6 Unconventional Ways you
Can Flesh Out Your Character
As a writer, often comes the struggle related to the “egg or hen” paradox:
What comes first, the plot, or the characters?
I think to each author their own technique in that regard. Personally, it’s a mix of both in my work process: Most of what I write is the result of cramming ideas into my notebook, which I then polish and insert into the narrative. However, I tend to be very character-oriented, and spend a lot of time fleshing out the story’s actors.
This stems from a fear a lot of authors, whether it be for comics, novels or other, have: The fear of producing dull and uninteresting characters. Indeed, characters drive your story, they are on the front lines when it comes to the plot. As authors are more often than not readers, it isn’t rare to read a piece of literature and reflect on how boring a protagonist might be. The risk then evolves into completely taking out the reader from your story or causing your book to cuddle with the dust on a forgotten shelf.
However, when it comes to the task at hand to avoid committing the same mistakes, some of us might feel overwhelmed by character creation. Where to start after all? A design? A personality? The answer isn’t so complex: There is no true rule but experimentation. I don’t think it’s necessary to follow a step-by-step process, as indeed can it result in the feared outcome itself: A mechanical creation weighed down by its own coldness. That said, it’s always interesting to consider other methods of working by picking up bits and pieces of advice spread all over our blessed world wide web.
I’m not oblivious to my extravagant way of laying things out. Being both influenced by the rigour of a legal background, yet the outlandish thought patterns of a bubbly over-creative child, I very often mash-up techniques and oscillate in between a linear path and fetching ideas scattered all over a messy mind.
Today, the bubbly over-creative child speaks out, as here are some unconventional ways you can add depth to your characters:
Character Freewriting: “The Word Cannon”
Do you like the expression “Word Cannon”? I’m glad you do, because it was the best way I could define this particular process I often use for building up the foundations of a character.
First and foremost, it is important to define what the term “freewriting” means. In an article on Masterclass, Neil Gaiman himself refers to freewriting as “Writ[ing] without pausing to worry about sentence structure, grammar, spelling, or whether what you’re saying makes sense or not. Just write without second guessing anything.”
It’s a process which is incredibly useful for authors, mostly due to its influence on combatting the feared writer’s block. It’s about breaking down boundaries and letting the mind roam on its own. What is written in of itself doesn’t need to be inserted into the draft, but it can serve as soil for ideas to grow in.
When I refer to character freewriting, the Word Cannon, I’m thinking about letting the mind come up with words on its own to define something, or someone, without indeed worrying if it makes sense or not. For instance, when I first came up with a character in my novel “Malysh, or the Trial of an Outdated Democracy”, whose name is Akira Ōno, my process was the following: I picked up words as they came, which included “non-verbal”, “yakuza”, “short”, “cold”, “vulnerable”, “loyal”, “fighter” and “sign-language”. On their own, they bear very little association to one another, but they quickly become a starting point once I started figuring out how they could work together.
You can try this yourself, as it will help concieve a mind-mapping experiment you will required to translate into a person, a design.
Another way of trying this method out is to tackle the reversed process: Find a character you love, whatever the medium, and deconstruct them into separate words. You can then study how those words are translated into the character and their design.
Akira Ōno is a non-verbal Yakuza captain who is ordered by his boss to investigate a dark plan to overthrow her. Here he is pictured with Tashi, a Tibetan mechanic, as part of a chapter illustration concept.
Design their room
What? What does designing a room have to do with anything?
Have you ever noticed how you could say a lot about a friend of yours, or an acquaintance, by how their room was presented? Rooms are a living space, and they are an integral part of one’s intimacy. If your character does not have a room for various reasons, you can simply try to imagine what it would look like if there were to be one.
Think about the tiny details a character would keep there: Do they have a guitar for their lonely hours? Where do they place their bed, near the window because they like the view, or as far away as possible from the door because they fear it at night?
Explore how the room is maintained: If the bed is made, if clothes are scattered across the floor, if books are piled on the bed table or not…
You have plenty of possibilities to showcase their entire personality just by hinting at snippets of it through palpable accessories. It’s highly likely, for instance, that a character that is on the move will hang their coat near the door, just so they can put it on quickly. You can also picture a more methodical character aiming to keep their room as minimalistic and neat as possible. A third idea: Say your character struggles with letting go of the past. Hints can be found in how they keep pictures framed, how they have a tendency to hoard objects, or even sleep with their childhood teddy bear.
