Week 2: Character Design

Part of:
Creative Writing
Instructor:
Raven

Greetings, my apprentices.

In Session 1 (Overcoming Writer's Block), we went through a five-step process for turning ideas into first drafts. Today, we'll learn how to design compelling characters, and future sessions will cover immersion, pacing, and repetition.

Note. This week's assignment ties into the cohort activity. Even if you do nothing else, please spend at least ten minutes filling in the Character Profile Template towards the end of the page.

Part Art, Part Process

There's a lot of advice on writing better characters, but most of it is wasted motion. You don't need to fill out an exhaustive character sheet or do a multi-hour writing exercise to create complex, three-dimensional characters. This session will break the process of character creation down into five simple steps:

  1. Archetype
  2. Background
  3. Motivations
  4. Keywords
  5. Appearance

Archetype

A character's archetype provides a solid foundation for you to build on top of. This article uses the Magic the Gathering (MTG) five-color wheel to generate archetypes. Still, you can use any non-scientific system such as astrology, the four elements, or the Sorting Hat Chats system based on Harry Potter.

Note. You want to avoid scientific personality systems because they're not intuitively sticky. The system's job here isn't to carve reality at the joints; it's to fuel the part of your brain that thinks in narrative and story.

personality

White characters pursue peace through order and obedience. They believe in rules and laws, obedience and deference. A White character asks themselves what is the right thing to do, where "right" is defined by their culture. Depending on the society they grew up in, this could be "follow your heart", "consult the wise ones", or "see what the law says".

Note. When I refer to a "White character" or a "Black character", I am explicitly not referring to skin color. A race-black person could be a white-archetype and vice-versa (though real people are complex and rarely a single color).

Additionally, none of the colors are inherently "evil" or "good". For example, White characters would likely support slavery if it were culturally accepted.

Blue characters seek perfection and believe that knowledge is the best way to achieve it. A Blue motto is "mind over matter" or "brains over brawn". Blue characters ask themselves what is the optimal thing to do, where "optimal" is found through logic, study, and reasoning.

Black characters seek personal satisfaction and achieve it through ruthlessness. To a Black character, the ends justify the means. They know what they want, and they'll stop at nothing to get it. As a result, they tend to accumulate power, prestige, and control -- since those are all valuable assets that can be traded for more concrete benefits. A Black character asks themselves what best furthers my goals?

Note. While Black has a well-deserved reputation as the color of villains, a Black character can easily display heroic traits. Many Black characters are well aware of the value of prosociality and positive-sum games. Others value certain people and will sacrifice everything to protect them. The defining traits of Black are knowing know what you want, and being willing to pay the price to get it.

Red characters value freedom and action. A Red character's worst nightmare is being trapped and suffocated by an enemy they can't even see, let alone fight back against. Red characters live moment to moment and follow their passions, even if that means jumping off a cliff. A Red character asks themselves what do I feel like doing?

Green characters value social and natural harmony and try to get there through acceptance. They're the nature-lovers, the people who believe everything needs to be in balance. They adhere to tradition and are often resilient or hard to move. A Green character asks themselves what do people usually do in these situations?

Those are the five pure colors. You can also combine them -- most real people are a blend of two colors, often with a tertiary thrown in. I recommend only using two colors for your characters. That's enough to prime your intuition without being overwhelming.

The following five color pairs combine naturally, with no opposing ideals.

Blue/White represents structure and rigidity, with a place for everything and everything in its place.

Blue/Black represents self-optimization: the inwards focus of black combined with Blue's drive for perfection.

Black/Red represents independence.

Red/Green represents personal authenticity and the belief that you already have everything you need to flourish. If you're struggling or confused, you've lost touch with your true self.

Green/White represents community -- these people view their social web as a garden and seek to help it flourish.

The last five pairs agree on some aspects but disagree on others. As a result, characters with these colors tend to be less extreme than the other options.

White/Black represents tribalism. Whereas pure Black focuses on the character, and pure White focuses on a group, White/Black focuses on "their people". This can be as small as a friend circle or as large as a demographic group.

Blue/Green represents truthseeking. Blue focuses on nurture, and Green focuses on nature. Combined, you get a willingness to look at reality and the desire to make it better. The archetypal Blue/Green profession is thus genetic engineering.

Black/Green represents profanity, a willingness to get one's hands dirty. Where a Green character creates a national forest and Black chops it down for lumber, a Black/Green character might thin out the forest and then reseed it. After all, there's no point letting all that wood go to waste, but you wouldn't want to prevent future growth either.

Red/Blue represents creativity. Red's unbridled passion is shackled with Blue's cold reason -- art is about babble and prune.

Red/White represents heroism: Red's willingness to break the rules combined with White's drive to do good.

