I was asked an anonymous question (on tumblr) that went like this: oh my goodness, your ocs are so developed and it seems like the worlds they’re from are so deep and developed! do you have any advice for others hoping to make characters like that? or have you written anything about that before?
Because I wanted to actually take some time to answer this properly, I created this post since I feel like my response would have been too long for an ask box.
Thus, here is my answer anon, I hope this helps or is interesting!
*NOTE (PLEASE READ): Below I have a few “philosophical/helpful” tips. This is not in any way a step-by-step guide, instead, these are ways to approach character-building and creation to get the best out of your characters and the worlds they inhabit. I think technical stuff can be learned a lot easier than a mind-set change. If you can adjust your thinking then technicalities, research, etc, are things that can come with time.
Be aware: I also switch between identifying with characters specifically and the worlds they live in. The reason? Because a good world, with good development and growth, is nothing without good characters and good characters are nothing without a good world. Many of the same rules apply in both cases.
BE INVESTED IN YOUR CREATIONS
I find that characters, no matter the story or world, are best done when you invest in your head-worlds and in the characters themselves. Creating characters is not something that is a half-assed, lazy business. If you want to create a world that one day you hope to sell, share, or publish you need to take this one thing to heart: your characters will only be as good as the time you put into them.
More often than not terrible character development or depth isn’t because you don’t know “how,” so much as you don’t want to “try.” This isn’t directed at you Anon specifically, but is a generalization of a lot of head-worlds and original stories I have seen, and even tried to create.
From personal experience there was a story I wanted to write but didn’t take the time to really try and think things through, to put effort into because I myself didn’t want to take that time—and as a result my characters and that world suffered, and in the end, I abandoned it.
This isn’t to say that every story with original characters need be long, expansive things (as mine are, or tend to be), but regardless of what type of story you create, or wish to propel, you need to take the time to engage with the characters you craft. You need to bring them to life, and you need to give it a lot of mental deliberation, maybe even some written deliberation if that helps.
The point stands that, regardless, you need to take the time to nurture your characters by giving the time they deserve. Good characters and worlds don’t come in an instant. You might have an epiphany, and might be a great one, but if you don’t dwell on that, morph it to fit the direction of your world and characters, it is a one-time thing, and might end up leaving you with more plot holes than are worth one great idea. Writing and world-crafting takes work and effort, and it takes patience. If you really want to make great characters—you have to put in the time to let them grow, and grow well.
REALIZE THAT NOT EVERYTHING YOU FIND INTERESTING WILL BE USED IN THE END (BASICALLY LEARN HOW TO EDIT; YES, EVEN CHARACTERS NEED TO BE EDITED)
This brings me to the notion that, not every idea is actually a good one for certain characters, or more specifically, not every idea should be used for the same character(s) or your specific world. This is the magic of learning what to edit out and what to include. Moreover, just because you have a lot of awesome ideas doesn’t mean they should necessarily be used in the end (but hold onto them! You never know when you might need them or might find a new use for them in later stories or worlds). Great characters are so because they are succinct while also bridging wide gaps and ideas within that being.
And when I say “succinct” I don’t mean that you have to write briefly (because I, like Henry James, never saw a word I didn’t like), but that your characters need to be focused. And when I say focused, I mean you need to learn what is and is not fitting for certain characters, races, species, or worlds.
You can’t have an ice-type species that can somehow not feel at odds with heat. That is just common logic. The only way this could be possible (that an ice-creature would be fine in heat) is if they have a natural (or maybe magical) mechanism or ability that allows them to remain cool and comfortable in hot places (if for some reason they’d venture there), or some other reason that makes sense given the context of your world.
This “tip” is more like saying “use your brain” and use “common sense.” You can have paradoxical characters without making them logically conflicting. We all struggle with warring emotions, it is the nature of the human condition, but this doesn’t mean you support things you believe strongly against (say, murder. You wouldn’t go and decide to join a gang that kills people on a normal basis. Hint: your character’s wouldn’t either naturally unless they really are psychopaths.)
