No man is an island. I love seeing this principle play out in literature, especially as I write characters. Each character is a force in themselves, but what truly makes a character stand out, are the cast the character grows with. Whether it is stories such as Sam and Frodo journeying together to destroy the ring or Katniss and Peeta taking on the Capitol, character relationships make stories real.
Each character is on a journey, either they are growing stronger or weaker. While circumstances add to character development, an important part of my character’s lives are who they deal with on a daily basis.
So how do you create a character cast? Here’s some resources and tips I’ve worked with to creating a well-rounded cast of characters.
Life Isn’t Just About the Main Character
While there may be one character the story anchors around, the supporting cast isn’t alive just to support our main hero. Instead, build friendships and partnerships that develop into the story. Remember, the supporting cast doesn’t exist just to prop up the protagonist.
Instead, create characters with individual dreams and goals. Show why they support the protagonist or even the antagonist.
But understanding your characters’ motivations takes work. Here’s some questions I’ve used to help flesh out my characters.
If they had a theme song for their life, what is it?
What is the saddest moment in their life? The Happiest?
What is their dream job?
Who is their closest confidante?
What accomplishment are they most proud of?
Are they religious? What do they believe?
What is one thing they want to hide from the world?
What is their biggest fear? What is their biggest regret?
What is one word they use to describe themselves?
Once you understand a character’s heart, it’s easier to decide why they matter to the story. Will this character work with our protagonist or join the antagonist? Do they work for the long haul, or grow disillusioned easily? Once you know the answer to these problems, you can easily weave your characters into the plot. In fact, I’ve learned that when I digest my characters answers, I can take some of my own personality away from the characters. Instead of creating miniature me’s all over the story, the characters become their own people. 🙂
And fleshed out people need friendships. Your main character doesn’t need a clone of himself to drag the story down, but a well-rounded friend to create a plot.
It’s important for readers to see why your extra characters matter. Instead of tick-tack friendships, create friendships that our main characters can’t function without.
Roadblocks Exist – and Are Important to Characters
You don’t agree with your friends 100% of the time, and neither should your fictional characters always get along. Good friends know when to argue and even tell each other when they’re wrong.
On a side note, not every argument is black and white. Literature is a great place to hash out all sides of an issue, without alienating your real-life friends. I love how fiction allows authors and readers the chance to ask hypothetical questions, and see the consequences play out.
Don’t overprotect your protagonist. Allow them to see both sides of a question. Give the antagonist the opportunity to show reasons why he chooses the morally ambiguous path, and how that choice affects the entire cast of characters. Fears, beliefs, and love all affect how a character responds to life’s hard questions.
Early in my story, I introduce readers to Walther Dursimond. I enjoyed creating Walther, he is the patriarch of a proud, ambitious family. But, I realized Walther needed to face failure. When I sat down to write the moment of failure for my dear friend Walther, I had an idea of how it would impact this character. But as I began to write, everything I knew about Walther forced me to give him a different response.
Walther’s response was harsh, and it wasn’t ideal. It was rooted in selfishness, and shied away from love and kindness. But it was authentic. Several friends who’ve read about Walther commented, “It felt real for him, I knew he should respond that way. But I hated his response.”
Sometimes characters need to do things that are hard. Don’t arbitrarily give the supporting cast a series of actions to complete. Show what drove them to those actions. And in the process, your readers may see themselves.
Personality Impacts Relationships
Personality tests aren’t just for fun. Studying how personalities mesh can help a writer develop multi-faceted relationships.
Being an extrovert, I tend to look at my characters from a very extroverted view. As I answer questions about my characters, and developed the plot, I realized that some of my characters are not as outgoing as me. In fact, I was challenged when I realized some of my favorite characters were introverts.
Writing about introverts is challenging, when do they talk? How do they escape from people? How will they process the events happening all around them?
Answering questions about my characters helps me decide their personalities – and how each personality reacts to other personalities. I love Meyer-Briggs personality type, and placing my characters in their personality camps.
While circumstances and decisions certainly add tension between characters, personalities also come into conflict. So while thinking about your characters, be sure to study up on personalities.
Meyer-Briggs gives me four categories to break down my character’s thoughts and behavior patterns.
Favorite world: Do they find energy from the outside world or their own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).
Information: Do they prefer to focus on the basic information they take in or do they prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).
Decisions: When making decisions, do they prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).
Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do they prefer to get things decided or do they prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).
The little letters answering these questions make up your Meyer-Briggs personality. I’m an ENFP, Extroverted, Intuition, Feeling, Perceiving person. I don’t take things at face value, which is great for being a blogger. I can read a book or watch a movie, and spend days adding meaning to the story, which tends to work out well for creating a blog post. 🙂 Sometimes I’m more thinking or judging when it comes to making political or scholastic decisions, but I tend to like to see everyone’s viewpoint – their circumstances and options, before reaching a decision. (For my own personal decisions, I tend to lean J – I just jump right in no matter what people say)
For my characters, I know they make decisions differently. I can use Meyer-Briggs to ask them another series of questions.
How does engaging with other people affect you?
How do you process new information?
How do you make decisions?
How do you prefer your life to be structured?
Knowing the answer to these questions, I can map out how each character will respond. Instead of scrambling to figure out the next step, the characters reactions flow. They make sense, and I don’t struggle with writers block to complete the plot.
For these sample situations, I can apply each part of the Meyer-Briggs test to assess my character’s behavior.
- Edmund is put in the spotlight, will he handle it well? His level of Extroversion or Introversion will give me a clue
- Patricia learns some shocking news, how will she process this information? Is she a Sensing or an Intuition based person?
- Dieter needs to make a decision for his entire family – Is he Thinking or Feeling this decision through?
- Caroline has a whole list of goals – what will she do to achieve them? Her Judging or Perceiving nature will guide me on that path
While this may make a character more predictable, I think it helps make the character more relatable. I can show my readers how the character reached that decision so quickly, or why they failed miserably in the spotlight.
Earlier, I listed a bunch of questions you can use to get t0 know your characters better. Combining their thought life with their personality makes a cast of characters well rounded. You can create realistic friendships, along with true-to-life conflict in order to create a more engaging story.
When you’re reading or creating characters, what do you find makes the characters feel more real? Some books excel at this more than others: the Lord of the Rings has a fairly large cast of characters readers all come to know. Other stories, like The Book Thief, keep to just a few main characters.
Think about your favorite supporting character – and decide what you loved about them. Did they work with the protagonist or inadvertently help the antagonist? Was this character comic relief, or a friend who helped everyone see what truly mattered? Share your thoughts in the comments!