Character Creation

PLEASE NOTE: This post contains older material that does not necessarily represent our current project, Gemini Journey. It is left unaltered for educational purposes.

In the last progress post I lightly talked about some changes Yesenia and I are working on for The Taffetas. Some of these changes are about our characters - switching out roles, updating traits, refining and revising. This post is about our findings and thoughts on character creation from our own journey, with some more discussion on our recent changes.

What We Learned about Creating a Solid Character
According to Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit, you only need four things to create a solid character in a story:
  • Purpose - your character’s reason for existing
  • Credibility - your character’s believability within your story
  • Empathy - how relatable your character is
  • Complexity - your character's multifaceted personality, inner conflicts

It is my experience that to understand these categories, you need to be able to:
  • Pretend to be your character - which lends to complexity and empathy
  • Research - which goes into credibility
  • Think Conceptually - which goes into purpose
Get To Know Your Character
This part is the fun part. There really is no right or wrong way to start, or how to explore your character. Still, your goal for this portion of the creation process should always be: try to get into the mindset of someone who is not you.

Play Pretend
Writers often admit to role playing their characters in their head to develop them. If you're like me and aren't exactly the talking-to-yourself-in-public type, another person to talk out your characters is great too. 

Yesenia and I are lucky to have each other in the creative process since we can develop our characters by bouncing ideas around conversationally. We usually end up using voices,but it helps us get into the roles of these people (yes, it does look insane).

We also have creative exchanges with Fate Saga's Dana Corrigan that benefits both projects. Working with other creative people to brainstorm will lead to new perspectives, which is perfect since the goal is to try to think like someone else.

Think like your character
Stepping into your character's shoes doesn't always work if you still bring too much of yourself with you. Being able to understand another person's underlying psychology is the first step to creating complexity. Even if your character cannot fully explain their own actions, you need to be able to.
The problem is, it's very hard to think unlike yourself, but you can't make your character you, either.

 If you try to create a character too unlike yourself, you run the risk of making them a shallow stereotype because you don't understand their way of thinking at all- kind of like how hard it would be for me to 'get' why some girls don't like Adrien Brody.

I couldn't make a believable Adrien Brody critic because...what. Seriously. The man's beautiful, how could I?  The problem is, her inner conflicts and thought process would then just be shallow interpretations of my lack of understanding for this (sad) person's mindset, which would in turn make her actions and personality very flat. 

To create a character unlike yourself, you have to be able to open your mind to new ways of thinking, or else choose a type of person to study that you will be less biased towards. 

This doesn't apply if your character is supposed to be you, a farce, or a caricature, and I'm not saying you can ever fully purge your biases. No matter what, your characters will always be tinted by your tastes and opinions.

Still, I find that the closer your character is to your own personality or your ideal person, the more likely you are to try to make them perfect. While you might need to make a perfect character, like a father figure, say Mufasa from Lion King, you do want to remember that:

Imperfection leads to Empathy
The best characters are the ones who mess up, humiliate themselves, and make bad decisions (and sometimes it's just all their own fault). Your audience, and you, will start to empathize with this person more because of it.

This is why female characters can get a bad rep in movies and TV shows, especially from other girls. Often female characters are too good. We see it from even well-meaning clich├ęs: the “can-beat-everyone-up-and-takes-care-of-herself-perfect” to the “sweet-and-angelic-princess-perfect.”

Your characters need to disappoint you at times.  Your job is to balance how much they screw up with how much people will still like them despite that. I'm not sure I know that formula yet.

Empathy is not Sympathy
One point that Mernit makes in his book is that empathizing with a character is not sympathizing with a character. Sympathy is to feel pity, where as empathy is to feel the same emotion as the character. He argues that you do not have to have the audience's sympathy to have a solid character people will enjoy.

I feel a lot of creators have trouble with this idea, and we did too. One thing we learned is we don't need Gemini to have a sad past trauma or an excuse for her actions to gain our audience's favor- her personality should already do that

We took out a lot of her dark past. I am not saying that a haunted past is bad, but after re-evaluating Gemini's history, we threw out some of the things we thought were there just to make you feel bad for her and I think what we're left with is a better character for it.

I mention research a lot, and this is because I cannot over-emphasize the value of understanding what you are doing.

I think many creators develop a character's personality first before doing much research, myself included. Then, the next logical step to take is to study psychology of a character to further that personality.

  But it's easy to forget the research for the portrayal of that psychology is just as important. 

For a while we didn’t know what to research for our own characters. What helped us was searching topics based around our character's:
  • Location and Upbringing
  • Job
  • Hobbies
  • Clothes
A stable knowledge in these areas will help lend credibility to your character and further shape who they are.

Where was your character raised/Where do they live? 

A young girl raised in a W.A.S.P. family in the 1950s is different than a young man born and bred in a small African village. They may have the same personality, but their unique experiences will still shape their traits, such as their speech, mannerisms, and dress.  

What does your character wear?   
Many creators have trouble with this concept, since a lot of us in the creative field can be considerably lacking in any fashion sense what-so-ever (well, animators and comic artists anyway- you graphic designers stay beautiful).

