How To Make a Monster

This post is for the Teens Can Write Too! blog chain. This month’s prompt was:

How do you develop and relate to your characters?”

To come up with characters, I have a fairly static system. I call it P.L.A.N., the criteria being placed in order of importance, like so:

  1. Purpose: Why does one come up with a character in the first place? So he, she, or it (I’ll be using “she” for ease of typing for the rest of this post) and can carry out the action of a story, of course. The first thing I need to think about when developing a character is her purpose in the plot. Whether it’s to fulfill a long-lost prophecy or bully the protagonist in the cafeteria, a character’s reason for being is always the most important and easiest thing about her to come up with.
  2. Looks: A character’s physical features help determine what readers think of her. They can tell a lot about her background and can add to the story’s atmosphere. They also give readers an automatic evaluation of the character. Even a reader above stereotyping is going to have a different opinion of a character, who, say, has died-black hair and a nose piercing than of a character wearing a cheerleading uniform and pink eye shadow.
  3. Attitude: Basically, this is a character’s personality, but I call it attitude so the character development system forms a coherent acronym. This is fairly self-explanatory.  It includes how a character reacts to a situation, her morals, how she acts with other character, how she speaks, and her interests. This is the most likely to change element of a character. I revise character’s personalities constantly, almost obsessively. Is she turning into a Mary Sue? Or is she so flawed that readers won’t give a crap about her? I’d even go so far as to say that I’m usually insecure about my characters’ personalities.
  4. Name: Although I often come up with a character’s name before numbers two and three, it is the least important thing about a character, at least to me. Names can be interpreted in different ways. Say this arbitrary character I’ve been talking about is named Antoinette. Maybe her parents are French, or maybe they’re just francophiles. Perhaps they’re professors of history who were studying the French Revolution at the time of her birth–though if this were the case, I would be convinced that these parents must also have a love of the macabre, considering the lovely Queen’s bloody fate. My favorite resource for names is this–it provides the most comprehensive name search I’ve found. I also have a baby names book that I use for instant reference or when the Internet is down.

All of this is a rather dull and commonplace explanation of how I invent my characters. The second half of the question, relation, is where things get very interesting. I’m sure you longtime readers have heard the following tale multiple times, but for the newbies stopping by for the chain, here it is once again:

I was in the midst of one of my hardcore multi-thousand word writing sessions usually taking place on weekends. The hour was late, nearly 11 PM, but I was really into the groove, and the momentum my fingers had picked up on the keyboard would probably have been difficult to stop anyway. My handy plot map now directed me to set my merry band of characters on the run from The Bad Guys, and I complied. As I wrote of their desperate bid for freedom, I found myself noticing how tired they must be getting, how cold, how thirsty. Their boots would be soaked through, because, like in any good fantasy novel, it was snowing. I was bone-tired myself, but I could not bear to let the gang suffer. Therefore, I stayed up past midnight getting them safely to their destination. Only once they found a proper tavern in which they could have a bit of mead and get some shut-eye did I go to bed myself.

All this may sound like I’m over-indulgent of my little creations. In fact, I’d like to say quite the opposite, because there’s rarely a moment in my stories during which the protag or one of her sidekicks is suffering emotional and/or physical pain. As Gail Carson Levine writes in her handy guide for younger writers, Writing Magic (allow me to detour briefly by saying that, years after procuring this little volume and following its advice religiously, it still holds a treasured place on my bookshelf), making your characters suffer is what makes the story interesting. Don’t accuse me of not letting my characters suffer sufficiently, because they sure as Hades do.

It’s just that those perfectly annoying little figments worm their way into my mind, my soul, until they’re more than figments. They become real to me, more real than any character whose story I’ve read or watched, and, in a strange way, more real than myself. Creating characters puts my mind on a whole other level of reality. Sometimes I feel like the suffering I put them through isn’t exactly my fault, because it’s “part of the story.”

But that story came out of my head, and so did the characters! My characters are monsters, each and every one–from the evil overlord to the barmaid, they become a part of me, and refuse to let go. It’s a love-hate relationship. They suffer, I feel bad about it sometimes (I cried when I killed off a certain character), but feeling for characters so deeply, and in such a complex way, sure makes for a good story.

Want to follow our blog tour? Here are the participating parties, day by day

December 5– — Comfy Sweaters, Writing and Fish

December 6– — Tay’s Tape

December 7– — This Page Intentionally Left Blank

December 8– — Embracing Insanity

December 9– — Novel Journeys

December 10– — Crazy Socks and Ninja Bunnies

December 11– — Kirsten Writes!

December 12– — The Land of Man-Eating Pixies

December 13– — A Farewell to Sanity

December 14– — Esther Victoria1996

December 15– — The Word Asylum

December 16– — Teenage Reader

December 17– — Missy Biozarre, Young Adult Author

December 18– — Red Herring Online

December 19–– The Incessant Droning of a Bored Writer

December 20– — Here’s To Us

December 21– –Teens Can Write Too! (We will be announcing the topic for next month’s chain)


5 responses to “How To Make a Monster

  1. Great article! I need to follow your PLAN more often. I usually just make up a name and personality, then I neglect their appearance. You might have heard that my NaNo novel was devoid of any descriptions of anything. It’s true, unfortunately. Anyway, excellent post.

  2. Nice, detailed essay! But what less were we expecting from you? I laughed that you call it P.L.A.N. I’m sorry it’s just pointlessly hilarious. Your acronym for your writing plan is called PLAN? Ha ha. 🙂 Your structure is very organized and much more logical than mine… Great post!

  3. Very interesting!!!! I just might use that in the future. Great Post Allegra!!!


  4. I love your post! Very detailed. Oh, and you won an award on my blog.

  5. Oh, I ALWAYS cry when I kill characters. Well, no, I don’t ALWAYS. And sometimes when I’m planning it I sit there and giggle evilly, because I know they are about to die, but when I actually write it I always have such good mood music that I end up in tears. It’s quite stressful when people walk in and find me sitting there sobbing!

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