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Character Design: Part 1 (Introduction)

Today, I’d like to discuss character design. I guess the question on everyone’s lips is: what is the best way to design interesting and engaging characters? The answer is that there isn’t an objectively best way. Each writer has their own approach, and some approaches will work better for some people than for others. If an approach doesn’t suit you, the best course of action may be to keep trying different approaches until you find one that does suit you.

That said, in this series of posts, I will be going over one approach to character design that I’ve found useful.

The Five-Fold Approach

I’ve found that if often helps to consider five different areas when it comes to character design. The aim is to develop an interesting and engaging character by developing a solid grasp of the character across all five areas. These areas are:

  • Looks, appearance, and mannerisms
  • Personality
  • Intelligence
  • Other abilities
  • History

Looks, Appearance, and Mannerisms

For many people, this will be the easiest area to flesh out. Essentially, it boils down to what your character looks like. This extends beyond their physical features to the clothes they wear and even the way they carry themselves. In other words, it covers all of the visual cues that other people would perceive when looking at your character.

Here is a brief list of things that you might want to consider:

  • Physical appearance
    • Eye colour (e.g., blue or dark brown)
    • Hair colour (e.g., long or short, black or blond)
    • Height (e.g., tall or shot)
    • Build (e.g., skinny or stout)
    • Distinguishing features (e.g., scars, tattoos, etc.)
  • Clothing
    • Upper body (e.g., shirt or tunic)
    • Lower body (e.g., trousers or shorts)
    • Footwear (e.g., shoes, boots, or sandals)
    • Other accessories (e.g., glasses, hats, gloves, etc.)
  • Mannerisms
    • Posture (e.g., slouching or standing up straight)
    • Walking style (e.g., slow, measured walk vs a quick, determined stride)
    • Facial expressions (e.g., a tendency to scowl or a tendency to smile a lot)
    • Verbal tendencies (e.g., speaking overly quickly or loudly, stuttering, etc.)
    • Eye contact (e.g., avoiding or meeting the eyes of others)

Remember, you don’t have to go into too much detail when describing a character’s appearance. Let the reader build their own image of the character in their mind, albeit one shaped by the most important features of the character.

It’s also important to remember that visual cues can and will be interpreted in certain ways. A powerfully built character who gets right into the faces of other people will be perceived as pushy and aggressive. A character who slouches all the time and refuses to make eye contact may be perceived as timid or withdrawn.

Personality

Personality is about how someone thinks, feels, and behaves. Given the background that I come from, I’ve often conceptualised the personality of characters using the Big Five Personality Theory. The theory posits five major groups of personality traits:

  • Openness to experience. This is basically how open to new experiences someone is. Someone who is rated highly on it will generally be imaginative, original, daring, and will seek out variety over fixed routines.
  • Conscientiousness. A character who rates highly on conscientiousness will typically be hardworking, persevering, energetic, and likely to plan things in advance.
  • Extroversion. Someone who rates highly on extroversion is likely to be sociable, fun-loving, affectionate, friendly, and will be energised by social activity.
  • Agreeableness. This is to do with getting along with others. People who rate highly on agreeableness are often kind, sympathetic, and disposed toward charity, volunteer work, and other pro-social behaviour.
  • Neuroticism. This is basically about emotional stability. Someone who rates highly on it will tend to worry a lot, be temperamental, self-conscious, and insecure.

As you can imagine, situating your character on all five of these dimensions should give you a fairly good idea of their personality and how they are likely to react in a given situation. There are, of course, other models of personality. Rather than argue about their validity and reliability here, I will simply say that you should use whichever model helps you structure your thoughts best since the objective is to create an interesting and engaging character, not to create a valid and reliable model of personality (let’s leave that to the psychologists).

Intelligence

This shouldn’t need too much of an explanation. Your character’s intelligence is all about the intellectual weaponry they can bring to bear against the challenges they face. However, intelligence can be a tricky thing. People can be very good at one thing and quite poor at another (e.g., someone might excel with numbers but be hopeless when it comes to writing essays).

