Back in the day, there used to exist these forms you could fill out on the internet that would help you build a character. They would have fields like, your character’s favourite colour, their favourite breakfast, their perfect Sunday. These are, frankly, terrible traits to build a character off of, because they’re plastic and changeable. They’re based on opinion, and opinions often and frequently change as a person is exposed to new things throughout life. You can’t build a character off of opinions, because then you just get an opinion on legs. Which, yeah. Some people are that, but they’re never people you want to hang out with.
Another thing people commonly do when they’re getting started is they build the character based on what sounds “cool” or trendy. Yeah, all the KVIIIlyns and Abcdes in the world are victims of this irl, but again, it’s the sort of thing that rings false and forced to a reader.
If you’re building an OC, the goal is probably to build a person who reads like a person. You typically want a person with believable flaws and foibles, with values that reflect their own place in society. Which means when you build a character, you need to know what the world they inhabit is like. If you’re starting out with a brand new character in a high fantasy setting you haven’t even started to contemplate yet, by the time you get to building your society, your character will either feel very out of place, or you’ll wind up bending your society to fit the character. You can avoid this by building the society first, or by building both in tandem.
What is Known
Remember that character sheet I talked about up yonder? Here’s a better one:
- What do strangers know?
- What do acquaintances know?
- What do friends know?
- What does the family know?
- What does the character know?
- What does the therapist/you know?
Each of these questions pertains to the character. If a complete stranger were to look at your character standing on the street, what would they know about them, just from appearances. Then, you ask what acquaintances know. These are co-workers, the girl at the coffee shop, the neighbour, etc. Not close friends, but not total strangers either.
As you work down the list, the answers should change. They should build off of one another, and often may contradict what came first. The answers builds with intimacy, so each question will know more than the previous one. The last question, the therapist (or you) are the things the character does not even know about themselves. These can be unexplored traumas and repressed memories, or something as mundane as not realising that the thing that makes them a picky eater is having the cilantro gene. These are the things that your character can discover about themselves, or which you can just play with in the background as a quirk.
- Character Name
- Character Age
- What do they do for a living?
- What do they wish they did for a living?
- What did they do before their current job?
- Where do they live?
- How much money do they make?
- How close do they live from work?
- How do they get around town?
- What are their parents’ names?
These are not typical character-building questions at all, in the end. But they tell a much better story about who that character is in the end. To start off, the name is probably the most incidental part of the entire process. One thing a lot of people forget is that the writer did not name the character; the parents did. Obviously there are some exceptions, but the vast majority of people use the name their parents give them, or deviate slightly from it. A character might have Thomas on his birth certificate, but go by Tom. He is still using the name his parents gave him.
From the rest, you get aspirations, work ethic, socio-economic status, religious background, values, race, and culture. A lot of that comes from the very last question: the parents’ names. Someone whose parents are named Jun-su and Seong-ja will likely be raised with different values and structure than someone whose parents are named Mary and Timothy Miller. Of course, if you’re going with a setting that is completely removed from reality, these rules will change a bit. But even in a high fantasy or hard sci-fi setting, you can still build a society in which different names carry different weights and backgrounds.
For instance, if I’m taking Old Norse names for the purposes of my own fic, I have established hidden rules the reader will never see. The names I use for OCs are all real, documented Old Norse names, but different races have different naming conventions within that list of names I pick from. The reader doesn’t know that names that end in -i, or which sound like onamonapias are reserved for this one specific race, but by setting this rule for myself, it’s established a bit of culture for that race that doesn’t exist within canon.
But another thing these questions do is create conflict within the character. A lot of the questions are aspirational. How do they get around town? Do they drive their own car, or do they take the bus and bum rides? What kind of car is it? What condition is it in? In a different setting, do they have their own horse? Do they have a dog cart with a driver? Or are they a pleb who walks everywhere? Does their profession and mode of transport afford them extra leisure time during the day, or is their leisure time eaten up by a two-hour commute each way? What seems like very simple, boring questions on the surface can tell you how satisfied they are with their life, and what they might be working toward. Would a bus pass completely change their life, or would their transmission falling apart be an irritating but ultimately minor inconvenience at the end of the day?
If you answer these questions and find no conflict anywhere – they’re working their dream job with no aspirations to climb higher, make good money, have a good car, it’s not necessarily the end of the world. These questions are for character conflict. You can build conflict within the plot, but the character should still want something. If you’ve built your plot and worked out your character, and he still wants for nothing, you’re going to wind up with a character who abruptly dies of thirst on page 247. And that’s not what you want, probably.
But at the end of the day, your character should be a product of their place within society. A feminist-adjacent character from a feudal European society will ultimately have the same end goal as a Suffragette or a 21st century gender studies major, but the way in which these characters work toward that goal will be very different. While the serf is busy trying to not be burned as a witch because she discovered oregano, the gender studies major is busy trying to eliminate the wage gap. Ultimately, they want the same thing, but the nuance of what they want is extremely different.