While writing The Wandering King I picked up a few things about creating fictional characters that may be of some use. Some may be adages you’ve heard before, some may help inspire new ideas. Use them as you see fit.
1. Give your character a goal
This is an oldie, but goodie. Simply put, what is your main character trying to achieve? Does he want to be king? Is she trying to earn her father’s love? Are they trying to get a sport’s scholarship?
If you think about the good books that you’ve read, you can usually pinpoint the main characters’ motivation. Hamlet wants to avenge his father’s murder. Romeo wants to marry Juliet. Macbeth wants to become king.
Giving your character a goal, gives your reader a reason to turn the page. Will Hamlet kill his own mother Gertrude and his uncle Claudius to avenge his father? Even though the Montagues and Capulets hate one another, will Romeo still get the girl? Though Macbeth has pangs of conscience, will he kill King Duncan and steal the crown?
While working on The Wandering King, I made a list of my characters and ascribed a simple, one sentence motivation to each. Once they had a goal, now I knew how they would behave in each scene.
For my main character, Euryanax, I went a step further. I placed his goals right in the book, right up front on the second page. He states, “All I ever wanted was to earn my father’s respect. To win a woman’s love. And to become a Spartan citizen.”
Those three goals might sound easy, but they’re not, and they’ll take Eury several books to accomplish. Giving him clearly defined goals and making them difficult to achieve, is what propels the plot and hopefully keeps the reader flipping the page.
2. Describe your character’s physical appearance
Unless you tell us what a character looks like, they’re a faceless blob to the reader. If they’re worth introducing, they’re worth describing. You don’t have to spend three pages telling us about their hairstyle, just give us a quick snapshot of your character in a paragraph or two.
Nor should this be a laundry list of statistics, like Stan was 5’9″, 165 pounds, had blond hair and a laid back demeanor. That’s pretty dull stuff. Tell us what makes Stan unique.
Here are a few examples of character descriptions from an author that I admire named Richard Powell:
Character: Arthur Peabody Goodpasture
“I did not enjoy shaving; not only is my skin quite sensitive, but also every look in a mirror leaves me depressed. Mine is not the grim, strong face of a typical Goodpasture. Such a face is spare and angular, as if welded from steel plowshares, whereas my features look as if they had been hastily whittled out of balsa wood. I have limp blond hair, near-sighted blue eyes, a snub nose and a chin that barely escapes being weak. It is such an insignificant face that sometimes people fail to see me when I am right in front of them. The typical Goodpasture usually looks ready to complain of having received poor service, whereas I usually look ready to apologize for having given it. As a boy, I used to practice jutting out my jaw, so that I would look grim and strong, but it merely gave the impression that I had a toothache, so I gave up.”
Character: Ward Campion
“The young man from Philadelphia who walked on the station platform at Waycross, Georgia, was obviously a member of the upper classes. In 1895 upper-class people wore clothing that set them firmly apart from persons who made their living at manual labor. Thus the young man wore polished black shoes, a well-pressed suit, white shirt with a high stiff collar, gray cravat with a pearl stickpin, Chesterfield overcoat with a glossy velvet collar, and black derby on which no speck of dust was allowed to linger. In spite of the propriety of his clothes, however, he had muscles that could not have been developed at a desk or on the grounds of the Merion Cricket Club. His hands were big and square, and had once been heavily calloused. In many ways his face could have served as a model for Charles Dana Gibson in drawing the ideal mate for the Gibson Girl: high forehead of the type people like to call noble, blue eyes, Grecian nose, well-formed lips, and firm but dimpled chin. A gently reared young lady might have felt impelled to swoon in his arms, confident that when she recovered the young man would be on his knees (having first pulled up his trousers to save the crease) to propose matrimony.
“After a second look, however, the young lady would have noted the hard thrust of the dimpled chin, the way a glance from the blue eyes seemed to spear whatever they looked at, and the fact that the fine nose had once been broken, perhaps by something as crude as a fist. At that point any sensible young lady would have decided to stay fully conscious and alert in his company.”
3. Reveal your character’s personality through words and actions
In addition to describing a character’s outward appearance, we get to know them through their actions and dialogue. Here is another example by Richard Powell:
Characters: Great Ajax and Little Ajax
“Will Great Ajax tell us his thoughts?” Agamemnon said.
