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Character Design: Part 1 (Introduction)

August 6, 2017

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.

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