think or speak.
  • A UIU agent and the suspect they have been tracking for the last five years, playing a cat and mouse game with each other.

The overall idea here is: make at least two characters to start out. Give them each an individual concept, then give them a dynamic.

Part 3: Work Backwards

It took me years of playing D&D for me to realize this simple fact:

Backstories Are Not That Important.

Or, at the very least:

Backstories Do Not Have To Be Planned Out From The Word "Go".

A lot of writers think that they need to have a complex backstory planned out for every character. In reality, this can actually stifle growth, because it raises fears of what happens if an element of the backstory contradicts something that the character needs to do in the story? You could revise the backstory, but that could start a domino effect where dozens of other things fall over.

Instead, as you write, let your character develop. Let their actions, description and dialog in the present inform their past. One of your characters has a scar that they cover up? Where'd they get it, and why are they covering it up? You make one of your characters deathly afraid of insects as a one-off gag? Keep that gag consistent, and question why they are afraid of insects. Something as simple as a character's opinions on a movie can inform their backstory. Maybe their upbringing informed their sense of humor, or maybe they're sick of seeing the same action films every year.

The backstory will build itself over time. You don't need the names of your character's parents, where they grew up, what their exact education was. It will come to you over time as you discover who this character is, and that backstory will further inform the decisions they make in future stories.

It's good to keep a set of notes on your characters, when the backstories do become too complex, or if you're just afraid you're going to mix things up. But mistakes on the part of the writer can also become elements of the backstory; for instance, I forgot the given name of a character I introduced in one tale, and wrote it as something entirely different. When I wanted to bring that character back, I looked through the entire catalog of tales and realized "Holy SHIT I've been calling them the wrong name for years!". Then I shrugged and said, "Fuck it, he has a brother."

On that note…

Part 4: M(ist)ake My Story

Everyone makes mistakes when writing. It can be something as simple as putting down two periods due to an accidental key press.. It can be something as infuriating as putting apostrophes where they should'nt be. And when it comes to character writing, everyone makes mistakes.

It can be a continuity flaw, like the above example with the misnamed character. It can be an out-of-character behavior, like getting your girlfriend coffee with almond milk when you know full well she's allergic to it. You could forget a particular character trait, such as an addiction to tranquilizers, and only bring it out once out of the several instances you've written that character.

My advice: lean into the mistake. Don't treat it as a problem, treat it as a part of the character. Here are a few other examples:

  • Problem: A character is stated in one story to have red hair, but in another, a character describes her as being a brunette.
    • Solutions:
      • The character likes to express herself within Foundation guidelines, so she lightly dyes her hair.
      • The character's hair looks different in different lights.
      • The character is wearing a variety of wigs, being self-conscious about losing her hair due to some unspecified cause.
  • Problem: A character was introduced as a one-off joke, but failing to find anyone else to fill a role in another tale, you use them.
    • Solutions:
      • Make it clear they aren't happy about being the butt monkey, and that they have more to them than a cheap pun.
      • Have them take it in stride. "Yes, I know, I'm that person. Want my autograph?" Use it to deepen their character, show they have a sense of humor.
      • Have them be paired up with some of the people who mocked him, and make it abundantly clear that they are reluctant to help. Have them interact with the characters over the course of the story, and show they know each other better by the end of it.
  • Problem: The researcher is stated to be the head of the department in one tale, but by the next one, he's a lowly researcher.
    • Solutions:
      • They fucked up, and they fucked up bad. Something bad enough to get them knocked down a few dozen pegs, but for some reason, they're not fired.
      • They resigned from their position as a higher-up to make room for a fresher face who's more familiar with the new status quo, but the Foundation keeps them on for other reasons.

Now that we've discussed how to handle it when you make a mistake with your characters, let's see what happens when you intentionally try to build one.

Part 5: Suited to Fit

So you've got a pair of characters, their dynamics, and you know what to do if you fuck up their characterization down the line. So, now what?

Well, you're not quite done yet. You have to consider what kind of story you want to tell using these characters— you need to make the plot suit the characters, or the characters suit the plot. For instance, in a high fantasy novel where it's been clearly established that humans, elves, and dwarves are the only sapient beings in the world and everything else is just monsters, it'd be pretty jarring for a tiger-woman named "Esper Moonglow Meow-Meow" to appear in the middle of a climactic battle.

Hyperbole aside, suiting the plot to your characters is very important. A pair of UIU agents are more likely to take on a mystery or conspiracy thriller, while some Serpent's Hand members may be lounging in the Wanderer's Library when interesting shit starts happening. If you want a Breaking Bad-style crime drama, the Chicago Spirit might be your bag. But, for the sake of argument, let's say you're sticking with the Foundation.

And to be quite honest? If the plot has appeared in fiction in any capacity, it can almost certainly be used in the Foundation universe, and can often involve Foundation personnel. Researchers skirting around an anti-fraternization policy? Doable. A story about a researcher having to balance the fact that she's a single mother and head of containment on a Keter-class? Doable. An exciting romp across the country in search of the most anomalous locations in the United States? That's my idea, don't steal it Doable.

And in case you're afraid of making an anomalous member of Foundation Personnel: don't be. FortuneFavorsBold's Essay made the case that anomalous personnel should be among the Foundation, and I agree fully. Mages have been among the Foundation staff for years out of universe, and Samsara introduced the possibility of hyper-augmented task forces. In some cases, The Foundation outright makes SCPs into their own task forces! However, in the case of creating an anomalous researcher, make a note of their anomalous properties, save that note, and stick to the rules you've established. Consistency is good.