Have you ever wondered why you might feel one way and then turn around and do another thing? This is a conflict in your character, and something you probably struggle with on some level, in some aspect of your life. Remember that giving flaws or “vices” to characters isn’t wrong, but make sure you don’t give characters personalities and characteristics that don’t match no matter how much justification you do.
For example, you can’t have a herbivore race that sometimes finds it okay to eat meat—they aren’t herbivores anymore: they’re omnivores; please don’t do this. Please. It makes your character races and people seem stupid and unintelligent for completely non-deliberate reasons; it makes it seem like you don’t know how to edit or create a cohesive whole in your work; mistakes happen, and that is OK, but also be pro-active enough to ensure you are using words and terms correctly as much as you can. This point is somewhat connected to “investing in your characters.” (Doing research always helps when you don’t know for sure; dictionaries are a writer’s best friend.)
Because people will ask you: are they herbivores or are they omnivores? Regardless of what you know (or know to be true or what you meant and that it was a mistake or typo, or just a complete blunder), assume your readers are always aware of every single word choice, phrase, and observation you say/write, and that they are aware of its factual integrity. (This is especially true if you want to write Historical Fiction. This can be a brutal community since they often expect accurate information, if you don’t point out the “fiction” in Historical Fiction. Or just call it fiction with historical elements, like say it is set in the medieval time period, but isn’t necessarily accurate to its day to day lifestyles and beliefs; fantasy authors kind of assume this about a lot of things, because they assume something you may or may not have a name for, but you do anyways. It is often known as the Suspension of Disbelief. You know that historical medieval knights didn’t fight actual dragons, but for the sake of the story you suspend your disbelief, to put it generally.)
While this point may have seemed to go in different directions it is all part of a whole: learn to edit. Just like when making art, if something doesn’t work—fix it until it does or get rid of it all together.
This is hard, because you might find some really wonderful complexities in characters through some ideas like this, but they might not, in the end, work for your story on a grand scale, or even on a logical one. Learn to tough it out and be okay with not adding everything you like in your worlds. Learn when to say no, and when to say “that is badass—I know just where this can go.”
RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH
*Remember Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal
Research is something many people dread (though I often find quite interesting but I recognize I can be in the minority) but is helpful and vital. Research doesn’t stop with learning the difference between an omnivore and a herbivore. Research means that you take good chunks of time to look up things you think will be important to know regarding characters or their influences. Usually this differs between what world you are creating but basic things you might research could include: different cultures, architecture, historical movements, art movements, literary movements, languages, botanical knowledge, biological knowledge, and so on.
Research allows you to expand your worldly knowledge (or religious knowledge if you are trying to create religious orders or characters). It is more than likely that your characters will not be 100% original and this is okay. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel—you just need to utilize it to the best of your ability and deviate when called for; basically, take and appropriate. (Please note that is not saying that stealing another person’s characters and claiming them as your own is okay, what I am saying is that concepts, ideas, narratives, etc, are good material, engage them, and take them for your purposes, but don’t merely imitate them, because you have not created something new or different, you just have made the same thing, but worse.)
The Odyssey and The Iliad are lasting epics, not because they said something new about Greek culture, but because they told dynamic stories about their cultures, and created lasting, relatable characters even as we recognize we no longer believe the same things (or that maybe even the Greeks themselves found things problematic with certain characters even as they clung to them). You can find a character relatable without accepting everything they do or say.
You recognize Achilles pride because sometimes we are prideful beings. You recognize, at the same time, his loyalty to his brothers-in-arms. These are both aspects of the human condition: loyalty and pride. They might not always get along, but you recognize these timeless traits.
This is all to say that there are great stories already out there, there are great cultural norms and societies out there that might have something interesting to add to your own cultures and created worlds. Take the time to research these things.
