Character by Design: Three Steps to Creating Distinct Personalities

Writersdontcry CharacterChartThe 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.

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