I find that if you treat fashion research just as you would any visual or text research you can dress your character based on their preference and setting, rather than your own.

Yesenia and I are lucky to have our wonderful volunteer fashion designers to help come up with unique outfit ideas. It's also no secret we do have a fascination with our leading lady's outfit choices. 

But it's not always easy. For instance, I don't always get Veil's outfits right and I'm still reading up on men's fashion while trying to keep it consistently in-character (I've been reading a lot of Esquire, needless to say). Things are going to get more interesting when we have to research the outfits of our other male characters, all distinctly different from Veil.

As a tip, Yesenia and I use pinterest for inspiration. It allows us to pin images from the internet for future reference as well as watch other people's boards that might be relevant to what we are looking for (ie: I watch a men's fashion board). Through this, we find a lot of relevant imagery that really inspires us and is easy access anytime, anywhere.

What does your character do?
Knowing the weird things your character would know from their profession or hobby will help add credibility. This means if your character is an artist, they better know that negative space isn't a sci-fi horror film.

One of the changes I mentioned last post is Veil's job change to a copy writer for greeting cards. Originally he worked as an editor for a fashion magazine, but it is obvious to us in our recent revisions that A) we don't know what working for a fashion magazine is like (Outside of seeing all four seasons of Ugly Betty) and B) it doesn't really fit with the tone of our story.

For point A (Though I will be talking about B in "Finding Your Theme and Sticking to It"), it would be hard to make people believe Veil worked for a fashion magazine, which would jeopardize our audience's suspension of disbelief. I would not only have to know more about men's fashion, but I would have to know more about the fashion world- neither of which serve our story or character any purpose.

Luckily, I work as an animator/illustrator for a certain social expression company which offers plenty of first-hand reference of the writers who create copy for greeting cards. It felt natural to switch the job, and it gave Veil an endearing quirk.

Veil's job isn’t a big part of our story, but it affects who he is. If we know nothing about his job, our lack of knowledge is going to show through and make him less believable as a character.

Still, our researching isn’t complete. We have to learn not only what is it like for Veil as an aspiring novelist, but study up on Gemini's past boating and sailing too. We're getting there.

Granted, I do not advise doing this sort of detailed research first before combing over the general picture of your story, so...

Use your best judgement
While I just wrote about finding out everything you can about your character, I also want to point out that the details aren't as important as the big picture.

I love reading and learning, and I want to know everything about my character. The problem is, this eats up time and energy. It is good to know more than you will ever show in your story rather than omit something because of a lack of knowledge, as Hemmingway pointed out, but it is also important to know when you're hyper-focusing. 

So, while it is fun to know the playlists on your character's ipod, it really doesn't matter if that playlist isn't a plot device in your story.

I will write in my next post (the "theme" post) about taking a step back from details to grasp the bigger picture and form your knowledge around that, but I do want go over how important it is to think of your character less in a literal manner...

Know What Your Character MEANS
A character needs a purpose for existing both in their own lives and within your story. Chances are, you already know the goals your character has in his or her life, but do you know the goals YOU have for this character? A solid character isn't just well-developed, he or she also needs to fit like a puzzle piece into the story you want to tell.

Think Conceptually
Who your character is should be ruled by what your character represents. 

We learned to take a step back from our story and realized that we can't think: "this girl is so-and-so, she likes red wine and chocolate and is the bad guy of my story", but rather: "this girl is the representation of my hero's fear of losing himself to indulgence". In this way, we are able to re-evaluate their actions and major character arcs in our story based on what we need the audience to understand about this character.

Seeing things abstractly like this will not only help you realize how to approach the portrayal of your characters in your story, but will also help you in visually designing them later. If you know what your character represents, you can better create a design to show that message.

For instance, Gemini turned into a more rounded figure eight this past year:

This is because Gemini represents strong femininity. The circle and 8 are strong and continuous ("8" sideways being the symbol for infinite) but also soft and usually feminine-dominant shapes.

You don't have to use shapes in your design thinking, either- animals, colors, people, gods, myths or any combination of symbolic imagery are great places to look for inspiration, because once you know what your character represents in the story, you will know more about what to do with them.

I am hoping to write an in-depth post on my personal visual design process for characters when we reach that stage again in production.

And Finally...
Remember that creating characters should be fun, it is certainly my favorite part of the process.  Character drives story, so be sure to enjoy the process of creating, researching, and refining them to fit your project.

Yesenia's and my personal journey so far into character creation has taught us a great deal, but we still have a lot to learn. I am excited to hear from everyone else their own opinions and findings.

Leave us a message below, post a comment on our facebook page, or write us at!

Be sure to come back next week for Yesenia Carrero's post on what we learned about online content during our visit to Geekend-Savannah!

Further Reading
  • Writing the Romantic Comedy Billy Mernit
  • What Would Your Character Do? by Eric Maisel
  • Creating Animated Cartoons with Character: A guide to Developing and Producing Your Own Series for TV, The Web, and Short Film by Joe murray

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