If you want to create a story about warring tribes, look at real world tribes that did the same thing and take what you find fitting and put aside what you don’t.
We all need a starting foundation, and often that foundation is directly from your mindscape. But you don’t know everything, and to ensure your foundation is going to hold: make sure you research to find good ideas and interesting concepts to add to your worlds and peoples.
A basic one is to learn the different thought process behind Eastern and Western values (because you will find that this is a popular one to use for most literature, even if subconsciously).
But here is something else you need to know about research: just like you pick and choose what to use and what not to for school essays (high school or otherwise) you need to do the same thing with your characters.
If your characters are a fictional version of a certain real world culture, that is fine, but you probably exaggerate or make-up certain facts, characters, or relationships to tell a narrative: this is okay, because guess what? It’s your world. If it makes sense in your world, then there is nothing wrong with tweaking, because remember, unless you are making a documentary, original character’s aren’t going to be the same (nor should they be). This is the disclaimer at the end of most movies, or even said before some books and novels, that states, “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.”
But more often than not, people are creating characters from entirely made up worlds; researching allows you to gain a solid foundation to your world, and to better utilize great ideas and concepts in our past and present.
Utilizing concepts, philosophies, orders, etc is different than simply imitating them. As T.S. Elliot said in The Sacred Wood: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” This is the same concept for researching for your worlds and characters. There is nothing wrong with taking ideas, philosophies, etc, and putting them into your work but learn to make it your own. Give it your voice and breathe new life into it.
Researching is well and good but if you don’t know how to use what you find, then you will simply end up re-hashing the same characters and the same stories already told without actually saying anything new, different, or impactful. When directors, creators, etc, in video games and movies say things like, “We wanted to create something new and dynamic with this type of character, concept, personality, etc” they are making a similar statement that you should hold them to. We all recognize that creating a character with pride, or making a culture that is based around Roman government isn’t new: but how one uses these things is what makes them new, engaging, and worthwhile.
But you won’t be able to do any of this if you don’t research, even if your research is fact checking, or for curiosities sake. Your words don’t come from nowhere, knowing what you believe, and what your characters believe will make their worlds that much more impactful, and that much more developed and deep. Remember when I said that investing in your characters is the first step? Well, all of these steps thus far lead back to that concept and are sub-steps of the same idea. If you don’t invest, if you don’t research, if you don’t take the time to edit—your world and your characters will fall flat.
YOUR CHARACTER’S AREN’T YOU: DON’T TREAT THEM LIKE THEY ARE
Here is something I think a lot of people struggle with: creating characters that aren’t like them. Each character we craft comes from us, but doesn’t mean they are us. This is an important, and often forgotten, distinction. I have seen many book reviewers, game journalists, etc, make this blunder. They assume that because the author, director, etc, wrote and created this it is them and therefore, must be something that the said creator believes whole-heartedly.
This is not true.Do not let people say this about your work. Correct them immediately when this happens if you are given the opportunity. (When you become rich and famous this might not be possible or something to waste time on, because people will say whatever they want, learn to pick and choose your battles.)
Unless you know, for a fact, that the character you created in your world is you as a person (ahem, Mary Sues,) then this will never be true nor should it be.
Characters become their own entities. This doesn’t make them real, but it does give them the semblance of actuality. Characteristics, worldviews, perspectives, ideas, philosophies, etc, these are things that all characters have. Characters, like you and me, don’t say or do things out of nowhere: they have a context for their actions.
I keep saying this but truly, learn this: all of what you say and do comes from somewhere; you are not in a vacuum, or on an island, your worldview shapes how you perceive and interact with your world, even if you don’t consciously know it. Characters are exactly the same. What you say or do presupposes something else.
For example, if I tell people that they can do whatever they want so long as they let me do the same: this is a relativistic worldview. That is, the idea that there are no concrete truths and that what one does, does not matter nor should matter to the next person. If you say things like this: this is the worldview you support, even if you don’t recognize it as such.
