Too often I hear people ask how to write a female character, or a male character, or a child, so on and so on. The answer is really quite simple.
Write them like they’re people. Because they are.
Or elves, orcs, aliens, whatever. I’d still write them like people, because you really don’t have an elf to go ask. At the end of the day what you should be worrying about is if they’re lifelike enough to be a individual person. Do they have habits, flaws, contradictions, phobias, and hobbies? Gender factors in, but what kind of society do they live in? How did they grow up? What did their parents do for work? All these things will come together to breath life into your character. Relying on stereotypes won’t make them feel real enough. You might be able to start out with one, but that won’t hold them up for long. Take the typical high school nerd. Instead of leaving it at that build onto the old troop.
He likes horseback riding at his uncle’s ranch, and while he can’t run a mile he’s a tennis pro. Since the age of five your character has dreamed of traveling to Ireland and Scotland to check out all the castle ruins, and his favorite game is twister even though he sucks at it.
See? And just because this lady is an axe wielding mercenary doesn’t mean she can’t like to cook or be good with kids. Maybe she was the youngest of five, and took over the mothering role after her mom died in childbirth. This fact that she knows how to cook shocks her companions to no end, but aren’t they glad they don’t have to eat what the bard cooks up!
You know, there’s one character that I remember that still makes me smile. It was the groundskeeper from “Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island”
The first large chunk of time had our gang talking about how suspicious he was, sneaking around at night, tracking in mud…and then it was revealed that he was collecting flowers to press in his notebook. This big guy, maybe six feet tall and totally buff, was a flower appreciator of all things! That made him stand out to me. So much so that I still remember him about nine years after last watching the movie, and that’s something the makers should feel proud of.
Look, people are a complex, confusing, and infuriating species. Think about it, even twins aren’t the same, so how could you figure out how to write a character by asking “What would a girl do here? She’s, like, sixteen…and, you know, a high schooler? Because they all react the same way, right???”
Don’t ask that. Ask what “insert her name” would do here as an individual in relation to past experiences. If you need your character to run into a creepy ass cave, what motivates them to step in would be different than what motivates you or me or my annoying cousin Bob. Does she have to be dragged in kicking and screaming by her friend to get away from a monster, because she’s claustrophobic and would rather face Bigfoot than have thousand tons of rock over her head? Maybe she’s the one who drags her friend in instead, because her family used to go spelunking and she feels right at home in that creepy ass cave. That’s what you think about. Gender, sexuality, age, all that factors in, but personality and life experiences matter far more when determining your character and how they’ll act.
And if you know that, then why do you have to go ask someone else? Know your character. Know what they’ve been through. Know how they’d react to varying situations. Know it, and you don’t need our help.
There’s a reason we like old Luci off Supernatural more than this…whatever he is.
So, here’s some questions to ask yourself when trying to decide the actions of a character:
- Have they experienced a situation in the past that might influence their actions in the present?
- How can you make them do what you want without it seeming out of character? If the motivation you have now doesn’t look like something that will drive them, find one that will. Don’t be lazy. Your readers will notice.
- Is what you’re making them do based on stereotypes? Reevaluate. For the good of all, please reevaluate.
- How can you use their traits as individuals in this scene? Something you see and KNOW would come from them.
Do these things. Don’t rely on generalizations. Any other tips? Feel free to share in the comments!