I see posts in creative writing groups all the time, where people are asking for advice on how to create a realistic character. Even naming characters seems to be something that causes many writers a lot of trouble. I’m obviously one of the fortunate ones. For me, character creation has always been one of the simplest and most diverting parts of the whole writing experience.
Characters come to me in a number of ways. Some pop into being at the discovery of a name that I like, others from a picture on the internet, a face on tv, or even courtesy of an interesting looking stranger in the queue at the local supermarket.
The character I am going to discuss today came into being as part of one of my main character’s back story, in the urban fantasy trilogy that I am currently working on. I am going to attempt to put the random workings of my mind into words so that you can see exactly how I fleshed this particular man out.
Nico, the male lead in my trilogy, is a vampire, and part of his backstory is that he grew up as an orphan on the streets of Renaissance Rome. To give Nico a proper backstory I needed to not only cover his post-transition vampire life but also his human roots, as both played a key part in making him the person that he is today.
In my mind, for an orphan to have a chance at surviving in this era, he would either need to become a beggar, and rely on the limited charity of others, a thief and steal in order to feed himself or be taken on as cheap child labour by either a tradesman or local family to work for his meals and shelter. In Nico’s case, I decided that I wanted him to be taken on by a tradesman as the other two options have been covered rather a lot in vampire fiction, and I wanted to try something a little different.
So at this point, I needed to create a tradesman to fill the role. I already know that Nico succumbs to influenza and scarlet fever when he is 9 years old (In my books vampires are a little different in that their immortality only sets in once they reach their physical peak, which in Nico’s case is at 32 years old)
I also know that the reason that Nico contracts these fatal illnesses is due to his terrible living conditions, ergo the tradesman isn’t looking after him very well. I am picturing sleeping in a damp, cold and musty out building with barely enough food to keep him alive and little to no nutrients in his diet to help ward off illness. Clearly, the tradesman is not a nice person, to treat any child in this manner.
Okay so now we need a suitable trade. The picture that is building in my mind is of a cruel, oafish man. A hedonistic personality, every penny he earns goes towards his own indulgence and he won’t spare any to look to the comfort of his ward.
“There are plenty of motherless urchins to take the boy’s place if he can’t hack the work after all.” He mumbled through a mouthful of food, finishing his rare bit of profound insight off with a loud, toe-curling belch, and absently rubbing a thick meaty hand over his grotesquely swollen paunch.
At this point, we need a first name, so I spend a few minutes looking up the meanings behind Italian boys names until I find one that fits (obviously any name will do, but I like having an appropriate meaning thrown in there for my own personal enjoyment where possible) The name that I eventually settle on is ‘Orfeo’ which means deprived or darkness.
Orfeo’s surname is a different matter because in his case he is a tradesman and tradesman way back when often went by the name of their particular trade. Another few minutes on google secures me a list of renaissance era trades and I can get to work picking out his work. I round it down to four possible jobs; scrap seller, soap Maker, grave digger or casket maker. Grave digger has been done quite a few times before and it’s a little obvious for my taste. Casket maker, while it would be morbidly appropriate for this man to profit off others misery, it implies some level of skill which I’m not sure an oaf like Orfeo would possess.
This leaves us with scrap seller or soap maker. Scrap seller would work just fine but soap is just becoming popular in Italy at this point in time so it’s very current and it’s a wonderfully unpleasant job full of all the horrid smells of rendering fat and deadly eye watering lye fumes, as well as awful burns if you aren’t careful enough with what you are doing. Definitely not the place for a small child. The Italian name for a soap seller at this point in time was ‘Saponaio’ so now we have an appropriate surname for our villain.
At this point, all that is left to do is to take all that we have learned so far and fill in the rest of the blanks…
Hair – probably thinning and greasy from being around the soap fumes all the time. Add to this that he is the kind of man who wouldn’t use soap himself as he knows what goes into it and is too ignorant to realise the benefits. He would instead take delight in selling his concoctions to the well-to-do’s picturing their faces if they ever saw what disgusting things he put into each batch.
Eyes – He is Mediterranean in appearance so I’m going to go with brown coloured eyes. In his case quite none descript (just like the rest of him) probably a little glazed and unfocused as a result of his hedonistic lifestyle and love of wine.
Build – Again his hedonistic lifestyle comes into play here giving him a rather overweight and meaty appearance. This fits well with his oafish and lazy attitude but also makes him someone that my male lead would fear as a small child. A thump from one of his meaty fists would cause considerable pain and damage. Orfeo may even use his considerable bulk to pin the child against the wall, crushing him until he struggled to breathe before giving him a smack to the back of the head and sending him back to work.
Height – The average height for a renaissance male was around 5ft 5 inches (1.65m) but I see him as a little below average (the antithesis of an attractive male specimen at the time) maybe coming in around the 5ft (1.52m) mark. Still large enough to terrify a small child, but small enough to be unable to carry on his hard-man persona in the company of other adults. In adult circles he would most likely simper and whine to wheedle what he wants, ingratiating himself shamelessly while gritting his teeth the entire time and hating all those who he believes feels superior to him (so basically everyone)
Clothing – Badly kept but in an approximation of the latest fashion. This man clearly has no sense of personal hygiene or pride in his appearance but at the same time, he wants to fit into the society of his social betters to get access to their luxury and money in order to fund his own hedonistic pursuits. His clothes would also carry the pervasive and unpleasant scent of rendered fat so his peers would likely not want to stand too close to him, a fact that he would also be totally aware of which would add to his hatred of them all.
Health – Not good would be an understatement, but as unappealing as his poor hygiene, inevitable STD symptoms and gout might make him he is lucky and manages to avoid most of the more serious maladies of the era, aside from the visible scars from where he survived smallpox as a child.
As you can see, with each new descriptive detail comes a new facet to your character’s personality, and there are lots more details that can be uncovered but if I went through them all in this post we’d be here all day!!
The real key is to try and put yourself into the mindset of your character and work out how each factor would make him or her feel/act. Before long you will have a fully fleshed out and very believable character to add to your work. If you need additional prompts then search out one of the countless character questionnaires online and try to work your way through answering it from the point of view of your developing character.
Character development should be fun and rewarding. The really good ones can even give you further ideas for your story as they grow. The entirety of this character development brainstorm took me well under an hour, and I had the added complication of fitting him into my male leads backstory on top. Imagine what you could achieve in the course of just one day!!
Happy writing all :}