How to create fictional characters from scratch – tips from Nick Earls

On Sunday 3 November 2013 (the day my baby girl turned 10 months old!) I attended a workshop on ‘Characters’ presented by bestselling author, Nick Earls (Bachelor Kisses, Zig Zag Street, The Fix, plus about a trillion more) .

The thrust of the workshop was how one goes about creating characters out of thin air, or in Nick’s case, out of props from a sack. His advice was that there’s less magic to the information gathering process than he once thought. Bringing a character into existence is about asking questions such as:

  • Who is the character (male, female, age etc?)
  • Why are they in the scene or story?
  • What do they bring to the story?
  • Why do we like or dislike them?
  • What is the character’s background?
  • Do they have a rival, love interest, pet etc?

Following this, participants were herded into small groups. The presenter had a sack full of props, and each person took one from it. My small group ended up in possession of:

  • WA Performing Arts course guide
  • Sunglasses sponsored by a beer company
  • Miniature disco ball
  • Broken remote control

The next step was to discuss who this character might be and what we could know (make-up) about him or her just from these objects. We had to list ten things about this character. This is what we came up with:

  1. It’s a male in his late 40s.
  2. He teaches performing arts.
  3. His background is in singing and acting, and once, he was quite famous.
  4. The glory days are behind him, and now he spends his nights at a local karaoke bar (that’s the disco ball bit).
  5. As a result of his late boozy nights trying to forget he’s a washed-up has-been, he arrives at work hung-over in his dark sunnies most mornings.
  6. One night after arriving home drunk, he throws the remote control at the wall and smashes it.
  7. He does this because he caught a promo for the new season of Dancing with the Stars, and his one time rival, Markus Twait, is the new host. They started out their careers together.
  8. There’s talk Marcus Twait may be appointed new head of the performing arts school, and our guy (his name is Julian we’ve just decided) will probably lose his job.
  9. Julian can’t lose his job. He won’t be able to afford his booze and karaoke and they’re the only things left giving him pleasure in life.
  10. To hold onto his job and claw back some professional standing, Julian has begun mentoring a stand-out singing student. He thinks if she becomes successful, he’ll get the credit and the school will let him keep his job.

Phew, that’s it! The next bit was to write a short passage in first person POV utilising the information and evoking the voice of the character. Here’s my piece:

Annabel is a star. No fucking doubt about it. The legs, the arse, the face, and most importantly, the voice. I knew it in that first stinking class of the year when she sang Celebration. It’s the same song I make them all sing year after fucking year and for the first time, I actually heard it. I figure any sucker who’ll sing that stinking song as though it matters has got to have stars in their eyes. Some misguided belief that they’ll be the one to make it. The difference with Annabel, is that she will make it. And when she does, I’ll make damn sure she knows who to credit.

                This was me once. A kid who believed the impossible was possible. That out of the thousands of wannabees, I’d be the jerk to make it onto your TV and radio. And I did, so I know what I’m talking about when I say Annabel is a star. I see those greasy haired, greasy faced embryos staring at her. Fantasising they’ve got some chance of ending up in her bed. I won’t have it. I won’t have my beautiful Annabel derailed. I won’t lose my one chance to make it back to the top. She’s last chance station for me.

I could go on from here and develop the story if I wanted to. For this, I’d need to introduce some conflict. Something Julian wants, and an obstacle or obstacles preventing him from obtaining it. Perhaps Annabel falls for one of the greasy haired embryos and stops turning up to class regularly. Julian may have to fight to convince her to stay on the true path. Or maybe Annabel has a rival mentored by Julian’s nemesis. Or maybe Julian’s karaoke and boozing are more of a problem than he’s realised and he can’t help himself, let alone Annabel. Either way, problems must be thrown at this character for him to overcome, or not. That is the essence of story.

If you want to try this exercise yourself, try filling a pillow case with random objects from around the home. Or ask a friend to put together a bunch of props for you. Pull out three or four to group together, and use them to amass information about your character and see where it takes you.

Happy writing.

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