Building Characters, One Trait at a Time

Write what you know. It’s one of those Creative Writing 101 Rules. But what about characters?

A week or two ago on a twitter chat, (I think it was #writechat, but it might have been #litchat, I lurk in both as smolderingink whenever I get the chance) there was a discussion on character building that got me thinking. Many writers model their characters after people they know. This seems to me to be a dangerous way to go about character creation. What if the modeled person recognizes themselves? Maybe they will be flattered. Maybe they will be offended. And if you base your character solely on yourself, you run into the danger of Mary Sue-ism.

Say your character is stubborn. Many of mine are; stubbornness can be a heroic quality, but can also lead to downfall. Instead of making your character behave exactly like the first stubborn person that comes to mind, think about all the people you know whom you would consider stubborn. Compare and contrast them. I have a stubborn friend who is principled in her stubbornness. She never caves in to what she thinks is wrong, and sometimes this behavior rears up and bites her on the buttockal areas. But the way she always stands up for her beliefs is admirable to me. I, on the other hand, am only stubborn at my worst, when I am also being petulant and childish. So I have tried hard to eradicate the trait from my personality. I also know someone else who was raised to believe flexibility is weakness, and so he never gives ground on anything, be it a political stance or where to go for lunch. So, that’s three ways to be stubborn, right there.

How do these different behaviors fit with the other traits of my stubborn characters? Well, one of my characters, Sahrel, is an ex-concubine. Because of her past, she is used to either being spoiled and indulged, or having to obey her owner in totality. She is also used to manipulating others to get what she wants, but she is aware of and doesn’t like this part of herself. So she is often childish, but can be principled on occasion. Over the length of the story Sahrel may choose to shed her childishness and become a more sympathetic character. Or, she may choose to cling to it, perhaps to her downfall. It really depends on the rest of her personality, as well as how the plot pushes her. Another of my characters, Wil Imbrel, is a death priest. He is always principled, according to the code of his order, but doesn’t like to explain himself. So he often comes off as snobbish and inflexible, especially when the code of his order does not adhere to the same morality as the rest of society. So whether Wil chooses to buck up and lead by example or to sneer and put others down depends once again on the rest of his personality, and the demands of the plot.

As you can see, I don’t hammer things down- I like to give my characters a little breathing room to surprise me. If I give my characters enough nuance they begin to act on their own. And the moment  a character begins acting on his or her own is the moment I know I have created a real person who just happens to live in my head. Sure it’s a weird zip code, but it’s not their fault.

This is how I have always written characters, by observing traits in others and melding them into what would be most appropriate for my character given their current situation. This trait-melding is instinctual to me, I had to really think about how to explain it before I sat down and wrote this post, because setting and plot are tied up in this method as well.

So, how do you create your characters? Do you start with a template of someone you know and change things? Or do you piece traits together from scratch, based on the needs of your plot? Or do you do something else altogether?