Writing and roleplaying are a little hard without characters. So today, I’m going to walk you through one of MY favorite methods of creating characters. For visual people like me, this is a great way to shape your character into a “real” thing.
As I have explained before here, I like to make a template of a character that is really only filled with guidelines. I’m paraphrasing, but I prefer to let a character’s traits really shine through in their actions rather than my own design. I’ll take a little snippet from my previous post to give you a better idea of what I mean:
Think of this: you are meeting a person for the first time. You are given a general background file of the person. It tells you that they come from a certain country, and they like chocolate ice cream, heavy metal music, and the color green. They come from a family of painters. Now, when you actually meet the person, do you really expect that’s all there is to them? Of course not! They may immediately begin talking about dogs and that one time they went camping. You may realize just how much of a family person they are which was never expressed in their file. The file may say that their favorite color is green, but they may scoff and say that the file is wrong and that their favorite is blue. Even though their family paints, they may enjoy making music instead – heavy metal music in specific. Sure, they love chocolate ice cream, but they only have it every six months. So while their file is correct in certain aspects, it’s vague and incomplete. It may need updating or correction.
People have so many layers to them that a simple background file is never going to tell you all there is to them. They will have certain likes and dislikes. Their interests may change with time. People are not just an assortment of facts. People are fluid beings with deep emotions and changing opinions. To create realistic characters, they need to be the same. Allow your characters to change with time. Realize that a handful of traits does not define who they are as a person. After all, does liking chocolate ice cream tell you all you need to know about a person? No. It’s simply a drop of water in an ocean that makes up a person.
So how do you pull this off? How do you make your characters more than just characters? How do you allow them to change, and how do you realize what part of that “file” is incorrect?
Step 1: Gather your file (aka Create the character)
When you create a character with the intention of “letting them be who they want to be,” there isn’t really any right or wrong way to create them. Pick a name, figure out a quick background for them, pick a few interests, but overall, be bland. Make their “file,” but realize that some parts may be completely irrelevant, incomplete, or incorrect. For now, that doesn’t matter. Get a general idea of the character and prepare yourself to “meet” them.
So today is all about Step 1, where I “gather my file”, if you will. Basically, I am really just getting a general idea of what makes this particular character unique. On this step, I focus on traits rather than background. I’ll decide what they look like, which is one of the only things I almost never change once I start playing my character. I also may figure out what items they carry, what their abilities are (i.e. can they do magic?), what their career is, and what their overall demeanor is.
A character’s appearance is very important to me because appearance gives the first impression. Whatever this first impression is, it doesn’t really matter. The character could act completely different than what their appearance suggests, but it MAY matter to the character. For instance, if I know that a character is of noble blood, it’s likely that their choice of clothing is very important to them. They may keep their hair tidy and their nails clean, but these little details may just be something that the character wants to show. The character may be pretending to be a noble, or perhaps they “dress for the job they want” in a sense. I could go on all day on why appearance is so important to me, but you’ll simply just have to take my word for it for now.
So, what’s the best way to figure out what a character looks like? Well, pictures, obv. One of the best places to find said pictures is Pinterest. If you don’t have a Pinterest account, you should. Pinterest is basically Google but with images. Better yet, you can save those pictures and create boards that relate to a specific topic. I use Pinterest to get inspiration for basically everything: characters, plots, art, even children’s mess-free crafts. If you don’t have an account yet, then you can follow one of the links below to one of my boards, and you can sign up while you’re there!
Below, I have a few boards that I’ve recently created. These boards are specifically made to help my readers with inspiration for their RP and writing. Everything you see on those boards, I have found some hint of inspiration. Whether it be “oh, that would be a cool backstory element,” or “oh, that’s really cool looking makeup that I can see being from ____ planet I’ve made.” Everything on those boards has pinged a thought in my mind. The boards I have not linked are more for my own personal projects, but you may find some really good inspiration from those as well.
Today, I’m going to be walking you through my thought process of making a specific board. Since today is about character creation, this board was made to help me create a new character. You can see the board here. I’m going to be explaining why I picked certain pictures out of the masses and how they will relate to this new character, Chike.
