This is a familiar question to anyone who writes fiction, makes games or animations, or even creates mascots for brands. It doesn’t have quick-fix answers, so it’s asked again and again! Creating a character does have some principles, though. We touched on some of these in our character design and development guide, and here’s an opportunity to dig a little deeper.
There are three basic concepts in this piece:
- The two types of characterization and how to utilize them,
- The importance of character sheets and how to make them,
- Some of the most essential elements in all great characters.
So, let’s make a character!
The Two Types of Characterization
Before we get in the throes of your and your characters’ souls, we’d like to take a moment to point out the differences between direct and indirect characterization. In most characteristics, only one is the optimal choice.
Briefly put, direct characterization is when you give your audience information about a character. It’s really useful, especially when you want to provide a specific backstory, philosophy, or detail about a character. Handle with care because you can’t say everything out loud or you risk being too on the nose.
Do take a look at these three rather unforgettable examples of direct characterization to have a better idea of how it works.
“See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”
– Joker to Batman in The Dark Knight (2008) (The entire scene is very much a direct characterization of Joker!)
“His manner was not effusive. It seldom was, but he was glad, I think, to see me. With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an armchair, threw across his case of cigars, and indicated a spirit case and a gasogene in the corner. Then he stood before the fire and looked me over in his singular introspective fashion.”
– Dr. John Watson about Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet
“What about Shepard? Earthborn… but no record of her family.”
“Doesn’t have one. She was raised on the streets. Learned to look after herself.”
“She proved herself during the blitz. Held off enemy forces on the ground until reinforcements arrived.”
“She’s the only reason Elysium is still standing.”
“We can’t question her courage.”
“Humanity needs a hero. And Shepard’s the best we’ve got.”
“I’ll make the call.”
– Dialogue between Ambassador Udina, Captain Anderson, and Admiral Hackett in Mass Effect 1 (2007)
As you’ve guessed, indirect characterization isn’t as obvious, manifesting in thoughts, actions, interactions, foils, etc. It’s harder to get right, but it almost always lets your audience connect to the character on a deeper level.
Here are three famous examples of great indirect characterization at work! Naturally, we don’t have specific dialogues to point to.
- Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption (1994): Characteristics like resilience or determination are hard to put into words, even in the real world. So, we see these traits indirectly in Andry’s persistent efforts to escape.
- Winston Smith in 1984: We don’t hear a lot of Winston’s desire to rebel, except in his secret diary, thoughts, and general discontent.
- Joel in The Last of Us (2013): Joel’s past, including his losses and his having “been on both sides,” paints him as the hardened, protective survivor we know him to be.
The Importance of Character Sheets
Now that you know how to show your characters’ traits, let’s list those traits. We’ll use a sheet for every character, documenting everything we know them to be.
A basic character sheet, like those in custom Dungeons & Dragons games, includes a character’s name, appearance, and skills. Those used in writing are more advanced, including details about the character’s backstory, equipment, relationships, voice, entrance, exit, and personality.
Why Use Character Sheets?
Character sheets are important for four reasons:
- They provide overviews: This helps you explore characters with a bird’s eye view and make them more believable.
- They help you document: You can return to the sheet and deepen the character’s change as you write. (More on this later.)
- They let you keep track: It’s essential to avoid contradictions or inconsistencies, which sometimes happen to the best of writers. The sheets help!
- They give you input: After all, there are no stories without characters. The things you put in your character sheets can help with the story itself.
How to Make a Character Sheet?
Start with what you do know. Very often, these are basic information like name, age, gender, physical traits, job, and role in the story. Include a little sketch, too, if you can! (Use these AI art generators if you don’t know where to begin.)
It’s usually easier to go to your character’s background after the first step above. What’s their story? Again, write down what you do know. First drafts are never perfect! Once you start thinking about backgrounds, you can locate hobbies, habits, goals, fears, and strengths.
Like in real life, information becomes harder to access once you move into a character’s deeper layers. Sometimes, you’ll need a lot of time alone with your character. Delve especially into their thoughts and emotions. Take specific situations and go deep, much like when you’re trying to figure out something about yourself!
“Why” and “So what” are great questions to ask here whenever you hit a new psychological depth. Plus, you can take a look at this character profile article to get more broad or specific ideas.
The Elements of a Great Character
As we mentioned, there are some basic criteria that make characters memorable or forgettable. They hold for both fictional and real-life characters, too! (After all, fictional characters have roots in the real world.)
As you read about each element, take some time and look for them in yourself, your friends, or your favorite stories. Real-life characters aren’t contained to a single story or sheet, so it may be harder to judge them according to these criteria. Look for them anyway; it can be a lot of fun!