Here are some of the dimensions along which characters might vary in terms of their intelligence:

  • Short-term memory
  • Long-term memory
  • Visuospatial ability (i.e., how well they deal with visual and spatial information)
  • Knowledge (i.e., how much knowledge they’ve accumulated and how good they are at using it)
  • Learning and adaptation (i.e., how quickly they can learn and adapt to novel situations)
  • Problem solving (i.e., how adept they are at solving problems)
  • Processing speed (i.e., how quickly they can process information)
  • Listening skills (i.e., how good they are at interpreting and using auditory information)

Again, these are just some of the facets of intelligence, and you can’t simply declare that a character has excellent short-term memory. You need to put these abilities into context and give readers reasons to believe that character possess the abilities they do. For instance, if you want readers to believe that a character has an excellent memory in a world with magic in it, you could have the character memorise an entire book of spells in an extremely short period of time.

Other Abilities

This area is a grab bag of all the different abilities that your character might have. These can vary wildly depending on the genre and setting that you’re using.

Consider a spy thriller. Your main character might have the following abilities:

  • Expert marksman
  • Multilingual
  • Excellent computer hacker
  • Good at stealth and infiltration

In contrast, if you’re writing a fantasy novel, your character might have abilities like:

  • Elite swordsman
  • Master of ice magic
  • Can read ancient runes
  • Can transform into a dragon

One of the most important things to realise is that the abilities your character has will strongly influence the actions that they take. If someone is an expert swordsman, then they might try to fight their way out of a situation. However, if they’re an expert negotiator or someone who can control the minds of others, they might opt for a less bloody approach.

Always keep in mind what abilities your character has and how they might influence their actions. More importantly, try to develop a solid enough grasp of your character’s abilities that you can imagine how they would react or use their abilities in a diverse array of situations.

History

This is all about your character’s past – where they’ve come from and how it has influence them. Some of the things you should definitely establish, at least for yourself if not immediately for the readers (keeping them in suspense can be a good thing), are:

  • Family and friends
  • Upbringing
  • Pivotal events
  • Schooling/education/training

For many people, their family and friends will be the biggest influence on them. Does your character have brothers or sisters? If so, how do they feel about them? Did they have a best friend as a child? If they did, did that friendship last into adulthood? If not, why did it fail? If you want to create an in-depth, engaging character, you need to be able to answer questions like this.

Similarly, what sort of upbringing did your character have? Someone who was raised by both of their parents in a wealthy household will obviously see the world quite differently from someone who scratched out a living as an orphan on the back streets of a dingy city. Understanding your character’s upbringing will help you to understand how they see the world and what they may want in the future.

It is also critical to make a note of any pivotal events in your character’s life. For instance, if someone lived in a city that was burned to the ground during a brutal war, this is likely to influence their behaviour and views later on. Likewise, if someone found themselves stranded in the wilderness as a child and was forced to fend off wild beasts and survive alone for several months, that too will influence them in the future. In many ways, life is a series of milestones. You need to know what the biggest ones in your character’s life were.

The schooling, education, and other training that a character receives can also prove to be enormously influential. First of all, was your character schooled at all? In many scenarios (e.g., fantasy settings), it may not be common for everyone to be literate. Knowing how to read would thus be a powerful advantage. If they have been schooled, did they pursue further studies? In a fantasy setting, this might mean going to a magical academy. In a more realistic setting, it might mean a normal university, or, in the case of a soldier, a military academy. In all of these examples, the schooling, education, and training that a character has received will undoubtedly influence not only their views but also their abilities and even their intelligence and personality.

To know where someone is going, look to where they have been. To understand where your character is going, you have to understand where they have been and where they’ve come from.

Summary

Designing interesting and engaging characters isn’t always easy. It can take a lot of time and effort. However, you can often make your life easier by making use of a mental scaffold to help structure your thoughts and direct your energy. If you’re not sure what to do, then think of the five areas outlined above:

  • Looks, appearance, and mannerisms
  • Personality
  • Intelligence
  • Other abilities
  • History

If you can honestly say that you’ve got a thorough understanding of your character in all five areas, then you’re well on your way to creating a great character.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Some Public Speaking Tips

I will go into public speaking in more depth in later posts, but I thought I’d offer a few tips, relatively easy things that can make an immediate difference.

