putting together characters

Buckle up, friends. This is a long one. Mostly to help me remember/collect some tools I’ve found.

I find these tools for building character much more useful than things like “the character interview” — where you ask things about favorite colors or food or whatever — because really, who cares? Those things are just trivia. Just like your knowing that my favorite color is green or my favorite food is scallion pancakes* doesn’t mean that you actually understand anything about me.

Pieces of trivia don’t reveal character motivation and drive and desire and limitation,** which are the things you need to consider when figuring out what a character’s Problem is and what they’re Going to Do About It.


I went to the Writer’s Meetup again last night.  This time we talked about writing character teams i.e. ensemble casts. A lot of it boiled down to differentiating your characters by understanding what roles they fulfill at the start. Although each character will (or at least should) have their own arc, it can be helpful to have a shorthand when you’re trying to fit them together initially.

In the framework that Kurt talked about, you break down the character into one of four broad categories that are created by the axes of providing-seeking and powerful-valuable.

  • Providing/Powerful = Guide (Obstacle) — Offers power in someway, frequently in the form of knowledge. Catalyzes and helps to move things forward. E.g. specialists, teachers.
  • Providing/Valuable = Motivation (Nemesis) — Often the person who needs protection or needs to be avenged. More of a support role. Should be likable. Fighting for the preservation of their home/status quo.
  • Seeking/Powerful = Ambitious (Power-hungry) — Is a thing but wants to be more. Often values/upholds rules (which can be their own rules). Leaders, villains, turncoats.
  • Seeking/Valuable = Questing (Greedy) — End goal focused, often at the expense of rules. Ends/means. Loners, charming rogues.

Figuring out where your characters fit can ensure that you have a diverse cast and each character isn’t just a clone of the next one.

Another thing we talked about which I found helpful was thinking about “organizing principles” for your characters. Which means that you figure out what your character represents (e.g. thematically, in world view, as an analogue for a real person) and write with that in mind without telling anyone what that prevailing idea is.

I have to play around with these things a bit more and see if I’ll adapt any of it to my own process.


I’m working on building character sketches still, so our discussion last night also reminded me of two tools that I learned about relatively recently that I’ve been practicing putting into use.

One is the Sorting Hat Chats, which takes the house system from Harry Potter and restructures it into an incredibly robust tool for thinking about character motivation. It takes into account the fact that people are complicated and multi-faceted and have a variety of reasons for doing things that don’t fit squarely into one House. Basically, when thinking about how a character would be sorted, you have to think about both primary and secondary houses. A primary house defines why your character does something — their framework for looking at the world, their values, what motivates them. A secondary house defines how they approach the world and how they problem solve.

Anyway. I could devote an entire series of posts to this, but you should go read the Basics over at the sortinghatchats tumblr. When I discovered this, I immediately went and took a copious amount of nerdy notes.


The other tool that I think will be helpful came from the estimable Mary Robinette Kowal on episode 13.26 of Writing Excuses. It’s called the Kowal Relationship Axes, which are as follows:

  • Mind: Intelligence
  • Money: What is money/wealth for, what are the goals of money/wealth
  • Morals: What is right
  • Manners: What is polite
  • Monogamy: Sense/priorities of a relationship
  • Marx Brothers: Sense of humor or taste

There are multiple axes of commonality between characters. When these axes are closely aligned, the characters are more likely to get along. Friction happens when you move any of the sliders even slightly apart. It’s a tool to help figure out meaningful conflict between characters, conflict that feels rooted in the character as opposed to some random external disruption.


Whew. Now I can refer back to this when I inevitably forget all the various urls. What are some of the tools that you guys like to use?

*This isn’t actually my favorite food. Well, it’s one of them. Probably. These things change a lot.
**I’m not saying it can never help with that. I’m sure those examples are out there.