Part 6: Whaddya talk, whaddya talk, whaddya talk?

Now comes what is probably the trickiest part: believable dialog. It's actually not all that hard, believe it or not! This section is going to go over a few quick tips on how to make your characters sound right.

Express yourself!

Which sounds like a more emotive piece of dialog?

"Fuck a truck!" Sinclair sounded frustrated.

Or:

"Fuck a truck!" Dr. Katherine Sinclair ran her fingers through her hair, a vein in her face twitching.

The simple act of emphasizing a word in italics can do a lot to help convey emotion. Vibrant actions such as tugging at hair and natural reactions such as groans of frustration can show off what a character is feeling. And when it comes to emphasis, try to avoid ALL CAPS as much as possible, unless you want to convey that you work at Prometheus Labs and that the capslock key is broken, again.

It should be noted that some people prefer to not use dialog tags, such as what is seen in the second example; in this case, emphasis and punctuation are even more important. Some things may be punctuated. For. Emphasis! And other words may have more emphasis put on them.

Break the Lines

This is a common error that's in a lot of dialog writing: not differentiating between characters who speak in the dialog with line breaks. It can muddle things quickly. For instance:

Robert Tofflemire watched the carnage unfolding in front of him as Tristan Bailey's controller casing began to crack. He had just lost two stocks in a row; Sinclair could play a mean Mario. "Eat it, Tristan!" Sinclair wiggled the stick into a counter attack. "Bite me, fire hazard." Bailey sniped back.

Not very clear, is it? Now, if we add in some line breaks…

Robert Tofflemire watched the carnage unfolding in front of him as Tristan Bailey's controller casing began to crack. He had just lost two stocks in a row; Sinclair could play a mean Mario.

"Eat it, Tristan!" Sinclair wiggled the stick into a counter attack.

"Bite me, fire hazard." Bailey sniped back.

One simple change can make dialog a whole lot clearer. Every time a new character starts talking, thinking or emoting, make a linebreak and start typing again.

Use Fly Lingo, Dig?

If you've ever spoken a language, then congratulations, you probably have some dialectical quirks you didn't even know about. Across the US, different words are used to refer to the same things; pop or soda or coke for any kind of fizzy soft drink, lightning bugs or fireflies for insects with glowing abdomens, different pronunciations of "crayon", that kind of thing. Even if you don't know where your characters are from yet, it might be a good idea to look up differences in regional dialect to get your brain juices flowing; something as simple as a person referring to a drinking fountain as a water fountain or vice-versa can inform where they're from, and it may encourage you to broaden your horizons as well.

Hear What You Write

When you write your dialog, it's a good idea to run it through a text-to-speech service so you can actually hear what your dialog sounds like. A lot of computers offer them as part of a suite of ease-of-access tools, and failing that, you can copy/paste text into Google Translate to hear them read out. While something may look fine written, it can sound horrible read, even by a voice bot program.

Take, for example, the abbreviation ""WWII". You and I both know it's short for "World War II", and it may look fine if you included it in dialog. But a text-to-speech program will read it out as written— "dub-uh-you dub-uh-you eye eye", or maybe "dub-uh-you whee". If a historian were to talk about World War II but use the word "dub-uh-you dub-uh-you eye eye" to talk about it, they'd sound insane. It's much more natural to hear them say "World War II" or "The Second World War".

Part 7: Don't Forget the Sides!

I'd be lying if I said that side and background characters are just as important as your protagonists to the story, but they are important to the overall structure of the work. A story can be carried on the interactions of two characters, most definitely. But side characters can bring a bit of variety.

A side character doesn't really need much, but they need a way to differentiate themselves from other characters. I'm going to bring out the tired example of Harry Potter for a bit— regardless of what you think of the quality from a modern perspective, if there's one thing that J.K. Rowling is very, very good at, it's making side characters that stand out.

Even if you're not a Harry Potter fanatic, you can probably name at least three or four students at Hogwarts that aren't the main sextet or a Weasley. It may be because they have a distinctive name, such as Penelope Clearwater or Seamus Finnegan. It might be a connection between two characters, such as Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown's friendship. It could be a certain skill, such as Angelina Johnson's proficiency at Quidditch.

The point here is: side characters should stand out from the horde milling in the background. And maybe they'll sprout into characters you focus on in other works.

As for background characters, even they can carry a surprising amount of weight in a story; an unseen site director might put down an overbearing or abusive policy that affects the morale of his staff, or some unknown benefactor is funding a Chicago Spirit operation. Or they could just be one of the faceless mass of onlookers staring in horror at the events unfolding before them.

Part 8: Now What?

Well, you've got two characters, their dynamic, the confidence to learn from and lean into your mistakes, and hopefully, an idea of a plot. Now, just start writing.

Don't worry if you don't know how it ends; an end goal is good to have ahead of time, but character interactions can carry the piece however far you want it to. And from there, you can make connections with other characters. Introduce a third, a fourth, a fifth. Some background characters that pop in for a quip once in a while. Network with other writers to learn about their characters, and think about incorporating them into your stories, or have them incorporate yours.

Just remember: writing characters is hard. If you don't get it on your first, second, or even third try, don't get discouraged. And this process is just one way to write characters— maybe planning out a backstory works for you, or maybe you can just start writing and have organic characters flow from your keyboard. This is not intended as a guide.

With that being said, if you do use this process, good luck.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License