  1. Rehearse your speech. This might sound obvious, but I’ve encountered so many people who are perfectly willing to write up their entire speech but won’t do more than skim through it once or twice before they have to give the speech. If you’ve written your speech out in full, then rehearse it. Practice delivering it in exactly the same way as you would to your eventual audience. This means including things like pauses, changes in tone and inflection, and even gestures. It makes a tremendous difference because when you’re tired or nervous or anxious, you default back to what you’ve practiced, and if you haven’t practiced anything… well, it can get ugly.
  2. Do not talk faster to get under the time limit. Many speeches have time limits (e.g., for school or university). It’s tempting to simply speak faster, so you can cover more ground, but that’s not something you should do. Instead, look closely at your speech. Are all of the points you’re making actually that relevant? Are you being as clear and concise as you could be? Speaking faster might get you under the time limit, but you’ll sound ridiculous.
  3. Make sure you know how to use any equipment involved in your speech. This is another common mistake that I’ve seen far too often. If you have to use a projector, or a laptop, or any other piece of equipment for your speech, then make sure you know how to use it. It comes across as terribly unprofessional if you have to call someone over just to operate the slides of your presentation. If possible, it’s often a great idea to speak to whomever is in charge of the venue beforehand to organise an opportunity to test things out. Alternatively, you can arrive early to try things out.
  4. Vary your pace and tone when you speak. Nobody speaks with the exact same pace and tone all of the time. Anyone who does ends up sounding like a robot. Think of your speech as a conversation with a friend. Would you talk to your friend without varying your pace and tone? Of course not. Varying your pace and tone can not only communicate enthusiasm for the subject but also authority and wisdom.
  5. A speech is a story. Your speech should have a structure that facilitates its message. If you’re giving an informational talk, then you could start with the basics and work your way up from there. If you’re arguing a point of view, then you need to explain your position and then provide evidence to support it. If you’re debating, then you need to attack weaknesses in the opponent’s argument and interpretation of the fact before showing how your interpretation is superior. Your audience doesn’t have the benefit of being able to simply glance back at what you’ve said, the way they would for an essay, so your speech needs to be set up in a way that makes it as easy as possible for them to follow your ideas.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, education, and other subjects, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Progress Report (16-07-2016)

Today, I’d like to give you guys some idea of what I’m up. At the moment, I’m working on a collection of short stories set before, after, and during the first three parts of The Unconventional Heroes Series. At the moment, the collection has fourteen stories in it. Here are the current names for those stories:

  1. Hungry
  2. Food Supply
  3. Piracy
  4. Uncle Gerald
  5. First Meeting
  6. Tomb Raider
  7. Impostor
  8. The Bank
  9. Gardening
  10. Research and Development
  11. The Rules
  12. Adventure Time
  13. Mr Sparkles
  14. The Beach

That isn’t necessarily the final order the stories will be, but it’s the order they were originally written in. At the moment, the total length (at the first draft stage) of the collection is approximately 54,000 words. Based on what I’ve seen from the four stories that have already undergone a second draft, that word count is going to increase substantially (perhaps even by as much as 50% or more).

There’s a good balance of characters there with some of the stories focusing on our favourite necromancer duo while others offer glimpses into the lives (and pasts) of some of the other characters. You’ll even get to see what Timmy, James, and Vicky were like when they were younger (hint: Timmy and James get along about as well as you’d expect).

Details, Description, and Imagination

Being able to describe things in a way that is interesting and engaging is one of the most important skills that a writer can have. Good descriptions can elevate otherwise mundane scenes and add depth and flavour to your writing. One of the best examples of this can be seen in how characters are described.

Consider the following description:

He was tall and skinny, and his clothing had clearly seen better days. If there was a field nearby, he would have done a fine job as a scarecrow.

There are a total of twenty-nine words in that description, yet the image and tone are vivid. The reader can easily form a picture about the man being described.

Now, consider this description:

He stood precisely six feet and four inches tall. He had narrow shoulders, and he was slim almost to the point of being emaciated. His clothing, consisting of an old suit jacket, a worn pair of trousers, a shabby dress shirt, and tattered shoes, was all of poor quality.

That description contains forty-nine words, nearly double the number of words as the previous one. It certainly contains more details about the man in question, but is it a better description? I would argue that it is not. The reader does not need to know every single thing about the man’s appearance. Indeed, I would argue that it is more enjoyable for the reader if a certain amount is left to their imagination.

