Character by Design: Three Steps to Creating Distinct Personalities
The number one most important thing about your hero isn’t that she can wield two swords with equal grace, or that she was abandoned as a child on the doorstep of a house of assassins, or even that her eyes hold the promise of a storm-tossed sea. What is most important about your hero is her personality. That is what will make people love her. That is what will annoy the crap out of her comrades. And that is what will be central to her story.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t flesh out her likes and dislikes, friends and enemies, and her rich and complicated history. All that’s important too! But the secret to a character’s actions, reactions, and pursuit of happiness is her personality. And the sooner you figure out that personality, the sooner you’ll be able to climb inside her head and figure out her voice.
Ideally, the key to her personality should be simple and easy to grasp. Because, let’s be honest: it’s not like you’re making just one character. You have a whole cast of characters to dictate around the page and plot! And coming up with distinct personalities for each and every one of them is essential for a strong, character-driven novel.
But how to reduce something as complex as a personality to a mere outline? And for so many characters! Well, there are probably a hundred different answers to that, ranging from Jung-Myers-Briggs typing all your characters to answering hundreds of questions about each of them. But here’s one simple, at-a-glance method I’ve found helpful for quickly pinning down the hearts of all your characters.
List Six of Your Core Values
The things that tug at a reader’s heartstrings, that make him willing to follow a hero to the gates of hell, are those things that most clearly express his own core values. And by core values, I mean things like Honesty, Loyalty, Kindness, and Bravery. Ideals that, when well expressed, can pull tears from a reader’s eyes—making him wish the world was that cool. But often, an author will write with the values he has seen assigned to heroes in other people’s art, rather than harnessing the power of the values that speak to him. And aping another’s values will never be as powerful as expressing your own.
Central to the actions of each character is the value she holds most dear. This is not to say that she does not also think other values are important. It’s just identifying the one value that defines her at her core. Her adherence to this one core value will inform whether she feels good or guilty, how she feels about others, and how she overcomes obstacles. Each core value should build a distinctly different character. If a character holds the value of Honesty most dear, for instance, she will react differently to a situation than a character who values Kindness, and their differing opinions will put them at odds. Add in a character who finds Loyalty most important, and you’ve got a real conflict brewing.
So what values do you hold most dear? Try to use the most descriptive words you can—words that, when said, give you an immediate picture. You’ll want to come up with at least six, and try to make sure they don’t overlap too much, so that they’ll each build the core to a very different character. Here are a few of mine: Honesty, Loyalty, Bravery, Generosity, Kindness, and Idealism.
List Twelve Flaws
And by flaws, I don’t mean Greed, Pride, Lust, or any of those other demons that seem to nibble at everyone’s toes. I mean the little, nagging things that affect your interactions with people. The words you might use to describe an acquaintance, like Shy, Vain, or Cocky. None of these words should mean your character is a bad person—so you don’t want words like “sociopathic killer” or “backstabbing cake-eater.” In fact, many of the kinds of flaws I’m talking about could even be considered endearing—if aggravating if you have to live with them. They’re certainly humanizing. And they’re not all-the-time flaws or, heaven-forefend, the only flaws the character possesses. It’s more just that when your character goes wrong, for whatever reason, this is how they tend to go wrong. And we all have things like that!
These things, outside of the core value of your character, help shape how your character reacts. Say you have a Loyalty-core character, for instance. Loyalty is the heart of her, and her challenges and triumphs will center around her Loyalty. But, aside from being loyal, she is also Cocky—a trait which pairs well with Lazy. She will be there for her friends, but she is also overconfident of her abilities, a bit of a braggart, waits to the last minute, and takes too many risks, because of her supreme confidence in her abilities.
For this area, you’ll want to try to come up with at least twelve words, as each character will get two primary flaws. I like to use words like: Shy, Aggressive, Lazy, Rude, Headstrong, and Insecure
List Eighteen Personality Traits
If the core value forms the shape of your character, and the flaws are the shading that make her pop out in 3d, then her personality traits give her color. These traits can be flashy. They may actually define acquaintances entirely, before you get to know them. For example, you may know an acquaintance as Athletic or Studious or Stylish. But, while highly visible, these traits have far less impact on a character’s decision making and reactions than her core value and her flaws. A character may have a strong emotional attachment to being Athletic, and may fight for the right to be assigned that trait. But realistically, if she for some reason became less Athletic, she’d still be the same person with the same personality and the same bundle of flaws and values.
For example, let’s take our Loyalty-core character who is also Cocky and Lazy. When it comes time to pick her personality traits, you can pick anything you want, but it is often helpful to pick things that put a story behind the flaws. So, what is our character Cocky about? Perhaps she is very Athletic, which with Cocky leads her to be Competitive and Adventurous as well. Now you have a pretty good idea about her character arcs—what you would value in her as a friend, and how she would get on your last nerve.
For this area, the words you pick should not be words you associate with good or evil—you should be able to apply them equally to villains or heroes. Try to pick at least eighteen, as each character will have three primary personality traits. Some of the words I use are: Graceful, Competitive, Practical, Studious, Social, and Adventurous.
Chart It Out
And you’re almost done! Now you just have to put them all in a chart. If you’d prefer, you can also use my example chart at the top of the page. Make a copy for each character. Then, circle one core value, two flaws, and three personality traits for each. And that’s it! Your character outline is now complete. From there, you can go on to build a fully realized character, with a rich back story, goals, enemies, and friends.
Remember, this is only intended to be a baseline for your characters—an at-a-glance personality chart to help get you started that you can touch base on when you want to make sure each character is acting in accordance with his or her nature. It is hardly a fully realized back story! And, as strong back stories make strong novels, I highly recommend spending some love on fleshing out your shiny new outlines. Your characters—and your Future Self—will thank you.