So do your characters.
Even psychopathic killer’s mindsets and ideals come from somewhere, it just isn’t a logical place, if the term “psychopathic” is to be believed (which it should, since it exists). Not every character’s philosophy or worldview needs to be complex or nuanced, but it does have to be something they whole-heartedly believe in, unless you are using this as a stepping stone for growth and a character’s personal development.
What one says and does matters, especially for characters who you have to get across certain points, narratives, and plots. It is even more important that you recognize character’s motivations and aspirations, even if they themselves don’t know fully realize them, or know them consciously.
Remember, characters aren’t meant to be perfect beings or develop convenient characteristics to fill plot holes. Great characters (with good depth and development) are great because they say something about us, as people, about our world, about our lives, and about our futures. Because, in the end, characters, be they good or bad morally, reflect something about our world, culture, and lives. Or, good literature should.
This does not mean, as I said earlier, that to make a point one must have characters that only fit this mindset. Remember, characters aren’t you. Let them disagree with you, let other characters disagree with that character; provide multiple voices that speak on heavy, important topics without making them become worthless. Let characters fit where they are needed; let your characters mimic the vastness of our universe and the people inside it. Humans are more interesting than you might realize, and our species has a lot of things to say about the world, our universe, and how to live our lives: your characters can be the exact same, even while they aren’t real people.
You might believe that war is a bad thing, but your character might not. And what does this say about him? Does this make him a villain in your world, or does this make him a problematic hero? Villains and heroes, even ones from older epics, are not cut and paste characters. They follow a formula, yes, but they hold unique worldviews, ideas, and growing development that makes them interesting and dynamic; you can look at a lot of literature during different time periods that go against and with cultural norms and movements. For example, Romantic literature was in opposition to the Industrial movement happening in England. People conflict, and have different opinions about what goes on in their world: your characters are the same, I cannot say this enough!
If you don’t let your characters be truly evil, or truly good, or truly anything but what you believe and what you like, then nothing will be said, and there will be no conflict, and there will be no chance at resolution; there will be no tension, and it will turn into just a bunch of the same character staring at one another wondering what the hell they’re doing here. You might not be a “mean person,” quote on quote, but that doesn’t mean every character you make has to be super nice because you aren’t mean.
People sometimes forget that there are benefits to having unredeemable assholes. People also seem to forget the importance of morally good characters who are not weak characters, or big pushovers (this is probably my biggest pet peeve that I will not divulge here; just know that I will not be happy if you tell me good characters = weak/pushover characters; I’m looking at you Mass Effect & Game of Thrones.)
Yes, everyone nowadays loves a good anti-hero because we ourselves tend to be similar (neither “fully” one or the other) but just remember: dynamic characters don’t simply fit a singular mold. You might be able to place them somewhere, but over the course of the story-line they might shift allegiances, or you suddenly realize that this great hero is actually the villain, or that this book-loving nerd might just actually save you one day (knowledge is, in fact, power).
Don’t put your characters in a box because you can’t be open-minded enough to actually tell a story. If you cannot let characters do things you wouldn’t, then you shouldn’t probably be crafting your own worlds because a “world” implies that there isn’t just the same dude populating it but with different hair-colors. (Or unless you want to make a statement about originality or what makes us, us. But even then…you probably aren’t going to agree with everything each character in your novel/story says, nor should you.)
People telling you that characters have to be just like you is a falsity (you might not think this but it is a real thing that people have asked me or told me). Or that somehow if you create a main character it has to be you or relate back to your life somehow. Our characters are a part of us, they do often take some of our characteristics with them, but they are never fully you, and I really hope they never will be. Why? Because you will find that you can only make so many stories or characters like you. If you base every. Single. Thing. On what you agree with then you will have challenged nothing. No one’s growth will be tested, and no one’s beliefs will be sharpened.