The first description gives the reader latitude when it comes to building a mental picture of the man being described, yet it still provides the essential details (i.e., that the man is tall and skinny and that his clothing is of poor quality). In addition, asking the reader to do a little bit of imagination helps to engage them, drawing them into the story and involving them as they get a chance to create, in their own mind, a picture of the character.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t give any details. For example can you imagine if the only description that a novel gave of the main character was the following:

John was a man. He was middle-aged.

There isn’t enough there for the reader to latch onto. You want to engage their imagination, so you can’t give them too much, but you do need to give them enough to get going. What if we added to it?

John was a middle-aged man. He worked insurance, and even if he smiled a lot, it never reached his eyes.

I’ve added an extra sentence here, but I think it’s worth it. Notice that even though I haven’t given any really specific details about John’s appearance, what I have added has given a sense about what sort of person he is. The reader knows that he works in the insurance industry. The fact that he smiles a lot without those smiles ever reaching his eyes gives the reader the impression of him being tired, weary, and fed up with what he’s doing. I don’t have to describe his appearance in great detail, but the reader can already picture the expression on John’s face, even the way he carries himself. Everyone knows someone like John, which leaves readers free to create their own picture of him in their heads.

What’s important to note is that this description suggests that the most important thing about John isn’t how he looks. No, by mentioning his occupation and his attitude to it, it’s implied that those are what the reader should be focusing on.

Overly long and detailed descriptions can come across as bloated, and they can become tiresome and boring for readers. I believe that a lot can be gained from having descriptions that leave some things to the imagination of the reader while still focusing on the essential attributes of the characters being described.

For example:

He walked into the saloon just shy of dusk. There was dust from a long day’s hard riding on him, but he walked smoothly and steadily to the bar. His gaze was sharp, and he settled onto a stool that gave him a view of the whole saloon. His voice, when he spoke, was soft, but there as an undercurrent of menace laced into the words, a hidden hardness that flickered now and then in his eyes as well.

“I’m looking for Thompson.” His eyes might as well have been green ice, they were so cold. “I’ll ask politely the first time. The second time? You don’t want to know how I’ll be asking.”

Again, the description doesn’t focus on his looks because those aren’t what are important to the scene. Instead, it’s his bearing, his sense of purpose, that gets mentioned, and these are the things the reader forms an impression of.

The same principle can also be applied to locations insteadof characters. Think about describing a castle. Are you really going to describe every single thing about it? No, the odds are that you’ll focus on the parts of the castle that are most relevant. If the castle is going to be besieged at a later point in the story, then you might focus on the walls, the moat, or the gatehouse. If the castle is going to be the site of a great gathering, you might focus on its halls or its courtyard.

The walls towered over everything. They were a man-made mountain range that circled the castle. And around that mountain range was a river – a moat as wide as the walls were thick. The only place to cross was at the gatehouse, a bulwark of stone, wood, and steel that had stood for five hundred years and looked like it could stand for five hundred more.

Once again, the walls themselves are not described in excruciating detail. What is provided in the description allows the reader to understand the most important thing: the walls are huge and imposing and they are not the only obstacles attackers must face. The gatehouse is the only point of weakness, but even it conveys a sense of strength.

Descriptions are a vital part of storytelling. Without good descriptions, it can be almost impossible for your readers to engage with the story. Yet simply providing more and more details is not the answer. Instead, it’s about providing the right details, details that will engage the reader’s imagination while still conveying the most important points.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

An Important Question

Who do you think would win in a cake-eating contest, Sam or Spot?

In one corner you have Sam, a trans-dimensional protoplasmic horror whose species may or may not want to bring about the apocalypse after ushering in an era of limitless horror and despair. In the other corner, you have Spot, the little dragon with a big stomach.

Which cake-eater shall reign supreme?

P. S. You may well find out the answer in one of the short stories in the upcoming collection…

 

Improvement Through Teaching

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in various forms of teaching. I say fortunate because I find teaching immensely rewarding, and I do believe that it is rather undervalued, much to the misfortune of both teachers and students.

