I’m taking a fiction writing class from Brandon Sanderson currently, and over the next few months I will be posting some of the best advice I’ve received from the class as well as my own perspective on writing. By the end of the class, I will have written at least 35,000 words of a new work of fiction. As of today, I am 46% of the way there.
This week in class, Brandon taught about building compelling characters. He said that usually when characters go wrong, it is because the author struggles to communicate the character’s motivation. The reader is left fighting mentally with the character. Why are they doing that?
To fix this problem, Brandon recommends a method his friends Dan likes to use. Pick a theme or personality archetype for your character to inform their decisions and actions. For example, you might create a character who consistently tries to slow down and look at a problem from all sides before taking action. If the character behaves this way every time they come across a decision, the reader will accept the character’s choices even if they themselves would never make the choices the character does.
To make your character more compelling, you can put them into situations contrary to their preferred way of doing things. For the example above, you could put the character into situations that require a quick decision. The character’s struggle to react and deal with the consequences of their actions will pull the reader in and make them root for the character. This also gives you the chance to show who your characters are without having to tell the reader anything explicitly.
When creating a character, here are the questions that Brandon recommends answering:
- How old is the character?
- What is the character’s gender?
- What does the character do for a job? (Unusual is better.)
- What is the character’s deep, dark secret they don’t want anyone to know?
- What kind of world to they come from? (Our world, a secondary world . . .)
- What do they want more than anything else?
- How is this character going to solve problems?
- What flaws, handicaps, or restrictions does this character have?
If you can answer these questions, you will be able to know exactly how you character should respond in every situation in your story.
Brandon made a point to distinguish between flaws, handicaps, and restrictions. Flaws, he said, are something to fix about the character. These are things that the character could change if they wanted to, and they tend to inhibit the character reaching their goals.
Handicaps, on the other hand, are things the character cannot fix. While they make the character’s job harder, they are meant to be overcome, not fixed. If you imply that the character ought to fix a handicap rather than overcome it, you will likely alienate readers. If you are concerned about alienating readers, find beta readers who can tell you when you are inaccurately representing a handicap and how they would treat the situation.
Restrictions are things that the character could change if they wanted to, but the reader doesn’t want them to change. Often, restrictions include moral codes. For example, a character could have a self-imposed restriction that they will not kill. The reader may want the villain dead, but they don’t want the main character to violate their restriction. Restrictions can be self-imposed or socially imposed. Restrictions are to be questioned, not overcome or fixed.
It is important to note that not all character need all of the characteristics listed above. In writing my main character, I naturally answered some of these questions. In the first draft of my story (which I am about halfway through the first draft), I have tried to be consistent in my main characters’ modes of problem solving. However, because I was not certain of the direction of the plot yet, I didn’t answer these questions for my secondary characters. As a result, my main character’s interactions with some of the characters have come off strange. My addition to Brandon’s observations is that it can be really helpful to answer at least some of the questions for secondary characters so they feel real too.
So, there you have it: character building with questions. What methods do you use to build your characters?