Your character lives in their room; and just like you have titbits of life in yours, they will have some in theirs. If you have trouble conjuring the idea up in your mind, study your own room: Why did you keep such and such object? Why is the placement of furniture the way it is? Why are these your favourite bedsheets, and why do they matter? Are curtains a necessary element to your privacy, or do you leave the windows bare?
If you wish to go beyond, do not hesitate to design an entire house, flat, or whatever you wish. The key is to be digging in as to why things exist the way they are.
The eternal “why” will always serve you right in your entire writing journey.
The Impact of the Past
This tends to be a personal pet peeve of mine: Characters who have little reflection of their past, no matter how traumatic, on how they are in the story’s present day. I inserted this point into the article as I consider it to very often be overlooked, mostly by perhaps lesser experienced writers.
Indeed, the person we are today is undoubtedly the reflection of whichever it is that we have been through.
Life is tragic, and incredibly horrible things can strike at any time. As a writer, it’s not only important to tackle dark themes with grace and accuracy, but also must it remain consistent. If anything, adding a dark backstory to a character for scoring brooding points can backfire tremendously. It can be interpreted as a shallow detail used to add a layer of edginess, and it can even become insulting.
Arkadiy Fonvizin is half Middle eastern and half Slavic. He grew up in Belarus, Syria, and spent a lot of time in Lebanon. This is a sketch from 2018 picturing him as a child with his grandfather, Mohammed, in 2041. His upbringing was characterised by great strife, through his father’s disappearance and his mother’s abusive breakdown.
To return to the point I made before, we embody what we have been through. So do your characters. Despite your characters being fictional for the most part, it is crucial to treat them as real people when you flesh them out. It is very likely that a character which suffered through an unspeakable event will develop a reaction to it. For instance, imagine your character nearly drowned in their childhood. It’s very likely that they will avoid water as much as they can. Got knocked over by a car when on your bike as a kid? Not too keen on climbing back on again, right?
The complicated element to also consider is how all reactions will vastly differ from one individual to another. Some might tackle their demons in a more brutish way, others might try to evade them as much as they can. What matters is evaluating the impact whichever event occurred had, and why.
Don’t get me wrong, the event can be incredibly positive as well, such as a character having been on the receiving end of a kind gesture, and is now doing as much as they can to return the favour to others.
Back on topic, however: The reflection of the past can take form in a physical manifestation, or a mental one.
Physical Manifestations of the Past
When it comes to a physical manifestation, you can refer to body gestures, how said character chooses to present themselves as, or even the consequences it had on their physical appearance. An example can be how your character who was a swimming champion in high school will have a different build than one who was a judoka, or a marathon runner.
When it comes to darker themes, alcoholism takes a toll on the body, and the face: It isn’t rare to observe faces which aged more strongly than those who didn’t suffer through it. Life itself leaves scars: Sadness, worry, anguish, fear and anger can be printed onto someone. The other way around is noticeable too: Someone who laughs and smiles a lot will often have wrinkles around their eyes and mouth.
An often-forgotten element is body language: Feet turned inwards illustrate protectiveness and is observable with people who suffered abuse. People with clenched fists showcase anger, when as people with their palms open tend to demonstrate more generosity. Body language does not reveal everything, but it’s a great tool for the reader when it comes to fleshing a character out. They also serve the “show, don’t tell” rule outstandingly.
Sketch from 2017 of Grigoriy Leonov, a Siberian sharp-shooter, Lieutenant to Arkadiy Fonvizin. Scars tell a long tale: Where did that slash come from?
Mental Manifestations of the Past
When it comes to mental manifestations of the past, they mostly encompass behaviour, a mindset and personality. Someone who was assaulted will perhaps repeatedly check if the doors are well locked. Another character who is keen on energy saving for financial reasons (and convictions) will check if all their power outlets are turned off before leaving the home. These are only suggestions meant to illustrate the example.
This part deserved a subtitle of its own. Indeed, one’s upbringing, environment and whatnot will influence the way they speak. People will use some expressions over others. Also, according to the region they came from, their vocabulary will differ. Indeed, an English character is unlikely to use the term “truck”, but “lorry” instead.
Their personality will also influence their tone. A bubbly character will often speak loudly, or excitedly: Like this! Going on about a given topic with life and joy!
Stale dialogue will risk turning your character into a blank slate. It’s important to consider that everyone has a different way of speaking. A good exercise is to write lines in a way in which you know who said what, and this without the usual indicators of speech. Give your characters speech mannerisms that are consistent with who they are, and consider how they might’ve ended up expressing themselves that way. Maybe a character of yours will tend to speak in longer sentences, whenas a more taciturn character will like to keep them short.
