Letting Your Character Grow

You have a character, and she’s your new baby. She has a picture-perfect face, and a name researched for days that exactly sum up her personality and her role within the narrative. Three chapters into the story, and she’s already pulling at the leash, wanting to turn left when the plan dictates turning right.

Sometimes, a character grows beyond their creator, forming opinions and traits that alter their trajectory. If you’re unprepared, an especially rebellious character can entirely throw a story’s path into turmoil.

Not every writer experiences their characters suddenly gaining a will of their own, and others will very seriously state that these characters must be kept very firmly on their destined track—you are in control!

No two people write exactly alike, nor will they experience the writing process the same way. I’m going to talk about how I—as someone who throws the reins free the instant I begin a story—approach character creation and growth.

First: my essential building blocks. A name, a gender/sexuality, a goal. I’ll use Harper, from Mountain Sound, as an example, because she very much defines how I most like to build my characters.

I knew Mountain Sound would be about two female-identifying characters—an android, and a young human woman—as they both navigate growing through hardships. I also knew it would be gay. The android, Efa, was an easy character to put together, because I already had an image of her inspired by a painting. Harper, in a way I would later learn is typical of her, fought me from the start.

Every time I begin a new story, I realise how much I dislike creating characters. Namehunting can take forever before you find a name that sounds right and just simply fits. Giving the character a rounded personality? That takes even longer. They’re an empty vessel, a blank page, and it’s up to the writer to unearth who they really are.

So, a name: Harper was initially going to be named Isla (to evoke the sense of an isolated island), but something about the name Harper stuck in my head, despite not having any meaning essential to the character. It was that harder r sound that trumped the softer Isla—because, just like in real life, not every name needs to mean something.

Then, the most essential thing (in my opinion), a goal: something for Harper to be directed towards. I gave her a reason to run, and a person to find. In those simple goals, I learned about her character; that she has experienced extreme loss and fear, and that she is driven to keep moving.

Just as in acting—thinking about your character’s motivation for the entirety of the play, for the scene, for that one single line—having a goal already starts to form a more real character without having to throw traits at a blank page.

Harper, then somber and determined, had begun to come to life in my head. From nothing, there was suddenly this young woman. Then I wrote the second chapter, and I lost control of her.

By this point, I’ve learned that I’m not the kind of person to fight my creative impulses when writing; doing so has only ends up with flat characterization and a frustrated Saf. Harper wanted to be feral, angry, and very blunt, where I’d seen her as more melancholic originally.

This is when I started asking questions. Why is she angry? Obviously, because she’s lost everything she’s ever known or loved, and she’s overwhelmingly upset and mad that there’s nothing she can do about the fact. Why is she so scared of droids? Droids were what ruined her life, and grievously harmed her nearly to the point of death.

I let her free, typing out harsh thoughts and short, sharp words. This changed the dynamic I’d planned between her and Efa, for the better (or so I think). More conflict meant more obvious growth later on for both characters. Trusting my instincts—and the character I’d created in my head—ended up giving me more depth to consider with my characters, something that mightn’t have happened had I rigidly stuck with my plan.

However, I’m not the kind of person to write a solid plan and stick with it till the end anyway. I’m what they call a “pantser,” as in I write by the seat of my pants. Mountain Sound itself didn’t have an outline until the latest chapter, just vague plot points and thematic murmurs I knew I wanted to include. The story flowed from there.

Others, as I said earlier, need that solid framework and those tightly-designed characters from the get-go. There’s nothing wrong with this, just as there’s nothing wrong with getting in your beat-up van of a story and driving with no map. How you write is how you write. l I’m simply hoping is to inspire other writers who work more like me to just let their characters free.

There are other ways to experience this organic growth for everyone, especially through play: choice-based video games, text-based roleplaying (not in the sexy way), acting, tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. The collaboration inherent in the latter three can especially force you to look at your character and their dynamics with others in a new way. As you play, and as you grow through play, so too does your character.

Play, in the broadest sense, is something I find very important to writing and creating as a whole. Play with your characters, test their limits. Find their likes and dislikes, how they themselves play with others—are they selfish? Do they like quiet people, but hate loud? Are they scared of the way strong winds shake the house? How does that affect their role in the story?

Above all, listen. Listen to that character chattering away in your ear that they’d rather do this than that. Consider their point of view, for it could change your story’s dynamics just enough to give the narrative the push it needs. No, they’re not a real person, but if you personally can’t believe they are, why should your readers?

How do you approach character creation? Tell me in the comments!

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