Great literature, and great characters by extension, say something to us, about us, or through us. What they say or do travels with us, even as we recognize they are not us, and that they are, in fact, fiction.
When you can learn to separate fact from fiction then you will accomplish something wondrous: you will have crafted a narrative full of life and vibrancy.
You are allowed to create voices that agree with you, but don’t make them always that. The best example I can point to in history is Dostoevsky’s short story, “Notes From the Underground.” Dostoevsky was not even remotely like the character he wrote about, and I would say probably disagreed with about 99% of what he was saying, so what is the point, you ask, for him to write such a novel? Because he wanted to showcase the human condition, and the difference between a man who actually thinks about his worldview and one who does not. You might not agree with the main character in this novel, but that he actually thinks about what he does, or doesn’t do, is something worth thinking about. This novel speaks about the depravity of the human condition at its worst, and it points its finger back at you and asks the same of you.
Great characters don’t need to be someone you agree with 100%, but if you don’t include them, that might say more about you than you might realize or want.
LASTLY, YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT SET IN STONE
I once told a friend, who was upset at how her character’s story-line was going, that her character and his story wasn’t set in stone.
If you think that your character isn’t cutting it: cut him. If you think he doesn’t feel quite right: change him. If you think his name doesn’t fit: change it. It is your world, and your characters. As you grow as a person so too do your characters.
You might find that a story that was supposed to be about good vs evil wasn’t really what you wanted to say, or that didn’t seem to accurately portray what you wanted, but later it hit you: you wanted to write a story about nature vs civilization. This might seem strange but I have found that a lot of world builders seem afraid to start over, or change what has been “set in stone.”
Unless you have published a novel and that is the end of it, then you are allowed the freedom to change what you want, and even then this is debated (See the arguments for and against Mary Shelly’s re-write of Frankenstein (1818 edition) vs Frankenstein (1831 edition); yes, there are two editions, and yes, there is a vast difference between them and how we engage the characters.)
But I am not going to get into literary theory and its complexities here. What I want to tell you is this: you have permission to change what you feel needs it. This is a part of growth, learning, and the editing process.
If you don’t like something: change it. Don’t complain it makes you upset because it isn’t what you wanted: fix it. (Please note this not an attack on my friend, because I am sure someone will make this parallel and misinterpret my words, but a reassurance that you do have a right to change your story, and if you only complain about it then you are wasting your time.) If you realize a species wasn’t what you wanted: fix them.
I will give you a personal example.
Originally my Safrin race was simply a race “made” by my witches. My original Safrins had no horns, nothing, they were like walking blue men. But after I started to create the Nathos, I realized that I wanted the Safrins to be a distant cousin of the Nathos, and thus, I changed their appearance and dynamic. The corrupted Safrins still exist, but their faces are different, and they behave differently.
If I had stuck to my guns and told myself “I can’t change this now because I am not allowed or it’s too much work,” then my story would have suffered because of it (I truly believe this since they had no reason to exist and that they were just a dumb thing floating around space that took up space). Now my Safrins have a better connection to my world’s history, they have a more interesting “tragedy,” but also a possible redemption and renewal. It allows a possible new arc (since my story does work via arcs), which I always love, because as much as open-ended things frustrate me (because my Type A personality just flips its shit), they are actually really interesting and great for multiple reasons.
This isn’t all to tell you that, “Wow I’m better than you,” but to help you apply what I am telling you. Everything I have talked about is something I have learned from experience and research that I have adapted to best suit my needs in character crafting and development.
Your characters will only be as good as you let them be (and I don’t necessarily mean morally).
I hope, in some small way, this aids you, or gives you something to think about, as you go and make great, lasting characters! Happy creating and remember: you aren’t alone in this; there are great communities, people, and books that all have something to say about this subject—find them and steal as much of their knowledge as possible!
And if you ever want me to speak more directly about one thing I mentioned above, or any other questions you might have: feel free to ask me, and I will gladly answer ASAP.