Some of my experiences in teaching have been in physical activities. For example, I once ran a martial arts club for a couple of weeks when the owner (a close friend who was one of my instructors during my younger years) went on holiday. However, I’ve also been involved in more traditional teaching as a university lecturer and tutor.

Something that has become clear to me through my experiences is that teaching can be a great way to learn. When you have to teach someone who knows nothing or very little about a subject, then you are forced to make sure that your own knowledge base is both current and correct. If you don’t properly understand a concept, idea, or technique, then you’re not going to have much success in teaching someone else about it.

Consider something as simple as how to throw a proper jab. The actual mechanics of throwing a proper jab can be broken down into several steps. A good instructor is able to properly convey to their student not only what each step involves but also how the steps fit together to produce the proper result.

But so many martial artists get used to throwing jabs without ever really thinking about proper technique. Having to teach someone who doesn’t know how to throw a proper jab is an excellent way to get the instructor to refocus on proper technique. After all, breaking a jab down into different steps doesn’t just involve the student going through those steps. The instructor has to be able to demonstrate those steps to their student.

Factorisation (from mathematics) is another good example of how having to teach others can lead to improvement. Factorisation is something that I’m quite familiar with due, in large part, to having done a large amount of mathematics in not only high school but also university. However, when I started tutoring the children of some family friends who were struggling with maths, I had an interesting experience.

I’ve never really had to worry too much about how to do factorisation. Once the concept was explained to me and I did some examples, it didn’t take me very long to automatise the processes involved. However, the people I’m tutoring aren’t so good at automatising things like factorisation. If they were, then they wouldn’t need help with maths.

To help them, I looked into all of the different ways to approach factorisation. I ended up learning all of them and trying them one by one with my students until they found the method that best suited them. They didn’t end up choosing the method that I used, but that’s part of what made the whole thing so fascinating. I had a way of doing factorisation, but it wasn’t one my students could really use because they couldn’t do as many of the operations in their head as I could. Trying to force my method of doing it on them would have been disastrous. Instead, I did what a good teacher should: I identified different methods and helped my students learn the one that best fit with their abilities.

Now, the time may come when they feel confident using the method that I do (it’s faster). If that happens, then I’ll gladly teach them my approach. The most important thing is that they have a method that works for them, and it wasn’t one they were able to learn in class because with so many other students in the classroom their teacher simply did not have the time to individually approach all of them about different methods. Moreover, I learned all of those other methods too. I might not need them, but it’s certainly better to have them.

I feel that writing is much the same. Do you know what good dialogue is? Do you know how to write a good description? If you’re sure that you do, then can you teach someone else how to as well? The only way you can possibly teach someone how to do either (or, really, anything else related to writing) is if you yourself have a solid grasp of what it is you’re trying to teach.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing articles about writing and education. Each article I write forces me to go over the content to make sure that I know what I’m talking about. That process, having to go over the content and examine it in detail, is a great way to not only revise but also improve. If I can’t explain a concept, then maybe I need to learn more about it.

Teaching is a great thing. It can be very rewarding because, more often than not, both the student and the teacher end up learning.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Progress Report

With Divine Assistance now available on Amazon, I’ve been turning my attention to my next project: a collection of short stories set in the same universe as The Unconventional Heroes Series. The stories will features characters from the series, both those you’re already quite familiar with (e.g., Timmy) and those who’ve stayed mostly in the background (e.g., some of the people who work at the castle). The stories will also be set at different times. Some will take place before the beginning of the series while others will take place at various points throughout the series.

To give you some idea of what I’m working on, here are the titles (some of them provisional) for the stories that I’ve drafted so far along with rough word counts on the drafts in brackets:

  • The Hungry Dragon Cookie Company (4900)
  • Food Supply (3000)
  • Piracy and Practicality (3700)
  • Family Matters (3300)
  • First Impressions (3100)
  • Tomb Raider (5700)
  • Impostor (6200)
  • The Bank (4900)
  • Gardening (3000)

That adds up to a rough total of 37,800 words. Keep in mind that I still have a few more stories to add to that, and the likely overall word count will be around 45,000-50,000 words. Now, add in the fact that these are first drafts and that it is not uncommon for a story of mine to double in length from the first draft to the final draft, and I’m looking at around 80,000+ words.

So, yes, that’s what I’ve been doing.