Before we get into the deeper psychological or philosophical levels, here’s your cue to ensure each and every one of your main characters has a distinctive quality they’d be remembered for. This could be as simple as an unusual hair color or catchphrase and as complicated as a scar or a backstory.
Whatever traits you choose and how you incorporate them into the story is entirely your choice, but never neglect them! Take a minute now to remember your favorite characters, fictional or otherwise. What sets them apart? You want similar qualities for your characters.
Complexity & Depth
No one likes shallow characters; that’s a fact. So, why do we keep creating them?! There could be two reasons: one is that we need the shallowness in the story, and the other is that maybe we don’t know how to create a complex character.
If you need a shallow character for the audience to hate, good for you! But it’s a whole other story if you’re stuck when creating complexity or depth for your characters. Let’s explore that a little bit.
Complexity essentially comes from either factual or perceived incoherence or contradiction. Think of a complex situation in your life right now. More often than not, things aren’t how they should be, so they make a complicated situation.
Characters are the same. A great protagonist is never all good. A memorable villain is never all bad. The protagonist could have deep flaws or fears. The villain could have great genius or a genuinely distorted perception of what “good” is. Play with these concepts and see what imperfections you come up with!
Goals & Motivations
Continuing with the theme of imperfection, let’s remember that relatable characters have goals and motivations. These don’t have to be crystal clear, just things that get them out of bed every morning. (Remind you of real people?)
It’s helpful here to have your story in mind. In the story:
- What does your character want or need? This could be anything, like saving the whole world, achieving a personal win, having a collector’s Taylor Swift album, etc.
- Why do they want or need it? Ah, the “why” questions again. The reasons don’t have to be entirely logical or consistent, but they should be powerful enough for the character to believe they’re achievable. The story’s theme helps tremendously here: sometimes the world is on the verge of destruction (think Attack on Titan), and sometimes all is possible. (Think Ted Lasso.)
- How will they pursue it? Aside from the black-and-white ways of going for something, think of gray as well. Gray is highly relatable!
- What obstacles will they face? How will they overcome these obstacles? Your characters won’t necessarily get what they want or need, all thanks to the (vital) presence of obstacles or complications. C’est la vie!
- How will the character change as a result? Let’s take this one into the next section.
You’re always hearing about this one, but how to go about creating character arcs? There are four essential elements to an arc:
- An initial state: The baseline of your character’s personality, beliefs, goals, flaws, possessions, etc. This is where your character stands at the beginning of the story.
- A motivation: The force that moves your character away from the initial state, as discussed above.
- A conflict or obstacle: Internal or external challenges that, if left unchecked, will prevent the character from achieving their goals. We’ll get to conflicts in a bit.
- A final state or transformation: Your character’s standing after everything is said and done. Maybe they overcame a flaw. Perhaps they suffered a defeat. Even if they end up in the initial state again, they would probably never be the same.
Conflicts Inside & Out
External conflicts are relatively easy to write, so we won’t dedicate too much space to them. Internal character conflicts are more profound and require a little bit more discussion. They’re what ultimately makes your character relatable or dull.
In other words, internal struggles are the demons that we all have. Part of your creativity as a writer shows in how you raise the stakes for the character, artistically weave all conflicts together, and resolve them in a satisfactory way.
Raising the stakes creates tension, intensity, and heat that the audience should feel as the character makes decisions. Weaving everything together gives your story a sense of unity or coherence, ultimately making it one whole. And finally, great resolutions are one of the few things from your story that might touch people and stick with them in life.
Finally, with everything that’s going on in your head, it becomes easy to slip up. The audience, however, will almost immediately detect inconsistencies in your characters or narratives. Here are a couple of tips to stay consistent all along:
- Preplan: Before you start going into the details, have a blueprint. We know it’s exciting to put pen to paper and create something amazing, but have some general idea of where everything is going.
- Create a trail: Nothing really happens suddenly when it comes to human psychology or relationships. Even if your world goes upside down in a minute, there should be a history behind your characters’ responses to the catastrophe.
- Document: If you decide to introduce a new trait or event at any point, document it somewhere outside the script. The character sheets are handy here!
- Review & revise: Once you’re done with the story, go back to rewrite, play the devil’s advocate, and ask the deep questions again. For example, are your characters’ actions or transformations really believable?
Creating memorable characters is no piece of cake, but we tried to make it easier in three sections:
- Direct vs. indirect characterization: Direct is when you provide explicit information about the characters, while indirect is when you explore them through the characters’ thoughts and actions.
- Character sheets help document and track characters’ traits and journeys. You should have one for every character!
- Some core elements in professional character development help to make your characters relatable:
a. Distinctive traits,
b. Complexity & depth,
c. Clear-enough goals & motivations,
d. Thought-out character arcs,
e. Well-crafted internal and external conflicts, and
Have a question? Hit a wall? Drop us a message, and we’ll be happy to help.