There’s always a lot of buzz about characters, good or bad. I’d like to think that the primary factor of a bad factor of a character is being shallow and ‘fake’. How many times have you read a book or watched a movie and said: “No one would do something like that?”
I think I might know why. People design their characters backwards.
We live in a visual age, where looks are important. When you’re dealing with a visual medium you can’t help but gravitate to the importance of looks. However, have you ever tried building something from the outside in? It does not end well.
When I develop a character, I start with a concept. At this point I don’t even consider arbitrary details like height, weight, or eye color. When you start with a core, you are thinking like an author. You’re casting a type of person. For this example, let’s say a merchant—this is a criteria you NEED for the story to work.
Once you know what ‘role’ you are looking to fill, this is where you can consider archetypes. I know. It sounds like a dirty word, but it really isn’t. Deciding on this will help when you’re trying to ‘sell’ the story too, you know what type of person you’re dealing with. For the sake of the example, let’s say ‘shrewd’. A shrewd merchant? How cliché! However, the next step helps to diffuse that.
Ask yourself: “What type of history could make a person be this way?” Consider WHY people are shrewd and what factors could lead a character to their current walk in life. Is the character someone that embraced the merchant lifestyle? Or are they someone that fell into it because of a dream fallen short. “I wanted to be a knight, but I didn’t have what it takes.” Or perhaps. “I wanted to become a knight, but the training was too expensive.”
This makes a shrewd character and they are so because they learned the value of having lots of money early (the hard way). The character may have lingering dreams of being a knight, but has come to appreciate their role as a merchant. Perhaps they see the good they can do as a master of coin.
Notice something omitted from this process? That’s right, gender. At this point the character could be male or female without any repercussions. You have a solid framework for a good, realistic character without roping them into gender traps.
Here is also a good time to consider things like race or other factors that may make their existing plight slightly different. It also helps to avoid blatant gender stereotypes. You have a character that’s a merchant with a solid backstory, you can really ask yourself what kind of garb they wear (based on their monetary worth and the atmosphere they grew up in.
If they are well to do, the character may be a big fashionista and focuses on wearing the cutting edge styles. Or they could frequent dangerous merchant routes, so they wear heavy travel clothes with chainmail underneath. This is an excellent way to avoid the ‘plate bikini’ problems.
You can even decide their romantic history before assigning their gender, keeping their partner neutral until you take the same steps as you did for the main character. When you start setting the ducks in a row, you may find an natural opportunity to add a same sex relationship into the fray. A bit of diversity never hurts.
Once everything is in place, you can fill out the cosmetic details and really ask yourself, do any of these affect how their life has played out so far? This process seems long and difficult, but it’s really not. You can build the foundation for a great character in minutes.