10 Tricks to Quick Character Creation

Every writer gets stuck on character creation now and again. Whether it’s writing your protagonist’s POV just right, fleshing out that dastardly villain, or just creating sub-characters that shine instead of fade into the background. Sometimes you just need that initial spark and they explode right into being. So I’ve compiled a list of helpful jump-offs to get your noodle going.

1. Draw from Yourself

You… Yeah, that’s right, you. You’re full of experiences, opinions, emotions, and contradictions. Use ‘em to your advantage. No character needs to be completely based on you. You can, and should, incorporate only what your character needs. This is true for every one of the suggestions below. This is the most obvious method on the list. Hopefully, you’re already doing this. But if you ain’t, start.

2. Friends and Family

We all have that crazy uncle. That drunk aunt. That cantankerous old bastard of a grandpa. Our families are full of colorful people, many of which we may not even like. (Not me o’ course, I love every one of those beautiful assholes) Use this to your advantage. Your friends too. But if you get a little too close to nailing ’em, and you’re afraid they won’t be okay with your accurate portrayal of their deepest assholery… be sure to follow the “old dirty bastard” rule. Give ’em some colossal flaw (which must be completely untrue) so that they’d never believe that character could possibly be based on ’em. Make ‘em smell terrible, have one eye, or infinitesimally small genitalia. Go for the vitals. And for crying out loud, don’t use their real name.

3. Random People

Talk to the acne-faced bagger at the grocery store, the twice-baked gas station clerk, the guy who smells like piss on the subway. Keep your eyes peeled any time you leave the house. There are tons of wonderful weirdos out there. They’re quirky and unique, just like you. So pay attention when you’re out. Practice your junior detective skills. You might just discover your next favorite character. Just don’t pay attention too close, or you may end up getting your corneas seared into oblivion by a little old lady with pepper spray. Seriously, don’t be a creeper.

4. Tropes and Stereotypes

Everyone has drawn upon tropes whether they realize it or not. Most tropes are based on stereotypes. Which are almost always bad, but can actually be hilarious if done with the proper sprinkling of irony. Tropes are just common ideas boiled down from the collective mass of pop culture. The trick to using tropes just right is in inverting ’em. Finding a fresh take on something that’s familiar. But then, that’s the trick with originality no matter what you’re doing. If you live under a rock and have no idea what kinds of tropes exist, zip on over to tvtropes.org. But be warned, it’s addictive, and you may end up surfing for hours on end.

5. Actresses and Actors

One of my favorite ways to imagine new characters is by casting stars into their roles. Sometimes it’s just easier to imagine writing your dialogue, narrative, or mannerisms as performed by Morgan Freeman, Charlize Theron, or that sexy beast, Hugh Jackman. You can take it one step further and combine this with method #7. Instead of a generic Johnny Depp, draw from Edward Scissorhands or Captain Jack Sparrow. Just be sure to differentiate ’em enough that they aren’t recognizable knock offs.

6. Comedians

Okay, this is my absolute favorite way of building new characters. Stand up comedians offer a large and versatile body of work to draw from. Many of ’em have TV shows, and/or movies they’ve starred in. But the main difference between these guys and traditional actors is… duh, the humor. Comics are real, gritty, and often foul-mouthed. They’re particularly great for finding new ways to write narrative since much of stand up in conversational in nature. If you don’t watch comedians… start. You’re missing out on life. You can find almost anything you’d ever want on YouTube for free.

7. Existing Characters

We’ve all read books, comic books, graphic novels, played video games or watched movies with characters we fell in love with. These wonderful forms of media are probably what got you into writing in the first place. Unless you’re Amish, in which case you shouldn’t even be on the internet right now, and you’re in danger of being shunned. Similar to tropes, but more fleshed out, drawing on existing characters makes for a quick and easy base to build up from. Make a list of your all-time favorites and work from that. You’ll be creating the next Wolverine-Sherlock or Chun Li-Venkman in no time.

8. Random Generators

If you get desperate you can always search the net for random character generators. You can find ’em for virtually every genre and character type. Probably won’t find anything that’s 100% useful, but you’re sure to find some great raw materials to draw from. Characters often start as fragments anyway. So take what’s useful and discard the rest. Here’s an example of a character I just pulled straight from a generator on Seventh Sanctum: “The dexterous, confused, inhibited poet who has an odd way of speaking.” See? How can you possibly go wrong? 

9. Imagination

This is the mother lode. The holy grail of resources. There’s nothing more powerful than your inner five-year-old. Remember when the floor was lava, and every shadow was a monster? That person still exists inside. You have a nigh-infinite library of resources and ideas to draw from. If you have trouble getting current to the ol’ lightbulb… and you ain’t a creative genius when you’re awake, the solution may lie in your subconscious. Start keeping a dream journal. It comes from that place without limits. Where you can eat scrambled dinosaur eggs at a space café across from a zombie assassin, that you know—with intrinsic certainty—is your 98-pound neighbor Tony. Take advantage of that.

10. Mix and Match

Last but not least, (and you should be doing this anyway) combine all of the above. Toss everything into the mixer and put it on high until you have the perfect concoction of ideas. It takes a little bit of experimentation. So play around until your characters feel right.

Let me know what your favorite methods are in the comments below!

Go forth and conquer,

J. D.

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