Process Writing

Building Character

Perhaps the most important part of writing is the creation of believable characters.

I try to keep some things in mind: We have contradictions, predilections, faults, and unwritten rules.

For example:

  • A character considers themselves a healthy eater.
  • They hate broccoli (contradiction).
  • They really like pizza (predilection) and would eat it every day.
  • They can’t stop with just one slice or two (fault).
  • They won’t ever say no to a homemade chocolate cookie, even if full from pizza (um, fault).
  • Unless there are walnuts in the cookie, because they don’t like walnuts in cookies; that’s what they believe from prior experience (rule).

This person I described isn’t so unusual, and despite their pizza fixation, are generally healthy eaters. When building a character from scratch there’s a tendency to take that first trait – healthy eater – and refuse to violate it. Yet, which “person” is more real: Someone who always eats healthily or someone who strays and cheats a little? How do those character “flaws” translate to other interactions?

A similar situation could have a character find a lost wallet:

  • They know it’s right to return a found wallet.
  • They take the $20 from the wallet (they justify that it’s already lost).
  • They return the wallet.
  • They reward themselves with few slices of pizza and maybe a cookie, paid for with the found money.

Morally, we can argue that the two are not the same, but is that really the case? Is a person who considers themselves to be a healthy eater or good person suddenly not? I’ll leave that moral judgement to you, but the point here is that I’ve set a series of rules that the character can adhere to and still make interesting and contradictory decisions. It’s important is not to freely contradict these rules once they are established: the character needs to live by them and be able to explain what happened should they brake their rules.

Of course, someone might not have a second pizza slice if they know in advance that there are warm homemade walnut-free chocolate chip cookies for dessert.

Leave a Reply