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How to Write Part 3: Building Character

Updated: Jan 22

Topics coming up: Keeping vs. back burner scenes. Plots threads. Rounding out the characters.

Today: Building character(s).

By starting with scenes built from our ideas pile we already have characters started because almost all scenes will be written from someone’s perspective. While some scenes may be without characters in a third person omniscient sense, even that omniscient narrator has a clear presence and voice.

As we begin to build characters we should start with the answer to a few questions. Like any good questionnaire some of these are almost redundant, to make your mind come at the same thing a few ways.

1)      Who should exist in a world with the rules and ideas I am making? Focus here perhaps on new roles, new titles, new jobs, or activities that your magic or your scenarios must give rise to.

2)      Would the rules and world give birth to people who are completely different than the world I am in? While 1, may have overlap with our world, work hard to find something that doesn't exist in any way in the real world for fantasy and science fiction.

3)      Would the rules of the world preclude the existence of certain roles job, titles or things which exist in our world all the time?

4)      What kind of protagonist do I want to have?

5)      What kind of antagonist do I want to have, if any?

6)      What are the relationships between the characters in the tale?

7)      Who created these people? Meaning literally who were their parents? Who were their influential friends and teachers? Who made them the person they are today?

8)      How do the unique features of my world create unique people?

9)      What is the character’s defining moment? What instant in their life made them do the things they do?

10)   What will be their arc?


These questions have some redundancy, but that is because when we come at the same questions from different perspectives it can help us create more characters.

When you are first answering these and other questions you may come up with to establish characters you do not need to answer all of them for the same character at the same time. There are also other very important questions like, what do they value? What is their goal? What is their motivation?

We will come to these later. This first exercise, much like the scene building exercise, is to start you on the journey. Characters do not have to be preestablished as a main character, or as secondary or tertiary. Two different characters can merge into one person later. We are looking for motivations, traits and people who would fill this world.

Let’s go back to the world we established last time where we have levitation as an established magic which is common and also results in separate classes for those who are above (levitators) and those who are below (grounded). Here are some ideas.

Makers of things:

Maybe it would be interesting to explore where a ladder maker lands in a world like this. Or a rope maker. People who give physical access for those who cannot levitate, may be viewed differently in this society. Would they be good or bad? A shopkeeper may need special permission or a permit to sell items that enable people to climb. This gives me two characters in an answer to “2)    Would the rules and world give birth to people who are completely different than the world I am in?”

-          A shopkeeper who has a license to sell ladders and ropes and grapple hooks etc. for access to higher levels. He is tired of the government inspecting his stock, asking who he sold goods to, and the background checks he ran on them first.

-          A rope maker, who makes the material for multiple purposes such as ship building, and labor. As the material can also be used for creating climbing equipment, his shop is audited daily to ensure the material in and sales out is not being sent off to parts unknown. He is annoyed but he accepts it because he has two children he needs to feed.

One of these examples even popped into my head with a few motivations and world desires in the form of children.

Let’s answer a few more.

1)      What kind of protagonist do I want to have?

2)      What kind of antagonist do I want to have, if any?

Let’s flip the standard narrative. People expect the protagonist to be the person who wants to give the ability to climb a social ladder and literal ladder to the underdog. What if we had it the other way around?

-          A character who believes that the best thing for the “grounded,” is to stay grounded. This individual tried to climb the social ladder and found as soon as you are a person who is standing equal to those who can levitate it is a cut throat world, filled with backstabbing, where they lost all of their friends and they lost their fortune. On returning to the world of the grounded, they were happier. (Notice this is a lot of assumed backstory here.) They just want their children to see the value in the world they already have, and how irrelevant the actions of the rich and powerful actual are compared to the simple things in life.

-          A character who wants to be a part of the elevated society so badly they would do anything to obtain it, including lose friends, lose family, and backstab literally and figuratively to have it. They would chase rumors of magic to give the ability to those who don’t have it, to the exclusion of all else.

First thing to notice is what we didn’t say. We don’t care yet about gender. What they look like. We assume a little about the relationship between these two, but it could be reversed with a child trying to convince a parent their quest for power is pointless too. We didn’t say what fully motivated them. Goals are power, or prestige but we never said why. Not yet. Those can come in the rounding out phase.

Let’s answer one more.

How do the unique features of my world create unique people?


-          A constable, or police officer, who can levitate but who’s parents could not. His role is to keep the “grounded,” in line, but he has a great deal of sympathy for them. He will bend the rules to the breaking point to cut them slack, but he will never break the rules because he believes life without law is pointless, and change should come from within the system.

-          (If this is Science Fiction not fantasy) A rogue geneticist who is able to do a gene graft to give levitation ability to people, who feels the system is so corrupt it is the scientific community’s responsibility to set free those who cannot fly and cast down those who can.

Because of the words I chose there is some implication of who is a good guy and who is a bad guy, here in this pair but it need not be that way. In this first pass nothing is off the table. Create as many characters as you can, and as many people as you want. Don’t worry yet if things contradict one another, or if some of your people bleed over into creating new ideas or new scenes. We are still in brainstorming here.

One of the things about being an architectural writer is a front loaded writing style. We spend more time in the creation phase and storming phase than say a garden writer who may sit down and immediately get pen to paper. Remember this exercise’s point is to explore how there is a mechanic by which anyone can learn to write.

Go forth, create some interesting people that someone else would want to know more about.

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