by Saladin Ahmed
For me personally, creating new characters is the purest, most focused joy of writing stories. I get a thrill from worldbuilding, and have been told I’m good at it, but it’s work that’s dauntingly broad in its scope. Plotting, exposition, attending to sentence-level craft – all of these have their joys, yet (for me) the joy is always tempered by the sense that these are exercises in honing, in perfecting, in chipping away to reveal. But I never have a stronger sense that I am putting something into the world than when I’m coming up with a new character.
It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a child. When I played with action figures I would change their names and powers, creating new characters out of old designs. Playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and Villains and Vigilantes, I always spent an inordinate amount of time on character generation. (When I learned that the WILD CARDS universe itself grew out of a SuperWorld campaign, it made complete sense to me.)
I spent very hard-to-come-by money on numerous tabletop RPGs that I would never play, because they offered new systems for creating characters. I would spend hours just sitting there with dice and pencil and paper, crafting backstory details. Thinking about my newly spawned half-orcs and mutants as people.
Temperamentally, then, I’ve always been inclined to make up superhuman and nonhuman people and tell stories about them. And, against the odds, I’ve been lucky enough to make doing so my trade. In recent years I’ve had the thrill of seeing a number of the characters I’ve created take hold in the hearts and minds of readers all over the world, spawning everything from fanfic to cosplay. The joy of that is almost indescribable, but the paths there are tangled.
In some cases – such as that of the weary old ghul hunter Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, star of my novel THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON — readers have connected with characters who emerged as part of building a fictional world. In other cases they’ve connected precisely to a character’s resonances with the real world – such as those embodied by Elena, the chainsmoking Detroit reporter and supernatural avatar of the light from my comic series ABBOTT.
In still other cases I’ve come to established story-worlds to create new characters. For my STAR WARS novella “RULES OF THE GAME,” I helped create the hapless alien salesman Kedpin Shoklop based largely on a visual design and few plot details from a movie that hadn’t yet been made. When I was recruited by GRRM to write for the WILD CARDS series – a series I had discovered decades earlier in the same comic & game shops where I cut my teeth in character generation – I was told that the first step to writing in the WC universe was creating a character. I knew immediately that I wanted to create a character who would help expand and diversify the world’s cast, while hewing closely to the series’ dark, skeptical tone. And thus Ali “Meathooks” Husseini was born, an admittedly bizarre character I’m quite proud of, and one who wouldn’t make sense in any other setting.
These days I do much of my work for Marvel, our era’s most well-known shared fictional universe. The Marvel Universe is home to some of the world’s most recognizable characters, and one will often hear writers there talk about ‘putting the toys back in the toybox,’ a metaphor I’ve found useful. These are characters that are being entrusted to you to tell great stories and have fun with, but they don’t belong to you (and, as importantly, they need to be intact for others to play with). You can’t pull their arms off or repaint them (at least not without permission).
But one of the joys of superhero comics is also crafting new toys and leaving them in the toybox for others to play with. In my short time at Marvel I’ve created a number of characters: the Skrull pirate Raava, the mystical defender Amulet, a winged warrior from Detroit named Starling. In each case I very consciously created a character that I felt filled a gap in the Marvel Universe, one that was designed from the ground up to be picked up by other writers.
Given all the above, when readers ask ‘How do you create these characters?’ I have to point out that every form, every genre, and every fictional universe has its own demands. Know who and what you’re writing for!
Still, for any character I plan on spending time with, I begin with a series of questions. Not a formal questionnaire that I fill out, but a set of things I ask myself about this person as I write. This is an intuitive, internal, almost subconscious process for me at this point, as I’ve been writing for years. But if I were to write out the questions I ask myself, they might look something like this:
TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT GROWING UP
Where was this person born? Where did they grow up, geographically? What sort of physical space was it? What did their house/apartment/refugee tent look like? What languages did they hear? What foods did they eat? What did their parents do for a living? Who was in the home they grew up in? Were they cruel or kind to our character? Was the character superhuman/magical/an alien/etc? Did their family know their secrets?
We’re little more than raw material and potential when we’re born. It’s childhood that forges us into people. For me, the single most useful path of inquiry into a character is how they grew up – the smells and sounds that surrounded them, the site-specific fears and joys, the events that echo into adulthood…
TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT SOCIETY
What does this person do for a living? How is that profession valued in this world? How do they fit into this world’s gender systems? How do they fall into its racial/ehtnic/national hierarchies? What do they expect out of life? Have they gotten it? How has the shape of the world around them enabled or blocked that? Do they want to uphold the status quo or upend it? What are they doing about that in their daily life? Is there a social status to superhumans/aliens/elves/whatever in their world, and how do they fit into that?
One of the mistakes American writers in particular are most prone to is thinking of characters as atomistic – individuals driven by their own wants. For myself, I find it difficult to pretend people exist outside the matrixes of social power that shape worlds – indeed, the stories grow stronger when we refuse to do so.
TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS
Is the character close to their parents/siblings? Who do they live with? Who would they call if they were in the hospital? Who, if anyone, do they eat with? Who, if anyone, do they have sex with? Do they have a boss? Do they love anyone? Do they hate anyone? What superhumans/wizards/whatever does our character have relationships with? How has magic/super powers/etc gotten in the way of their relationships?
Just as people don’t exist outside of social systems, we don’t exist outside of personal relationships. Tight, loving bonds with family. Years of simmering hatred toward a rival. An ill-fated but undeniable sexual connection. Sometimes it might be the mere memory of a relationship that drives a character. But always those webs are there.
TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT REPRESENTATION
How does this character fit in with all the similar characters who’ve come before them? Do they look and sound the same as 99% of characters who’ve played this role? How might they embody sexist characterizations of women? How might they embody racist characterizations of people of color? How might this character embody stereotypical characterizations of queer people? Of disabled people? Of poor people? Does their worldview too easily match your own when it shouldn’t? Is their superhuman/ alien/magical ‘difference’ being used as a clumsy stand-in for real-world oppressions? Does the oppression they deal with stem from some ill-defined ‘hating difference,’ or are there credible material systems of exploitation and privilege at work?
Striving for equality is basic human decency and worthy in and of itself. Beyond that, these questions – which some writers will predictably dismiss as political correctness – get to the essence of craft. Ignoring them doesn’t give us apolitical art – it gives us hackneyed depictions and clueless, myopic storytelling.
TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT BEING SUPERHUMAN
How long has your character had super/magic/robot/whatever powers? What was it like for them growing up as a non-/super-human – or discovering that they are one? Do they know others who have these powers/this heritage? How does it affect the way they look? The way they eat? The way they sleep? The way they have sex? The way they age? Are there expectations, a role, even a destiny that goes along with the gifts/powers the character has? How do they feel about that?
Genre stories are everywhere and many readers have lost their sense of wonder for fantastic elements. In such a climate, a writer must insist upon the astonishing strangeness of monsters and super powers – paradoxically, one way to do that is to reconsider these genre elements radically affecting core human concerns.
Fifty questions, and one could ask a hundred more. Tools I’ve found useful. But at the end of the day making characters is more alchemy than chemistry – one can prepare formulae all day, but to transform mere words into a person takes a bit of magic.
It’s worth the attempt, though. Readers care deeply about fictional worlds and dream of visiting them. They care about brilliant twists and turns of plot, debating them fiercely. But at the end of the day, with very few exceptions, characters are what bring people back to stories again and again. Worlds come alive when they are full of people. Plots matter because they involve people. If we’re lucky writers, the fictional people we create will venture out into the world and find real people who care about them. And if we’re very lucky, and we’ve done our job very well, they will continue to do so long after gone.