Great Ajax rose slowly from the floor, going up and up, until his head bumped a rafter. He cuffed it pevishly, which shook the hut. “Uh, what thoughts do you mean?” he asked.
“We have captured Helen,” Agamemnon said speaking slowly and distinctly. “Should we go home or continue the war?”
“How do I know?” Great Ajax said. “You fellows decide what to do, and I’ll go along.”
“LIttle Ajax?” Agamemen said.
The Locrian bounced to his feet. “Why do you always call on that big clod ahead of me?” he cried. “I get tired of this Great Ajax-Little Ajax stuff. Why not Stupid Ajax and Wise Ajax?”
“Little man,” Great Ajax rumbled, “some day when a worm hole in my ship needs caulking, I’m going to shove you in it.”
“Just try it mutton head, just try it,” Little Ajax cried.
Here several men grabbed Great Ajax and held him back, while Achilles restrained Little Ajax with one hand.
Though Powell gives us no physical description of Great Ajax and Little Ajax, we get to know a good deal about them, and can even picture them in our minds, based solely on their words and actions.
4. Tie your characters to people you know
Creating fictional characters out of thin air is difficult. The job becomes easier, and your characters become more multi-dimensional if you connect them to people you already know.
For example, in The Wandering King, I’d determined that the character Pausanias was going to be a bully. What better bully to draw on than my greatest nemesis growing up, a kid in school name Billy? Billy had treated me cruelly on plenty of occasions. I knew how he behaved, how he spoke, and how his mind worked.
Pausanias is based on a real historical person, so he doesn’t look like Billy, but he acts the same way Billy did. The reader doesn’t see or hear Billy, but I do. Doing so, helped me determine what Pausanias said, how he sounded, and how he reacted to different situations.
When I started my story I made a list of my characters, and tied them to people I knew, which gave each one of my fictional characters a way of speaking and behaving, and it gave them multiple dimensions. It gave them life.
You certainly can create characters from scratch, but it’s easier to borrow from the people you know well.
5. Do NOT model your main character after yourself
A lot of writers cast themself as their main character. I tend to think this is a mistake. Now your book is no longer about Greece or high school or a Polish family – it’s about you. Please, don’t work out your life in the pages of a book. Work it out with your counselor.
Okay, so you screwed up in college by not marrying Anna Marie. You’ve been a wreck ever since because your life didn’t work out the way you wanted. So you decide to work out your life by re-writing it so that you get Anna Marie in your book.
This type of personal writing should be kept in your journal. No one is interested in your fantasy of what could have been if you hadn’t been such an idiot and dumped Anna Marie in favor of taking the job in Boston. This is not the material that novels are made of. This stuff only matters to you. Hate to be cruel, but we just don’t care.
I don’t mean to upset people by saying this, but I speak from experience. When i was young, I wrote dozens of stories with myself as the protagonist, trying to work out all of the things that went wrong with my life. It’s only when I took myself out of the picture, that I became a true writer. Once I stopped trying to work out my past mistakes in my stories, my writing improved immensely. The Wandering King is not about me. It’s about a character named Euryanax, and the story is so much the better for it.
Work out your life with your therapist. Don’t saddle your main character with your problems. Give us a main character we can cheer for, not a character we feel sorry for.
6. Make your main character unique
This is an addendum to #4 above. The main character in The Wandering King, is not based on anyone I know. Euryanax is not me. Not at all. I wouldn’t have the courage to deal with half the situations Eury deals with during the course of the story.
I suppose I could have modelled Eury on someone I know, but I didn’t. I wanted him to be his own person. He’s the main focus of the story, the book is told from the first person perspective, so I put the majority of my efforts into developing his character, nor did I want him to be based on my brother Matt or my Uncle Charlie. I wanted Eury to be his own man.
If The Wandering King is creative at all, it’s because Eury is not like any character you’ve ever met before. He’s the product of his father Dorieus, who was a great general, so Eury becomes a master tactician. He’s a product of the hero of Othryades, who taught him how to fight. He’s the product of his mother Phile, whose very name in ancient Greek means ‘love,’ and he’s the product of a Spartan upbringing that taught him such conflicting lessons as to value honor as well as how to steal and kill.
Your main character really should be your work of art. Make them memorable. You do that by making them truly one-of-a-kind.
Hopefully some of these tips have helped. If you have suggestions of your own, please feel free to share them.