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Build Your Own Platypus:
or how to create unique characters

by Tina Morgan

Every writer has his/her strengths and weaknesses. Some writers, whose strengths are in character building, skip the process of examining their characters' origins on a conscious level. They instinctively combine the traits they need to generate their protagonist, antagonist and supporting characters. Yet other writers would rather have a root canal then think about the people who will propel their plot forward or populate their settings. 

At a recent writers' conference, one attendee told me that she couldn't write because she didn't know how to create her own characters. She said she always borrowed from stories she'd read or shows she's watched. She felt that she wasn't creative enough to make a character from scratch. Which lead me to ask why she felt she had to create a character without any inspiration to guide her.

Characters don't appear out of thin air and the misconception that you have to start with nothing in order to build unique characters can keep you from writing. If you're struggling with creating characters, let's turn to nature for a little insight.

What is a platypus? Is it a duck, a beaver, otter or part mole? They walk like a lizard, but grow fur like a mammal. They are unique, even though they look like they were originally several different animals thrown into a blender. If you use this analogy for your own character construction, you can see how you can take the idiosyncrasies and traits of several characters and combine them into your own unique creation.

You don't have to create a character without inspiration, trying to find the pieces you need in a void. Take your favorite novel protagonist and find ways to make him/her different. Can you start out with a basic idea and make so many changes that once you're finished, no one will ever recognize the original character?

Look at the type of character your plot needs to propel it forward. If you need a strong character, then borrow one from your favorite thriller. Once you've picked him/her out, let's look at some ways to change them into the character you need. What you're looking for is a basic personality. You need someone who stands up for themselves, who won't back away from a fight, but where do they come from? Where are they going? Think of the stories you've read, the movies you've watched and the people you know in real life. Do you know someone with an interesting childhood? Maybe a good childhood with parents who taught them to stand up for themselves instead of the stereotypical "bad boy from a broken home who had to defend himself to survive". People become jaded for many different reasons; think of ways to give your character a hard edge that doesn't fit with your "borrowed" character's background.

Rearrange the character's current family structure. Look at job alternatives and education. Perhaps the character's school experience could match your own instead of the story you're borrowing from. Consider the character's friends and co-workers.

There will always be certain stereotypes that we can use to describe all of our characters: tough and short spoken, weak and whiny, strong and trustworthy...the list goes on. What turns these cardboard characters into "real" people is giving them a life and all the things that go with it: motives, feelings, desires, pains, joys, physical attributes and disabilities, etc.

The good news is you don't have to think up all these details without help. Look around and draw on your own experiences. What's the old adage? "Write what you know." So...when it comes to characters, follow that advice. Write people you know in real life, the characters you've read or seen on film, just remember to change the particulars and make the character your own. Borrow traits from many different people. A campy pseudo-horror film inspired one of my characters, while a lot of my ex-husband's traits showed up in another but both characters were adapted to fit the needs of my plot.

If I'm not sure how to change my characters from the original inspiration, I take time to do a few exercises with them. A character interview can be very helpful. Ask your character who they are, what they do for a living, what they like or don't like. By writing their answers in the form of a dialogue between yourself (or an imaginary interviewer) and the character, you can develop a feel for the way he/she speaks. The tone and inflection of their word choices will become more defined.

When working on a novel, I often write snippets of interactions between my characters. These snippets have nothing to do with the main plot and won't be worked into the final novel, but they give me a chance to explore the relationship between the characters and to refine their individual voices and characteristics.

There's no reason to allow character creation to stop you from writing. Just because you may have to think a little harder about where your characters come from, doesn't mean that you can't create characters that are just as unique as the writer whose talents lie in character development.


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