Welcome to this tutorial. It's part one of a series in which I give you all the tools you need to create fascinating, unforgettable characters. And I'm going to do it in a streamlined, simple fashion using a method I developed to eliminate confusion, unnecessary work, and ambiguity.
It works every time.
I don't just say that lightly. If you follow these simple steps, you will create awesome characters. No more cardboard. No more clichés. Your characters will seem real, just like many other legendary characters who have stood the test of time.
I also like to use the holistic approach, so we are going to just jump right into the deep end here. I'm not going to let you sink. You're going to swim. You'll be building a character as we go using the tools I provide during each step of the process. Are you ready to rock and roll? We'll be using what I call the P3 Method, as there are three main phases: Purpose, Personality, Particulars. We'll cover all of these as we go. But first...
You need strong characters.
Your stories are taking the readers on a journey. A journey that lasts a lot longer than a movie. So it has to be exciting. But that means we are also spending all that time with your characters. Would you want to spend 10+ hours with someone who's boring and unmemorable? Me neither.
You also want your character to be different. The best characters have personality, seem real. They're different than every other character. Think about some of the most iconic characters in history. What makes them stand out?
Creating extraordinary, unforgettable characters applies to more than just fiction. Whether for stories, film, the stage, games, or anything else--these tutorials will help you amp up your characters. I guarantee it. In fact, I stand by this method so much I guarantee that if you follow its simple steps, you'll never have to worry about flat characters ever again.
What is your character's purpose?
Before we begin, you should know the P3 Method works from big to little. Highest priorities to littlest. The three Ps are Purpose, Personality, Particulars, in that order. Most people start with the particulars and then, well, that's as far as they get. They don't put much thought into anything else. That's what my process will help you avoid. There's a reason why I work from the outside-in. Think about your story for a minute.
In order to have a character at all, there must be a story somewhere. To go on a journey, we need a vehicle. Your character is the driver. No vehicle? No driver. So we need a story in which to place our character. The good news is that this character can spawn from the story idea, or the story idea can spawn from the character. No matter which way you go about it, though, we need to know one thing: why is this character here?
This is important. Your character must have a reason for being in the story. The easiest way to give your character a reason for being there is to define the character's role. What role does this character fill in this story?
Does this character even justify being in this story? If not, why are they there? Try not to create characters that serve no purpose. Each character needs to have a reason to be in the story, no matter what. There are only a few reasons a character should ever appear in a story at all:
- They contribute toward the accomplishment of the main goal or a side goal.
- They contribute toward the prevention of the main goal or a side goal.
- They serve an auxiliary purpose.
Every character in your story should serve one of these three purposes. Everyone. Purpose is more obvious when it comes to protagonists and antagonists. But what about the rest of the cast?
They need a reason to be there, too, other than to simply converse with the main character. Are they a mentor like Obi-Wan Kenobi? A support mechanism like Samwise Gamgee? A love interest? Obviously, there are going to be some side characters that don't contribute much to the overall story. Maybe your protagonist has a small exchange with someone on the bus. Throwaway characters like that are okay, for now we are just talking about your main characters who will be getting the full P3 treatment (but the throwaways should stills serve a purpose).
Let's look at an analogy of a reality TV show. Let's go with a Survivor type show. Everyone on the show is there for one personal purpose: to win. We could also go so far as to say they are there for their entertainment value. The producers felt they would make for good TV. So far, so good. What happens, though, when one of them turns out to be lazy? Maybe they never help the group, they just sit around and complain about how miserable they are. The others on the show invariably ask, "Why are you here?"
From the perspective of the other cast members, that person serves no valuable purpose. And often these shows end up getting rid of those people before long. They are not good for TV. They are no fun and they are just taking up space.
You shouldn't have any characters that are just wasted space. It will also serve you better to define their role for the story before you include them in it. If you figure it out later on, it could cause you to have to backpedal and fix parts of the story leading up to that point. You want to minimize this as much as possible.
Contributing towards accomplishing a goal.
Your protagonist will most likely fall into this role. You will be giving your character a goal later on (it may not be the same as the protagonist's). For now, just saying that this character will be a helper for someone else is enough (if it's the main character, their own goal will suffice). You have to justify this character's appearance.
Because we want to create excellent characters, your main (and supporting) characters will all have some goal to fulfill. Fulfilling that goal will be the resolution of the story. Your goal, then, as an author, is to place obstacles in the way of that goal. The harder it is to reach the goal, the sweeter the victory will be. The reader will feel that the character has earned it. We'll cover all this more as we go along.
If your character contributes toward the accomplishment of some goal, it justifies its existence in the story, plain and simple. Whether this is a main character or a supporting character doesn't matter. Whether it's the main goal or a side goal doesn't matter either. It's an easy way to tell if they belong.
Inhibiting the reaching of a goal.
Remember what I said about obstacles getting in the way? This is where these characters come in. Usually it's the antagonist that fills this role. Ideally, you're going to want some characters who don't want the protagonist to succeed. This could be a villain, but doesn't have to be. This is anybody who interrupts the protagonist's journey to the resolution (or any other goal). Sometimes this is a character who starts out in a helping role, who later (for whatever reason) tries to prevent the protagonist from achieving the success they desire. The possibilities are endless here. Revenge. Betrayal. Something else forces their hand. Whatever. If the character falls into this category, they justify their existence for being in the story.
Serving an auxiliary purpose.
Not all characters are going to be directly involved in the main story line. These characters might just appear for an instant - the cashier at the store who serves another character, for example. The auxiliary purpose here turns out to be a logistical role. Or maybe the main character has a brief interaction with a stranger on the subway. Whatever the case may be, every character should serve to advance the story as a whole. If they don't, there is no point in having them in there.
Your story is a miniature version of life. Just like in real life, we interact with people of all types. Each person we meet influences us in some way. We make friends, we fall in love, we have mentors, bosses, coworkers, neighbors. The ones who influence us the most seem to be more valuable to us. Conversely, those who don't influence us much don't get much attention.
You should try to reflect this in your story.
Here is a list of some possible roles a character could fulfill:
- main role: the protagonist or antagonist
- supporting role: the character directly supports another character toward the achievement of some goal
- emotional role: the character influences another in some emotional way that causes the character to learn something about themselves or the world around them (love interest, motivator, etc.)
- logistical role: the character provides some product or service which aids another character
- peripheral role: the character is a necessary fixture in the life of another character (boss, coworker, another student, acquaintance, etc.)
- informative role: the character contributes by providing information to another character
- instructional role: the character provides knowledge or a skill to help another character accomplish a goal (mentor, coach, instructor, teacher, etc.)
- offset role: the character is there to provide necessary relief in the event that another character is dry or boring, personality-wise (comedic relief, etcetera; try not to make this the only purpose for that character)
- preventative role: the character tries to thwart the efforts of another
- deceptive role: the character is there to deceive another; subset of the informative or other role
Note that these are in no particular order, and the list is by no means complete. There are dozens of roles. A character may fulfill multiple roles as well. The important thing is that the character fills some role, giving them a valid reason for being in the story. We will definitely be fleshing out the character even more so that each one is unique and memorable in some way.
Character Creation Exercise
You should try to follow along these tutorials by creating your own character in conjunction with each tutorial's exercise. You will use this character throughout the rest of this series.
Write down the name of your character. Define your character's purpose and role in the story. What reason does your character have for being in the story? What role does the character fill? Define whether the character contributes to a goal, tries to prevent a goal, or fills an auxiliary role.
Be thinking about what your character wants more than anything for next time. Until then, you are more than welcome to come join us in the Abyss with this discussion on characterization. Post your exercise results in our topic on the P3 Method here.