Character Building with James Aarwen
Character Building With James Aarwen
How to build and develop believable characters
Have you ever wondered if the characters are believable or if your readers will love them as much as you do? When I first started writing, I did not use any form or character building strategy. I wrote them on the page and did not know or care about consistency or character voice. Since then, I have grown as an author, and I know how critical this topic is.
While the plot, setting, tone, and voice are all important. Character building, or development, is the most essential pillar of any story. Your characters will make or break your narrative. It is vital that you put time and care into developing them into the living, breathing people they are.
I have found that each writer has his or her own process for building characters. What works for one author may not work for another author. That said, there are a few things you need to know about every character in your novel. Below is my in-depth process for building characters. It combines techniques I have learned from several different sources, three of which are Jenna Moreci, Kim Chance, and Tavia Memories.
Firstly, you have to believe your characters. If you don’t believe, know, and care for them in your story, your readers won’t either. To understand your characters, you need to know six main things about them. How they interact with the plot, how they think, what they want, how they act, their ideas, and how they look.
Character Building Template
I use this template to create my characters and keep all my completed character sheets in a binder. Not every character will need the same amount of detail, but you should at least fill out Steps 1 and 2.
Step 1 – Why This Character
At the bare minimum, you should answer these 4 questions about every character in your novel. If you find that you cannot answer these questions, you should reconsider using the character. If they don't serve a purpose, you need to forget about them
- What is this character’s roll in the plot?
- How important is this character?
- Could the plot work without this character?
- Why will the audience care about this character?
These questions help you weed out unnecessary characters early in the development process.
Step 2 – How they think and feel
Once you know the character is necessary, you can begin the process of character building. To start, you need to understand your character on a personal level. You need to know every dark corner of their mind. I have found the easiest, and quickest, way to do this is to start with a mind statement. I then create quirks, strengths, and weaknesses, that make them unique.
The Mind Statement
Learning the Ego, Soul, Self, and Mind.
The first step in building your character's psyche is answering these three simple questions. Keep in mind, these are not final answers and this is not a test. You can always come back later and change these as you develop your character.
- Ego – How does your character view the world?
- Soul – How does your character view life?
- Self – How does your character view him/her self.?
We then combine these three answers into a single mind statement. This statement encompasses their view of the world, life, and self. Finally, we add a quirk or something that makes the character unique. Here is an example of a completed mind statement.
I won’t give away what character it is, but she will be in Dragon Order Chronicles Book 1: The Fall.
Consider how agitated you would become if something challenged who you were. If something challenged your world view. How do you react when someone tries to force their beliefs on you. This is how your characters should respond if any part of their mind statement is challenged.
The next step in character building is to find the character’s deficits. What has happened in their life that has scared or marked them forever? What personal flaws do they have that would make for some exciting moments in the story. What about physical detriments. Any, or all, of these weakness can relate to one another.
Note. Any events you write in this section should happen before the start of the story. We are learning who the character is at the beginning of page 1.
- Life – Something in the character’s past that causes weakness in them.
- Personality – Here we put something about their character that works against them. This trait has the potential to create conflict in the story.
- Physical – This is a physical weakness, disability or injury that limits the character’s options.
Note. This area may or may not be left blank, depending on your story and character. However, I find week characters to be much more interesting than strong ones, so I never leave it blank.
Below is an example of a character’s weaknesses.
Now that you know who your character is and what his or her weaknesses are, we want to determine what he/she excels at. Like weaknesses, this step in the character building process uses three categories; Life, Personality, and Physical strengths.
- Life – This is something in your character’s past that makes them stronger.
- Personality – A strength of their character, such as honesty or honor.
- Physical – Everyone has something that they are at least not bad at. What is your character's specialty?
Below is an example of completed strengths.
Step 3 – Defining Features
Now that we know who our character is we can begin building his or her wants and dreams as well as her ideals. These will be her driving factors througout the story.
Goals and Dreams – Do they change? Why? Does he or she accomplish them?
Every character, no matter how important or unimportant should have a goal. This prevents your characters from feeling like props on a stage and brings your fiction to life. Just like in real life, character goals can change over time.
