Martinez On: Characters

Just the other day, Feeosh at Twitter asked:

Hey A Lee, I was wondering what your methods are in character creation? Where do you start when you’re in the 1st stages?

Ah, a writing question.  Yes, aside from who would win in fight between Tarzan and anyone (short answer: Tarzan) and why giant fightin’ robots are awesome, this is probably the only subject where I’m comfortable calling myself an authority.  Novelology is my bread and butter.

There are a handful of questions I get over and over again, and this ranks among them.  Everyone has their own technique, and to be clear, my advice here is entirely built on what works for me.  It might not work for you.  And that’s okay.

That said, I’ll say that the hardest part of writing a story for me isn’t the creating characters.  Possibly because I feel most writers work way too hard on it.  At the end of the day, most readers aren’t going to care where your character comes from or what their favorite flavor of ice cream is.  The readers might think they want to know this, but they are wrong.

Just take a look at any prequel or after the fact origin story given to a character.  They are almost always disappointing.  Darth Vader was infinitely more interesting before we found out he was a petulant child.  Wolverine was a badass until we learned that his name was Jimmy and he couldn’t figure out anything better to do over a hundred years than fight in an endless string of wars.  And do we really learn anything special about Indiana Jones by discovering where he got that scar on his chin?

This is only an opinion.  I’m sure you can find plenty who disagree, but I stand by the assertion that most characters work fine as a handful of simple traits with the simplest backstory available.  Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered.  He grows up to be a determined detective crimefighter.  Krypton blows up.  Superman comes to Earth and fights giant robots for justice.  James Bond is a suave superspy.  Wonder Woman is an Amazon warrior.  Scrooge McDuck is a greedy adventurer.  And so on and so on and so on.

Really, if you can’t summarize your characters in three or four words, you’re probably doing it wrong.

There are exceptions.  Characters can certainly be too shallow, but in my experience, most novelologists (aspiring or otherwise) work way too hard rather than taking it easy.  My standard advice for all writers is to only work as hard as you have to.  Writing a story is difficult.  Don’t make it more difficult by putting extra pressure on yourself.

So how do I create characters?

I start with the most basic elements and go from there.  A great character can usually be summarized in three or four words.  Really, everything beyond that is just window dressing.  And too many character traits just end up confusing everything or being contradictory.  I’ve used these examples before but I think they really do illustrate the point.

Batman: Driven, Intelligent, Mysterious

Superman: Noble, Powerful, Friendly

Catwoman: Thief, Rebel, Playful

Joker: Jolly, Sadistic, Mad

These are all comic book superheroes, but this what makes them work so well.  They are characters that are so easy to grasp that they can be shared and passed on with ease.  You could just as easily apply this rule to a thousand and one other classic characters.

What’s NOT important (though many writers seem to forget this) is the backstory.  It’s true that Batman’s actions are defined by the death of his parents, but at the same time, it’s not information we ever really need to know to understand Batman.  If a writer knows Batman is driven to fight crime and determined to save Gotham City, then WHY is a lot less important than people realize.  Most Batman stories don’t talk about his dead parents.  Just as most Superman stories don’t talk about Krypton.  These elements are so immersed in pop culture that most readers are already well aware of them, but even if this wasn’t true, it wouldn’t matter.

We think knowing Bruce Wayne’s tragic backstory makes him more real to us, but it’s his actions in the current story that do that.  I’m not suggesting that backstory is a bad thing, but in ninety-nine percent of all stories, it ends up being irrelevant.

Classic examples abound:

Sam Spade has no backstory.  Long John Silver has no backstory.  Wolverine for the longest time had no backstory.  Most fiction characters don’t have much in the way of background because they just don’t need it.  Time devoted to backstory is time that could be devoted to the present story, which is almost always infinitely more important than anything in the past.

Okay, so this is rambling on and just to be sure I’ve answered the original question clearly:

How do I create a character?

Think of a very simple character and drop them in an interesting situation and see what happens.  And that’s it.  That’s the entire secret of my character creation process.

Inevitably, as the story continues, the character will take on more life and nuance.  But initially, having any character be defined by one or two adjectives is more than enough.  Readers don’t want to know everything about a character in the first ten pages, and neither do I.  As often as not, I’m discovering things about the characters at about the same time the reader is.  Maybe because I tend not to use complicated outlines or do a lot of prep work on my books.  I’d rather just jump right in and see what happens.

I do have to go back and clean things up a bit once the story is finished.  And it’s not unusual for the characters at the end of the story to not fit with the idea of the character at the beginning of the story.  In which case, going back and making a character more consistent is part of the magic of editing.  It’s something as simple as removing a line of dialogue that sounded good when you first wrote it, but three hundred pages later, it just doesn’t sound like something that character would have ever said.  Or perhaps the character is taller than first envisioned or some other triviality.

But ultimately, novelology is a business of adjustments and adaptation.  Never be afraid to NOT know everything about a character, a scene, an idea.  Because if you like it enough to keep writing it, it will eventually make sense.  The pieces will fit together.  The characters will grow into vibrant, living creatures.

That’s how I do it anyway.  I’m not saying that will work for you, but I always like to point out that most novels do not spring spontaneously into existence from a writer’s head.  They are works of time and discovery.  It’s only with practice (and judicious editing) that they seem otherwise.

Hope that helps.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,



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  1. Jay Dugger
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    Tarzan vs. Doc Savage?

    I call that a draw, or too close to call.

    Good post about writing and the vice of backstory.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Tarzan vs. Doc Savage would indeed be a close fight. But too close to call? I’m afraid not.

      Tarzan wins.

      Tarzan always wins.

  2. Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Great post. Great piece of writing advice, I think.

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