Creating a character

I find that creating a new character from scratch is a tricky proposition. Most of the time, I already have a subconscious idea of the character’s goals before I start; after all, I created the character to serve a purpose in my story. But having goals isn’t enough: each character needs a distinct voice, so that the audience can easily tell the characters apart. Developing that unique voice can be tricky: if I’m not careful, they’ll end up speaking in my voice. I like my voice, but it just doesn’t provide enough variety.

Something I’ve taken to lately is building a personality profile of each character. I’ve used Myers-Briggs in the past, but the “Big Five” system has a better scientific basis, so for my current novel I’m trying that out instead. The Big Five system is a measurement along five axes, with the mnemonic “OCEAN”:

  • Openness: willingness to try out new experiences (curious vs. cautious)
  • Conscientiousness: punctuality, organization, reliability (organized vs. easy-going)
  • Extraversion: desire for social stimulation (outgoing vs. reserved)
  • Agreeableness: compassion, cooperation, quickness to trust (friendly vs. detached)
  • Neuroticism: quickness toward anger, anxiety, despair (sensitive vs. confident)

This is a good start, but it isn’t enough by itself: while a given OCEAN profile might rule out some voices or suggest others, two people with the same OCEAN personality should nonetheless have different voices. Thankfully, there are a lot of voices out there.

What is a voice, exactly? Well, some of it is simple vocabulary and word choice: there’s a stark gap between “You look great” and “You look fabulous”. Tone is also a big component: is someone always serious, or do they make sarcastic quips, or maybe they tell bad jokes when they get nervous? Grammar is another piece: do they follow “the Rules”, i.e. the stuff supposedly chiseled into stone tablets and taught in English class, or do they follow the standards of something more vernacular or less formal?

There are so many voices out there that choosing one gets complicated, fast. The first and most important step is to pay attention and listen when other people are talking — not just what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it. This applies both to the real world, and to the fictional characters created by other writers. Once you have a stable of interesting voices, a useful shortcut to a new voice is to mix-and-match aspects of two or three existing voices.

One character I’m working on has so far been about 1/3 inspired by a coworker I knew at a previous job, and 2/3 inspired by Jade Harley from Homestuck — plus some tweaks to fit her OCEAN personality, which was distinct from either of her inspirations.