If you use this method of searching for pictures to gather inspiration for new characters, I HIGHLY suggest that you make a board to keep ANY and ALL the pictures that poke your creative button. When making the board for my new character, I realized that I didn’t pin (save) the original picture that bloomed my inspiration for him. It’s very unfortunate, because the picture summed him up very well and now, I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Save yourself the trouble of combing through millions of photos a second time. Just save the photos that you think you may use even super far into the future. Trust me on this!
So with all of that out of the way, let’s get started!
The way this works is really simple. I create a board for a new character, and I will search through my Pinterest feed and save anything that makes me think of the character. I will pin something for the overall mood that the picture gives, the clothes that are represented, anything. I’ll pin landscapes or surreal photos. In this stage, I am just “brainstorming” the character and getting an idea of their overall being. I also don’t always use every picture I pin. These pins are really just guidelines and ideas.
The character I’m making today is one I’ve wanted to make for a while. I came across a portrait a while ago that sparked an interest, and ever since then, I’ve been meaning to make a sort of desert spell-caster. That’s who we are making the board for today.
A general idea of the character:
I know I want this character to be from (or at least live in) a city in the desert. Don’t ask me why I picked that, I don’t know. All I know is that I want this character to be from a deserty area, and I want him to be able to cast spells. My first impression of him (which may end up changing as I’m really fleshing him out) is that he has a kind heart and is very protective. What he is protective of and why, I’m not sure yet! So let’s keep searching, and maybe we will figure it out!
Since I couldn’t find the original picture that summoned this character into my brain, I pinned the closest thing I could find. Overall, this is a pretty decent representation of him. His stance and pose really portray how I want this character to feel, and his clothes and the setting give an idea of his culture.
Pros: I loveeeee this guy’s eyes. They are haunting and calming at the same time, and that stare is something I want my character to have. I dug around on Pinterest for a little bit before I stopped at this one. He kinda stared into my soul until he guilted me into pinning the picture. I now realize my character is going to be guilting people into doing things on a regular basis with a stare like this.
Cons: For some reason, I don’t think my character would have scars. Something tells me that he doesn’t have many, if any at all. So if I were to change this picture to better suit my character, it would be to take the scars away. I’m also not feeling that hair and beard style for this character.
Trait confirmed: Golden eyes, guilt tripping people.
Pros: This is 100% what I want my character’s glare to look like. I immedately pinned this picture when I saw it because I want this character to put the fear of God into people that piss him off.
Other notes: Not sure on hair style and piercing; up for debate at the moment.
Trait confirmed: Death glare.
I love the face paint in these pictures. None of them (especially the girl, obviously) really gather the feeling of the character, or the look, but I really liked the cultural reference these bring. I like the earring of the guy in the middle, but I’m not sure if my character would have one of those. To be decided.
Trait confirmed: Face paint (for cultural or religious reasons).
Pros: I like this one for a couple reasons. One, I really like the clothing. I feel my character would be one to wear a turban and a mask of some sort. In some ways, this gives me the feeling that my character may act rougish on occasion. I also really like the tattoos, and I think my character would have plenty. Overall, this accurately portrays the “badass” vibe I think my character has.
Cons: If my character has an animal companion, I am not feeling it as a panther. I’m thinking more of an owl or another kind of bird, or maybe a fox? Not sure why a fox, but it’s one of the first animals I thought of when looking at this picture, so I’ll trust my gut on that one.
Traits confirmed: Tattoos and owns clothing similar to that in image.
Traits possibly revealed: Fox companion. Probably has a rougish side to him when it’s called for.
Pros and confirmed traits: I am realizing more and more that this character is a sucker for animals. If he doesn’t have a fox companion, I think he will in the future. I’m feeling that he greatly enjoys nature and seeks to protect it.
Cons: This looks absolutely nothing like my character, but I picked this picture solely for the nature-loving vibe it was giving off.
I absolutely LOVE this armor for him. This is definitely some sort of uniform he wears. The more I think about what his career is, the more I realize he is likely a cleric or possibly a paladin of sorts (if we are going off of DND classes). If I were to write him in a book or something, I’d write him as a guard of the city that works with the church. Either way, this is his official uniform and/or armor (I suppose leather could go under it?).