Does your character speak cleary, enunciating every word, or will they articulate less? “I cannot”, or “I can’t”?
Create a music playlist
This isn’t too uncommon of a practice, to be fair. However, its potential is not limited to a simple atmosphere. Sometimes, as your music playlist loops back to the beginning, you’ll encounter a song to which a character bursts out into your mind. “Yes! That’s definitely a [insert character name] song!”
The potential lies in the “why”: Which bit of the song is reflective of who the character is? Perhaps dig deeper into the lyrics, or write down the parallels you establish in between your character and the song itself. For example, this atmospheric tune reflecting your character well: Is it in regards to a scene? Does it encapsulate the sentiment your character is supposed to conjure within the reader?
Feel free to create a mix as well, trying to concentrate the songs as best you can to have a summary of the character transpires. You might not want to go too overboard, as you’ll find yourself to be overwhelmed with ideas going all over the place.
Create your own files, and keep them handy: You can use them for when you write scenes of said characters to be sure to pinpoint whatever it is they give out. Featured here are two mixes of mine who do not carry a silly title.
The goal is to work on how to present the energy your character gives out. It can also, indirectly, aid for the design. How, you might ask? Music summons concepts in our mind. In movies for instance, the soundtrack will vary according to which character is on screen: The joyful character will be accompanied by a light-hearted tune, when as the fierce antagonist is followed closely by a sinister melody. If you were to translate that into your character, what would it be like, and why?
Memes, memes, memes
You absolutely did read this section title right, and I can imagine you scoffed a little. You can. If you are like my mum however and have no idea what these youngsters are even up to these days, let me clarify: Memes are jokes. You can reduce them to that and it will be enough.
Memes, or jokes, are useful for fleshing out a character as they encourage satire and keeping a critical mind. Plus, they are fun: They’re your personal running gag, and against all odds, they serve as a wonderful tool for underlining quintessential aspects of your character.
Indeed, they place your character in a comedic setting by exacerbating one of their traits. They can work better than any character sheet you could ever come up with. Not only will they make you laugh on lonely evenings, but also do they offer insight as to what some other characters would joke about.
They’re not meant to be inserted directly into your work: They’re satellites pretty much, despite being grounded in something relevant to the story and its characters.
Know your characters, like you’d know your friend
How well do you know your characters? Can you answer random questions about them? In this article I mentioned how it was important, in order to flesh out characters, to treat them like real people. Pretending that they are real. Characters are often jokingly described as an author’s offspring. That joke isn’t entirely wrong, because characters were built from top to bottom by no one else but you.
If someone knows who they are, it’s you.
Practice answering benign questions about your characters, perhaps out loud or simply writing everything down. Think about what you ask when you’re trying to get to know someone, and how those questions evolve in parallel to the relationship growth. Sure, foundations remain quite basic: What’s your job? Where were you born? How many languages do you speak? However, the deeper you go, the more precise the questions get: How are you feeling right now? What was your childhood like? When lost, what do you do? What is your relationship with your parents?
If your character was a friend, what would you get them for their birthday and why?
Šime Pavlović, a spiritual character who left too early. He is deeply tied to the lore of the universe.
It’s essential to humanise characters as best as you possibly can, especially if they play a major role in the story. This will make them relatable, even if what they do is not what the reader would do. What they love or hate won’t be the same either. Being relatable isn’t in the shared experience, but in the shared humanity. Knowing your characters means being able to justify their motives and aspirations, being able to explain why, and how, it is that they chose a specific path.
Our actions aren’t so random as we think they are, as most of us know. So why would this be the case for your characters?
Character creation was never known for being an easy task. It requires a lot of reflection, experimentation, and translation into writing, drawing and whatnot. All forms of creation are lot of work. “The egg, or the hen?”, the plot, or the characters? The answer is both. Both support each other. Fleshing out your characters will result in fleshing out the universe they inhabit.
A lot of authors struggle with finding ways to get the creativity train running. It possibly stems from fear of failure, which has no place in my opinion: It’s experimentation. To each their own way to go. There’s no true rule in art, except one: Basics, rules, are to be known so that they can be broken.
Take what ever fits your mindset in these titbits of advice. Sometimes just seeing new ideas helps coming up with our own. Perhaps you figured out another way of fleshing out your characters in an unconventional way. If so, I’d love to hear them!
If you wish to be updated regularly about my work, you can follow me on twitter: @Thisisradinsky.
28/08/2019, Edit: Improved grammar. Some typos were also corrected.