Note. The above is a condensed summary of Duncan Sabien's How The MTG Color Wheel Explains Humanity and Franklin Odell's Wheels Within Wheels.

For this section, your task is simple: decide what your character's primary and secondary colors are. Remember that the colors are only a guideline -- anyone can exhibit traits of any color -- and are meant to kickstart your intuition rather than constrain it. If you feel overwhelmed by the list of combinations, refer to the chart at the top of this section and pick something that feels vaguely appropriate.

Example. Lorna's colors are Red/Black. She values her personal freedom, tends to follow her emotions, and is very selfish and goal-oriented.

Background

Take a moment and spend five minutes by the clock to think about your character's life up till now. Write 50-100 words about this. Try to avoid obvious cliches, but don't worry too much about them. The next few sections will help you flesh your character out.

Example. Thaddeus, Lorna's father, used his changeling mind control magic to capture the heart of Siara, a powerful mage. Thaddeus took Siara away to a remote house in the woods, where Lorna spent her early childhood. He ruled his house with an iron fist and punished most infractions through the use of his magic.

Thaddeus wanted Lorna to grow up a strong warrior, and he pushed her hard in training. Whenever she failed him, he would blow up in a rage or use his mind control to force her to redouble her efforts.

Note how I don't go into detail and stick to painting a picture with broad strokes.

Catalyst

Now that you have an idea of where the character came from, it's time to home in on that a little more. You need to figure out your character's catalyst, or the single defining moment that irrevocably made your character who they are.

It's possible that your character never went through one moment -- perhaps it was the accumulated pressure of a thousand little moments that ground them down. In that case, pick a representative moment that was particularly impactful, and note down that this was only one instance of a long series.

Example. When Lorna was fifteen, Thaddeus left her in the wilderness to survive alone as a test. While she was gone, Siara (Thaddeus's 'wife') broke free of Thaddeus's mind control and confronted him. When Lorna returned to the house, she discovered a blasted ruin with two charred corpses half-buried in the wreckage. Lorna assumed they were Thaddeus and Siara.

Thaddeus's mind control wore off over the following weeks, and Lorna gradually came to see him as the evil monster he really is.

This is the first moment Lorna was ever free from Thaddeus's mind control. She's lived her entire life under his thumb, and now she's suddenly free and able to see the world without his blinders.

Secret

The character's secret needs to be impactful. It should either be a deep psychological secret that they aren't aware of and flinch away from even thinking. Or, it should be something that would be life-destroying if it got out.

Example. Lorna is a changeling, a nonhuman species with the ability to control minds. Her magic is still developing and requires skin-to-skin contact. Also, Thaddeus survived the house fire. If anyone discovers that she's a changeling, she'll either be lynched or found by Thaddeus.

Motivations

Real people are comprised of a thousand shards of desire, each one tugging them in a different direction. This is far too complex to simulate directly, but we can approximate it with a set of five partially-overlapping motivations. Remember that these are guidelines, not absolutes. Just because a character "wants" fame and fortune doesn't mean they can't pause to appreciate a good meal along the way.

Along with your color archetype, the five motivations form the backbone of your character. Refer to them whenever you wonder what your character would do or say.

Close your eyes, envision yourself as the character, and ask yourself these five questions.

What do I want? In real life, everyone has a want. Even the most traumatized ghost of a person still wants to survive the next day (or perhaps not, in which case they still want something: for the pain to end). What do you want? What is the thing that you're consciously aware of and pursuing? It can be as simple as survival or as complex as "see my social web grow and flourish".

Example. Lorna is on the run and wants to avoid being caught by her crazy mind-controlling father, Thaddeus.

What do I need? You have a conscious want, but what's the emotion underneath it? What do you need to grow as a person? It might help to take a step back and shift back to being an author. Most characters won't know their deep need, but it'll still leak out in interesting ways.

Example. Lorna is a half-demon and needs to deal with her internalized self-hatred for not being human.

What do I fear? Everyone's afraid of something, deep down. What scares you the most? Try to look past banal cliches like "spiders" or "death" -- ideally, you want a fear that's psychological rather than physical.

Example. Lorna's greatest fear is feeling powerless and trapped.

How do I see myself? Everyone has a narrative that they tell about themselves. You've probably heard the claim that everyone thinks of themselves as the hero. That's often, but not always true -- one big counterexample is how traumatized people frequently see themselves in a negative light.

In any case, try to avoid broad cliches like "hero" or "villain". Dig a little deeper. What kind of hero or villain do they see themselves as?