Pros: The clothing. When not in the armor above, I think he often wears this (not the same symbol though). With this knowledge, I am definitely thinking he is going to be some sort of cleric (DND) or someone high up in religious or cultural status.
Cons: Looks nothing like the character.
Going back to some regular portraits, I’m solidifying the fact that this character is very calm and collected. These expressions seem to be reoccuring in what I pin.
Trait confirmed: Super chill, calm, but not necessarily silent. When he’s pissed, he’s pissed. Do not approach.
I pinned this one because this is a good representation of his face and hair. At this point, I know that he often dresses up, so I figure he pulls his dreads back when that’s the case. This man has that look of maturity in his eyes that I think we’d see in my character. Putting myself into my character’s shoes now, I figure this is the expression he may make when dealing with some sort of loss. To me, he appears to be empathetic but dedicated to do the right thing to fix the situation as much as possible (even if that means only comforting someone).
Trait confirmed: He has a cousin (I don’t think he has siblings), who is just as badass as he is.
Trait confirmed: Ability to do magic.
If I were to write this character in a book or story, I would make his magical ability very advanced. He would likely be a master in his art and perhaps even a professor or mentor.
Also, at this point, I am feeling that he is likely a very devoted and good person. He fights, but only for the greater good.
I won’t lie. I have NO idea why this one stood out to me, but it did. This is what I mean by “saving anything that sparks inspiration for the character.” I know it does NOT relate directly to my character, but I feel like this creature has something, or everything, to do with his past. I tired to scroll past this photo, but something was just drawing me to it. It’s not a photo that I would pin to my personal boards for inspiration (it just doesn’t give me that spark of inspiration that other pictures do), but I couldn’t scroll past it without thinking about the character.
This is something that I would keep in the back of my mind at this moment. I’ve said before (and I stick to it): I wait to write backstories until after I’ve played the character for a while. This allows me to really figure out the personality of the character and gives me insight into their past. After writing them for a while, I’ll start asking myself, “what events made this character into who they are today?” This creature, whatever it is, may be something that made him into what he is, but for now, I will just keep it in the back of my mind. Not many people are going to be up front about their whole past, so I usually feel comfortable with waiting to reveal the past of characters until later.
So as I’m just realizing this character is probably in the realm of “good,” I stumble across these pictures and they call for me to pin them. Maybe our good guy isn’t so good after all.
I was sad pinning that first picture. Thinking about it, I don’t think that this character has some sort of split personality. I also don’t think that he hides things from people either. I could be wrong about that one (I’ll realize that more as I play him). Either way, I know that whatever trait that first picture relates to, he is not shy about it and lets other people see it.
The second picture makes me wonder if he has some sort of shadowy guardian that hides with him. Since another picture (the third) stood out to me as well, this trait is apparently confirmed. He has some sort of shadow attached to him that acts in its own interests (whether that helps him or not, I’m unsure). I searched for “spirit guardians” and the like on Pinterest in search for what this entity is to him, but right now, I haven’t found anything past this. At this point, I will just leave this trait alone, keep it in the back of my mind, and perhaps my character will reveal what this spirit is while I roleplay/write him. I’ll be keeping an eye out on Pinterest for anything that stops me in my tracks and makes me think about him in this regard.
My first guess of what all these things mean and how they relate to each other is this: he holds a sort of deal with a spirit. The spirit offers him something (strength, knowledge, idk), and in return, the spirit is able to take control of his body for a time. This may also relate to the cloaked creature above. Maybe he’s cursed? Maybe the spirit is of the creature and it is now attached to him? This is just my first guess, and I’m 99% positive that I’m wrong about that. I’ll figure it out more through seeing him in action.
We also need to give him a name! Naming a character can be hard for me, but I often just focus on it for a while and let the character sit in the back of my mind. I did this with him, and I thought of Shane, but I don’t think it fits him. So instead, I did a simple search for boy names. I stumbled upon “Chike,” which quick research means “God’s Power” in African and has a similar meaning in Egyptian.
