Hi. My name is RJ. I have an addiction to character creation.
With over 200 characters in my Big Book of Imaginary People (yes, I do have a real notebook like that,) you can say I might have a problem.
When you’re in the first stage of creating a cast for your novel, your initial concern is to make up as many exceptional human beings as possible. You don’t want them to look the same or act too similarly, have identical patterns of speech, or share the same core values lest Dan and Stan become confused in the Reader’s mind, causing the Reader to either have to backtrack to re-orient themselves or to be too frustrated with the trouble it takes to mentally keep Stan and dan separate, they lose interest in the rest of the story.
But this is an easy conundrum to solve!
It takes just 2-3 traits in a unique combination to begin crafting memorable characters. You can think of these traits as ‘shorthand’ ways of getting across the image of a character’s essence, like the mugshot paperclipped to a case file rather than the fully-fleshed description of height, weight, and criminal history.
For instance. If I were to mention a certain (1) wealthy man who throws lavish parties, (2) likes the catchword ‘old sport’, and (3) suffers from unrequited love… You might easily recognize the ritzy silhouette of Jay Gatsby. Or for another example, I could tell you a tale depicting (1) a pirate whose compass is faulty and (2) whose foolishness outweighs his cunning, (3) yet he always finds a way to slip out of sticky bargains. Captain Jack Sparrow.
All characters can be broken down into two or three highly recognizable ‘shorthands’ for who they are as a whole. These three traits can be emotional, psychical, aesthetic, or conceptual ideas. In the examples above, I used mixes of all four.
Take note: Right now I’m telling you to do exactly what common writing rules frown upon: take your deep, multi-faceted characters and squash them down into flashy, bucktooth caricatures. This isn’t a shortcut to three-dimensional character creation; this is a method I use for simplifying creation to make as many new characters as I can.
How Cement are Character Roles?
When you break them down into their simplest form, you may realize that your story’s role of Protagonist could just as easily be played by someone you have already cast as a Sidekick—but with different emotional obstacles through the course of the story.
For example. Take away Lord Voldemort and Harry is just another mistreated, orphaned young boy who eventually discovers his worth and takes hold of his own power. He’s practically a Disney Princess. Harry Potter is in the role opposite to Lord Voldemort only because he was The Boy Who Lived. There is nothing particularly distinct about him otherwise. Certainly nothing that sets him apart from all other possible choices of a protagonist.
Consider Hermione Granger. She is stronger, smarter, and cleverer than Harry. Now there is a girl who could bring men to their knees! And readers would delight in it. If given the same backstory as Harry, imagine what a competent heroine she could have been! Remember: Personality is NOT backstory. Backstory affects coping mechanisms, habits, and secrets, but personality will create a different dynamic when infused with backstory.
Even Ron Weasley could have had an interesting take on the Hero’s Journey; just as Harry was tempted by dark powers (using Tom Riddle’s diary as a shortcut in class, for instance,) so Ron could have felt a dark need to prove himself special by Power for what he lacked in Wit. He and Malfoy could have been extremely entertaining contraries.
Just for kicks, write down Ron and Hermione’s (or anyone else’s) 3 traits. Brainstorm a few scenarios when their unique perspective could have influenced the plot if JK Rowling had decided to fit them int the leading role.
Share the 3 traits of one of your characters in the comments below!