  • the shining beacon of hope
  • the grudging antihero
  • someone who wants to be a hero, but doesn't feel they live up to the title
  • a thoughtful sociopath, outwitting others with their superior mental acuity
  • someone pushed past their breaking point
  • someone obsessed with the greater good
  • a person who knows that they're hurting people, but doesn't care because they're doing it in service of a goal they care more about

Example. Lorna sees herself as a monster with no choice but to give in to her innate viciousness.

What is your trauma response? This aspect deals with how the character responds to stressful situations. Depending on your story's tone, you can choose to downplay or gloss over this (a lighthearted book will do this very differently from a dark fantasy that puts the character through the grinder).

  • Flight. The character protects themselves by avoiding the problem. This usually means running away for immediate threats (such as a knife-wielding mugger). For distant threats (like crushing debt), this shows up as not-thinking about the problem and distracting yourself with escapism.
  • Fight. The character protects themselves by attacking the problem. For immediate threats, this looks like yelling or fighting the person. For distant threats, it looks like establishing control and power over the issue.
  • Freeze. The character protects themselves by dissociating. For immediate threats, this looks like staying still and going quiet. For distant threats, it's more of a constant sense that there's a glass wall between you and reality and a general numbness of emotion.
  • Fawn. The character protects themselves by appeasing the threat. For immediate threats, this looks like compliance: flattery, agreement, apologizing. For distant threats, it shows up as chronic neglect of one's needs or an inability to say no and a tendency to change one's mind to agree with others.

Choose one primary response and one secondary response. Remember that trauma responses typically develop because a character was rewarded for using them. Someone who was punished every time they stood up to a parent is unlikely to develop a fight response.

As usual, remember that characters can exhibit any of the four responses. You're just picking their instinctive reaction, which they rely on the most when they don't think about it.

Example. Lorna's responses are fight/flight.

Notice how this ties into her backstory -- her father put her through grueling mock combat and praised her when she kept fighting even when it was hopeless. The flight aspect comes from avoiding his attention being an effective way to avoid getting punished.

Keywords

This section helps your character be more distinct in a story. You want to choose one or two keywords in each category that you will only use to describe your character. Think of them as motifs, logos, or slogans. When writing, you will use the exact keywords listed here, so keep them short (1-2 words max).

Physical. One or two words describing something unique about the character's appearance.

Mental. One or two words describing something unique about the character's personality. This can also be a favorite turn of phrase that the character uses a lot. Alternatively, you can use an expression or gesture -- the important thing is that it reflects on the character's personality rather than merely describing their body.

Action. Something that the character does a lot.

Example. Notice how these tie into her backstory and personality.

Physical: onyx-hilted dagger

Mental: slow, respectful nod

Action: Touches her dagger a lot. When she enters a room, she always looks for the exits. (Note that when I describe this in the text, I won't use this literal phrasing, unlike for physical and mental keywords).

Appearance

This section is mainly so you don't trip up and describe a character as "blond" in one scene and "brunette" in the next. Don't worry too much about it. Just fill out the table and reference it whenever you need a detail.

Category Description
Body
Brows
Eyes
Face
Hair
Hands
Mouth
Nose
Skin

That's it! You now have a fleshed-out character ready to seize your story by the horns and steer it off the road.

Assignment

Flesh out at least one character using the Character Profile Template (see the section below). Spend at least ten minutes by the clock working on this. If afterward, you still don't have even a glimmer of a character, then you can do the alternate assignment instead.

Note. Do not share your character profile with your cohort, as this will partially spoil the cohort exercise.

Alternate assignment

Fill out the Character Profile Template for a fictional character from a pre-existing work, such as a TV show, book, or movie. Give them a new name, and try to deviate from canon when you get the urge.

Cohort - Character Interview

Choose one person to be the interviewee. The other members of your cohort will be interviewers.

For the interviewee: Your task is to roleplay as the character you created in the assignment above. Put yourself in your character's shoes and try to avoid speaking out of character. Don't worry about nailing the exact tone and body language -- this isn't an acting class. The point is to train the part of your mind that can switch identities like a shirt.

You can reference your character profile, but avoid showing it to your cohort and don't directly refer to it. If, during the interview, someone guesses at a piece of information on your Profile, don't confirm or deny it.

Note. If nobody in your cohort did the assignment, you can use the Pre-Filled Profile (see below) instead. This will significantly diminish the quality of the game, so please come prepared by doing the assignment.

For the interviewers: Your task is to interrogate the interviewee and collectively fill out a blank Character Profile for them. In the order that your names appear in the Discord channel, take turns working through the list of questions below. You may deviate from the list of questions, but only to clarify a point (in other words, don't go totally off-script and don't directly ask about the Profile information).

Interviewers may confer with each other during the interview, but they must ask the questions in the order provided. Additionally, interviewers should keep side conversations to a minimum. Spend 1-3 minutes on each question.