With naming, it’s also crucial for me to think about my character’s parents. After all, unless I feel that my character changed his or her name later on in life, it’s his/her parents that named them. With Chike, I feel like his parents would be religious, so I think this a fitting name for him.
Necessary Background Details Before Starting
Even though I wait to fully flesh out a character’s background, I usually like to have a few things answered already if they come up IC (in character). Here is a wonderful list of questions that I came across (on Pinterest!) that I thought covered some the basics. I’m not using the whole list, but I’m taking some of the questions that I feel are important to answer with this character.
How do I answer these? I really just write down the first thing that comes to my mind! Super simple. Remember, these things are not 100% set in stone until your character tells you so through actions.
- How old is your character? 28
- Are your parents still alive? Yes
- Do you have any siblings? No
- Is your character married? No, and I’m getting an Asexual vibe
- Does your character have children? No, see above
- What social class is your character from? Clergy or the like, fairly high status
- How has their upbringing affected their world view? The world is a wonder, and it should be treated with respect
- How did your character get started in their chosen class (dnd term for career/ability, basically)? Raised into it
- Does your character have any heroes or inspirational figures? Probably a high-up in the church. Perhaps his father.
- Does your character have any significant personal items? A blade of some kind (khopesh perhaps, I’d search around for a while to get specific) given to him by his father when he came of age
- Is your character religious? Yes. Note: The religion he practices is not something I will pick out right now. It will depend heavily on the world/universe he is placed in. In DND, I will have to research which god would be most fitting for him to worship. In my own writings, I could pick a god from mythology or history that I find fitting, or come up with a new god on my own if I really feel like being creative (this is probably the option I’d go with). For now, we will just say yes, he is religious, but we will wait to figure out his religion later when we know what setting he will be played/written in.
- Is your character guided by a prophecy? I don’t think so. (Possibly; figure out later)
- What is your character’s view on magic? A gift given by his god to protect and bless others. Casters and non-casters are to be treated as equals, however. And if another caster worships another god, or no god at all, he respects that.
- Has your character ever served in the military? He is mainly a guard of whatever city he calls home. (Also depends on the setting)
- Has your character ever been arrested? What for? No
- Has your character ever crossed anyone? Unsure. I think so, but not sure
- Does your character have any enemies? Yes. But unsure who right now.
- What are your character’s goals in life? Protect the innocent to the best of his ability.
- How important is the accumulation of wealth? Wealth is less important than safety, but wealth also gives the power to make change. To him, being of a higher status is important to him because he can make changes (or push for changes at least) in the city.
- If your character died tomorrow what would they be remembered for? He would hope to be remembered for his bravery and kindness
- Where did your character learn or train their skills? His parents, and family friend(s). Magic called for a specific mentor, and fighting called for another. He had one for each.
With all of this knowledge about the character, I feel pretty confident about playing him. I have a general idea about him. He’s calm, collected, (appears to be) good-natured, and mature. He loves animals, and he’s very protective of the greater good. For certain, he does have a “shadowed” side to him, but I feel like it’s something that he isn’t ashamed of.
Now, I feel confident enough to start playing/writing him. I know several other roleplayers and/or writers may think I’m absolutely crazy to know so little about a character before I begin playing, but that’s the fun. This is just one method I use to create the general idea, but I always go into Step 2 (playing/writing them for the first time) the same way. I meet the character and allow them time to “show” me more about them in time. This will not work for everyone, but for me, it creates a sort of organic feeling to my characters. If I treat the process as if I were meeting a person for the first time, I find that the characters themselves feel more realistic.
After this step, I focus on the actions of the character. I will cover this in an upcoming lesson. I will search for specific clues that allow me to dive deeper into their character. For now, we will keep this character to the side until we write him more.
I think my goal for this character is to write him in a story of my own making. I think I’ll probably write out my drafting process here and point out what exactly I look for when I’m writing characters. Hopefully you guys will like him, because you might be seeing a lot more of him! 😀
What is your method to outlining characters? Do you like to know their full backstory before you start playing them, or do you like going in blind like I do?