Developed characters make our stories come alive, but creating them is like wandering into the world’s largest kitchen. Jars of seasoning line the walls, an immense stock of garnishes stare back at you. Anything you could desire perches upon the shelves. Great! But where do you start? A recipe book would help. Too bad writers don’t have those.
But maybe we do! Take a look at your bookshelf. What do you see? Masterfully formed fiction, polished prose… inspiration galore. There, the ultimate guides to cooking up rich characters hide in plain sight.
Step 1: drawing inspiration from other sources.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you ctrl+c and ctrl+v someone else’s character into your drafts. Rather, to jump-start your creativity, ask yourself: what makes this character so riveting? Pick out those ingredients, then make them your own.
For example, if I needed an antagonist for a dystopian story, my first step is to select my favorite villains--Scar from "The Lion King" and President Snow from The Hunger Games--and define what I enjoy about them. Into the character stew it goes! Within a few minutes, I know that my antagonist will be menacingly obsessive and relentless, favor words over weapons, and will have a powerful influence over my protagonist’s world.
Step 2: adding a twist to the character.
You wouldn’t want to arrive at a high-end restaurant and have a peanut-butter-and-archetype sandwich handed to you. So instead, try to apply a twist. Transform the sandwich into a peanut-butter-and-jelly tortilla with a honey drizzle!
Returning to my character, I also enjoy unlikely villains, so I’ll mix that surprise ingredient in. Suddenly, this persuasive, capable antagonist is a twelve-year-old girl, weaving her way into groups of survivors and pulling at strings with cleverly crafted sentences. Of course, I could spend all day in the kitchen with this character to properly develop her. But now that I have a strong base with a flavor that fans of Scar and President Snow would enjoy, I have a solid point for liftoff.
Step 3: adding a twist in other ways.
Sometimes it's not possible to add a major twist to the character itself, but you can follow a recipe to a T and still hook your readers.
Quick! Think of a young female protagonist that is smart, caring, loyal, and determined at her core. I could be talking about Beatrice Prior from Divergent, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Lyra Belacqua from The Golden Compass, or numerous others. These characters follow the same recipe, but they keep readers engaged. Their special ingredients come from the other aspects of their development (strengths, flaws, things that go deeper than a set of adjectives) and from the way they react to their unique world and the situations thrown at them, so don't sweat the dramatic twist.
The pressure of creating an entirely unique character can crush a writer's motivation, so set yourself free and experiment with tried-and-true characters instead. Then, whether it’s world building, other aspects of development, or a surprising detail, add your own flavorful spice!