Peter John McLean

Creating a Fictional Character (Writing)

I create a lot of fictional characters, both in the novel I’m writing and whenever I write short stories. I am still learning a lot about how to create a fictional character who is both believable and not formulaic, but I’ve started to find some patterns in my own creation that are making it easier. When I was a younger and less disciplined writer, I basically just wrote stories that incorporated my friends, generally ripping off all of their real world behavior and juxtaposing it into my story. It worked…sort of, but it usually resulted in a lot of flaws, especially if the story wasn’t very similar to their real lives.

In writing my novel, which takes place in a slow decline dystopia called Rat Town, I’ve had a lot more trouble getting people I’ve known to fit nicely into the world. I obviously can’t take middle aged elementary school teachers and slip them into a neighborhood where the entire working economy is underground and people regularly carry firearms for self-protection. This was a problem for a while because in the first and second drafts of the story, I was still figuring out how Rat Town worked, how people made money, what they did to protect themselves, how they thought about things, how they felt about violence, etc etc etc. I read a lot of books, spent a lot of time thinking and free writing, and eventually started understanding how people think in similar situations.

This made the story start to feel a lot more real, but there was a huge problem: I still had a bunch of characters living in Rat Town who didn’t make any sense. I had created people who were based on my friends and, a lot of them just didn’t fit. Some of my friends, obviously from harsher backgrounds, fit in perfectly and their life experiences helped me to see Rat Town from a first person perspective, understanding how and why people do things in extremely violent settings.

A major takeaway that I gleaned from this is that if you are developing a story, think about the characters before you just put them into the setting. Would they naturally find themselves there? You cannot take someone from a world of air conditioning and yoga classes and casually put her in a third world minefield without seriously considering how she got there.

I most recently dealt with this with a character who was originally heavily based on a woman I had known for many years. I had casually made her the “slum lord” for a house where several other characters lived and, because why not, I made her a very selfish landlord who constantly whined about people being late on rent while spending all of her time reading The Power of Now and being a bitch. Seemed funny enough to fit the story, so I just went with it and for the record, it was a rough draft so I wasn’t very critical of the character development.

Anyway, as I am actively working on revising the story to include more realism, I realized that the character was all wrong. In an impoverished community, it no longer made sense that she was hoarding lots of money that she wasted on personal development retreats (which had originally been a part of her character). Instead of having lots of tenants who paid rent, she had two tenants who almost never gave her anything. She only lets people stay with her because she really needs the money. This is about reliance, safety, and survival. The new character made a lot more sense in my head because she was truly the kind of person that Rat Town creates: a pragmatist who accepts strangers into her home because without them she just can’t survive (and she can barely get by with them).

It isn’t a fun experience realizing that a character you’ve written three drafts of is actually totally flawed, fake, and can’t possibly exist in the setting you’ve developed. At least twenty thousand words directly included her and her existence impacted a lot more of the story.

Here is how I replaced the old unrealistic character with a better, more realized, and more accurate character

I first searched the word document for the character’s name, already accepting that with a new character there would have to be a new name. I searched the document for all uses of her name and started with the first, keeping a secondary document open to rewrite sections as necessary.

I accepted that this was going to be rough. I couldn’t polish each section because inevitably the character develops on her own as she starts to really be a part of the story. So the goal was to fit her into the scaffold, knowing that I can always come back and revise that later.

I simply went from one section to the next, rewriting or removing sections and replacing them with new ones that included the new character. It certainly helped that the new character was already very vivid in my mind and that is something I recommend for anyone trying to fix a broken character or remove a weak character and replace it with something better. Make sure you know the new character reasonably well and accept that you will still need to spend time rethinking a lot of sections. The new character responded to things very differently from her predecessor.

I did the whole thing in a day because I knew I wouldn’t be able to rest or concentrate on anything else until I had fixed this mess. I seriously had trouble falling asleep the night prior, once I realized I had an impostor roaming the streets of my dystopia. She just wasn’t believable. The original character was an almost complete replica of someone that I used to know, but she just isn’t someone that would exist in this reality. She was too relaxed about life, too wasteful with money (if she had money like that, she wouldn’t even be living where she was), and, perhaps most importantly, she didn’t contain any real soul.

It’s good to have characters with souls.

Changing Characters You Already Have

Another thing that I’ve learned from writing my novel is that I can start with characters I know and slowly change them to fit the environment they are in. The protagonist’s closest friends in the story are all based on people I have known. However, only one of them grew up in the projects and spent his childhood around constant violence and so, as one can expect, he was the only one who basically fit right in when juxtaposed into a super violent decaying civilization.

The other two grew up with air conditioning and dental care and just didn’t seem quite right. I found two solutions that worked. In character 1, I simply allowed him to stem from a different background. Since he didn’t grow up in Rat Town, he wasn’t expected to be perfectly in tune with the sociology of the place. He was adapting to it in a way similar to the protagonist (and the reader).

For the other one, I changed lots of things, one after another. In the first draft he was a boring character who just said lines and had no real background. But people don’t just pop out of nowhere in Rat Town. Someone gives birth to these fuckers.

I rewrote this character over several drafts, starting by making him a lot more accustomed to violence in the second draft, adding deadpan remarks about getting shot and committing acts of violence, because that would be expected of someone who lives around violence. I took away his parents because I’m like that. I replaced his family with a group of other kids his age. I put them in an abandoned house. I let them sell crack for a living. The character changed over time, through drafts, with some dialogue being rewritten and a few new interactions, as well as some exposition that helped develop him further. This is totally different than how I handled the slum lord I mentioned earlier, who I completely replaced in a day.

Both methods work.

Sometimes a character just isn’t who he is supposed to be. Changing him is hard, but it has to be done. You have two choices really: take the character out and write in a brand new character who fits the world, or slowly grow the character in the direction necessary to fit.

Remember, editing is more than checking for spelling errors and sentence structure. There is all this character and story shit that should probably be worked with too.