What is something he/she would die for?
Not every character or person has something so important they would be willing to die for it. If your character has something, it can provide interesting components to your narrative.
Everyone, even serial killers have ideals. What does your character believe? Are there any lines they are not willing to cross? Or are they the type to say the ends justify the means, if so, how far are they ready to go?
HELL YEA!!! Moment? When?
Does this character have a moment in the story that would make the reader squeal with excitement? Perhaps a first kiss or outsmarting a villain. Describe how the character would react to this moment and what impact it has on the world and plot.
Step 4 – The Plot or Character Arc
Now you know who your character is, you know how they think, and you know what motivates them. If it is a minor character, you may have done all the development you need to do. However, if it is an important or recurring character, you should have more detail. If a character is going to be seen more than once, I build at least a basic outline of their lives. For my outlines, I use The Hero’s Journey.
Some authors believe you should create a hero’s journey for all characters in your novel. Others say you only need it for the protagonist. This is ultimately up to you. Just keep in mind that, on the page, it should seem like your characters are living breathing people. They need wants, dreams, and goals of their own. They need to be striving toward those goals in parallel with the main plot and protagonist. They need to grow, learn and develop, even if they aren’t as important as your hero. Doing this makes any interactions between the character and your protagonist more organic.
The Hero’s Journey
Also known as the monomyth, the hero’s journey is a basic plot outline that fits most successful stories. There are many variations of this structure, but the basic premise remains the same. Something happens that makes a character want something. They enter an unfamiliar situation to get it. They succeed, or they don’t, before returning to their new, or old, comfort zone having changed.
Some characters or stories may use only a part of the hero’s journey, or they may many times over. I’ll cover this in more detail with another blog. For now, we will simplify it into these few steps for your character sheets.
The Comfort Zone
This is the character in his or her normal environment and everyday life, or what they were before the story.
This is some event or trigger that inspires the character to want something.
What is the character’s desire, what motivates them?
The character enters an unfamiliar situation in pursuit of their desire. They may face challenges that make them want to return to their comfort zone. There may be a mentor that helps strengthen the character and pull them into the next stage.
The character adapts to the unfamiliar situation. Maybe he or she gets stronger or starts liking the new situation.
Gets what they want
The character either gets what he or she wants, or they don’t. This depends on the type of story you want to create. This usually comes at a great price that the character has to be willing to pay to succeed.
Return to familiar – The character returns to his or her comfort zone or to a new comfort zone. Having changed. Something is different, they carry the scars or memories of the adventure forever.
Creating this for your characters will help you to fill out the world of your story and make it come to life on the page. It helps organize how people around the protagonist live their lives apart from the plot. This allows the reader to see that the main character is not the only living person in the story.
Step 5 – Appearances
Finally, it is essential to keep track of what your character looks like. Readers will notice if a detail changes by mistake. I use the following form to keep track of my character’s appearances. You can take away or add to this list if you want to get more or less detailed in your character building.
The physical gender of your character
How old is your character and how old do they look?
Approximately how tall are they
Are they large and muscular like The Rock, or are they think and lanky?
If you had to guess, how much do they weight?
Eye color, Hair Color, Skin Color:
Pay close attention to these, it is easier than you think to say the wrong color when writing. Also, keep in mind that this is a factor heavily influenced by genetics, try to match the eye color of their parents or have a good reason that they are different.
Describe every feature of their phisical apperance.
These are phisical characteristics that make your character unique or stand out in a crowd
These are details you have mentioned in your story. It is a good practice to keep track of every detail mentioned. This helps to prevent you from contradicting yourself.
Place of birth:
In closing, this blog illustrates my method for character building. For some, it will be too detailed. Others may believe it needs more. In the end, it is up to you. However, you build your characters it needs to be with a level of detail you are comfortable with. It needs to be a compromise between the time you have to work on it and the amount of detail you want to go into. I hope you learned something useful that you can apply to your characters. They are the heart of your story and should be treated with care.
If you liked what you read, please don’t hesitate to share over social media.