At XX:45, stop asking questions and compare the interviewee's Profile with the interviewers' Profile. How close were they?

Note. This is not an adversarial game. The interviewee's job is to accurately convey their character, and the interviewers' job is to accurately perceive that character. Nonetheless, it's unlikely that you'll be able to get every last piece of Profile info. For example, none of the questions below directly ask about the character's appearance.

Blank Profiles

Interviewers, feel free to use these to collaborate, but the interviewee should not look at it until after the main game is over.

Falcon

Griffin

Hound

Phoenix

Rabbit

Salamander

Vampire Squid

Questions

These questions should be answered in character, and the interviewee should not prepare the answers beforehand.

Note. You are not expected to get through all of these questions. I provided more than I expect anyone to get through, to ensure that nobody runs out of material early.

  1. What is your name?
  2. Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest?
  3. Would you like to be famous? Why?
  4. Before talking to someone, do you ever rehearse what you're going to say? Why?
  5. What would constitute a "perfect" day for you?
  6. When, if ever, did you last sing to yourself? What about someone else?
  7. If you could live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
  8. How do you think you will die?
  9. For what in your life do you feel the most grateful?
  10. If you could change anything about your childhood, what would it be?
  11. In a short paragraph, describe your life story.
  12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability (either real or magical), what would it be?
  13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
  14. Is there something you've dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven't you done it?
  15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  16. What do you value most in a friendship?
  17. What is your most treasured memory?
  18. What is your most terrible memory?
  19. If you knew you would die suddenly in one year, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
  20. What does friendship mean to you?
  21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
  22. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people's?
  23. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
  24. Complete this sentence: "I wish I had someone with whom I could share ..."
  25. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, what would be vital for them to know?
  26. What is the most embarrassing moment of your life?
  27. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
  28. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
  29. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven't you told them yet?
  30. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
  31. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
  32. What is the biggest personal problem facing you today?

Character Profile Template

Motivations

Wants: The character's conscious desires.

Needs: What they need to grow as a person or achieve their goals.

Fears: The thing the character is most afraid of

Sees: What narrative does the character tell about themselves?

Trauma: What's their default response to stress?

Background

Describe the character's backstory in one or two paragraphs.

Catalyst. The defining moment that irrevocably changed the character in the person they are today.

Secret. A deep, dark truth that the character hides from everyone, often including themselves

Keywords

Physical: One or two words that fit the character's physical appearance particularly well.

Mental: One or two words that fit the character's personality particularly well. Can also be a spoken phrase that the character likes to say.

Action: An idiosyncratic action that the character repeats frequently.

Appearance

Category Description
Body type
Brows
Eyes
Face
Hair
Hands
Mouth
Nose
Skin

Pre-Filled Profile

Motivations

Wants: To hide from her crazy mind-controlling father (Thaddeus Creighton)

Needs: To deal with her internalized self-hatred for being a changeling

Fears: Powerlessness, being trapped

Sees: A monster with no choice but to give in to her innate viciousness

Trauma: Fight/flight

Background

Thaddeus, Lorna's father, used his changeling mind control magic to capture the heart of Siara, a powerful mage. Thaddeus took Siara away to a remote house in the woods, which is where Lorna spent her early childhood. He ruled his house with an iron fist and punished most infractions through the use of his magic.

Thaddeus wanted Lorna to grow up a strong warrior, and he pushed her hard in training. Whenever she failed him, he would blow up in a rage or use his mind control to force her to redouble her efforts.

Catalyst. When Lorna was fifteen, Thaddeus left her in the wilderness to survive alone as a test. While she was gone, Siara broke free of Thaddeus's mind control and confronted him. When Lorna returned to the house, she discovered a blasted ruin with two charred corpses half-buried in the wreckage. Lorna assumed they were Thaddeus and Siara.

Thaddeus's mind control wore off over the following weeks, and Lorna gradually came to see him as the evil monster that he really is. When she heard rumors that he might not be dead, she immediately started following up on them.

Secret. Lorna is a changeling, a nonhuman species with the ability to control minds. Her magic is still developing. As a result, it's limited to weak suggestibility and requires skin-to-skin contact. Thaddeus knows she's alive and is trying to find her.

Keywords

Physical. Onyx/ruby hilted dagger, sheathed head-to-toe in black cloth

Mental. Pragmatic and mission-focused, quick to chivvy others along if they're dawdling

Action. When she enters a room, always looks for the exits.

Appearance

Category Description
Body type Petite, 4'10", slender, androgynous
Brows Thin, curved
Eyes Black
Face Sharp
Hair Black, pixie cut
Hands Delicate
Mouth Thin
Nose Slightly crooked from having healed multiple times
Skin Tanned

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