We’ve talked already about naming a character and honing in on their physicality: now it’s time to talk about who is most important to them.
Let’s call these people your character’s VIPs.
When we’re considering the important people, the VIPs, in our characters’ lives, we tend to go for the obvious, the most beloved: the spouse, the best friend, the only child.
Those usually aren’t the only people who have an impact on our lives.
Consider the the talk show personality we’ll likely never meet but who inspires us nonetheless; the naturopath who helps us overhaul our eating habits and feel healthy for the first time; the teacher who encourages our creative pursuits when everyone else tells us to be sensible.
There’s likely more than one VIP in your character’s life. They may not have always been important, and maybe they won’t always rank so highly, but through the course of your story, these people could factor into things in any number of ways:
- When something exciting happens to your character, he’ll probably be hyped up to share the news with at least one of them
- When your character does something she’s ashamed of, these are the people she’s going to try and hide it from
- When devastating news comes to light, he’ll break down with or need to lean on one of them
It’s important for us to know who the VIPs are to our characters because they have a huge impact on their lives, for better or worse. Story events don’t affect your character in a vacuum: there’s a ripple effect, ebbing out to the people most important to them.
Let’s look at a few examples ...
Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter.
Primrose Everdeen in The Hunger Games.
At first glance, these characters might seem to have nothing in common beyond their gender, but there is one thing that links them all: their influence on someone else’s life.
The Nightmare Boss
Miranda Priestly isn’t just the magazine editor from across the River Styx, she’s a huge factor in Andy’s life, partly because she takes up so much of her time and energy, and because of the change - some for the worse, some for the better - she invokes.
Working with Miranda pushes Andy to uncomfortable extremes. It also serves to push her out of her comfort zone, and by the end of the film, after Andy quits her job at Runway magazine, we see that she hasn’t come full circle. Instead, she’s taken some of her newfound confidence and rolled it into a version of herself that combines the best of the old and the new.
In the Harry Potter series, Bellatrix Lestrange is a toxic influence to both Harry and Neville, having killed Sirius Black and tortured Neville’s parents to the point of insanity. She continues to wreak havoc throughout the series, going on to torture both Neville and Hermione, and murder her own cousin, Nymphadora Tonks.
Her coldhearted murder of his godfather spurs Harry, wrought with anguish and anger, to go after her and attempt torture, one of the three Unforgivable Curses. Though he fails to maintain it for long, it’s a dark moment in his story, a chink in his heroic persona, we wouldn’t have seen without Bellatrix.
The Younger Sister
Were it not for Primrose Everdeen’s name being drawn for the Hunger Games, the series wouldn’t have unfolded as it had. Katniss would never have volunteered to take her place, and in all likelihood the life-and-death games would carried on as normal for countless more years. Chances are Peeta would have perished in that first game, the Capitol would have continued to be in control, and there would have been no rallying point for the districts. Her bond to Primrose is also what draws her to Rue, leading to District 11’s loyalty to Katniss and all she comes to stand for.
See what I mean? It’s rare that characters are completely unaffected by anyone else, even if they claim to be a lone wolf.
People don’t have to be present to have an effect, either. Besides long distance relationships and deceased family, consider someone whose rapist is in jail but continues having nightmares about them; someone who was bullied in elementary school and still bears the mental scars; or someone who experienced a spiritual awakening after meeting with a medicine man in Bali.
When you’re creating a character, consider who has an effect on them. Don’t worry about whether it seems like a “legitimate” or “worthy” effect. No judgment allowed. If your character flinches or lights up at the mention of someone, that’s significant, and you’ll miss out on valuable story fodder if you ignore it.
What if they don't have anyone?
If your character doesn’t seem to have any VIPs, it might be that you need to dig a little deeper, or they could be telling the truth.
Maybe your character is reluctant to let people get close enough to be important.
Maybe the only important person in their life is a social worker, because they influence their home placements, or a caretaker who looks after their wife’s grave.
Maybe they’ve shut people out temporarily, or maybe it’s something they’ve struggled with their whole life.
Be open to the possibilities. Explore them. See where they take you. At its core, this is exactly what character creation is: exploration.
Creating a character isn’t about moulding them to fit the story you have in mind.
Creating a character isn’t about forcing a round peg into a square hole.
Creating a character is about asking them to let you in and allowing them the freedom to be who they are.
If I had to pick a specific reason why I’m so obsessed with the process of character creation, it would be exactly that: it affords me the opportunity to get to know an incredibly diverse and fascinating bunch of people.
Yes, these people are in my mind, but as a wise man once said, “Why on earth should that mean that [they’re] not real?”
What to do now ...
1. Figure out who your character’s VIPs currently are.
Aim for three people, cap it at five. Though there may be more still to list, try not to get (too) lost in a sea of possibilities! You can always come back to this list and play with it some more at the end of your next draft or the next time you get stuck.
2. Write down the relationship between your character and each of their VIPs.
If it’s tense, write down how this tension manifests and what kicked off the tension in the first place. If it’s loving, figure out some of the ways they express this love. If it’s one-sided admiration, make sure you know where the admiration stems from and how the character on the other side of the equation feels about it (if they even know).
3. Expand on the impact these relationships have on your character.
How does your character act when they’re around each person? What sorts of things bring them to mind when they’re not in the vicinity? Do they make your character feel positive/negative/fearful/jubilant/crackers/bouncy? What decisions has your character made that have been influenced by the other’s opinion?
4. Consider whether any of these relationships conflict with each other.
Maybe your character desperately wants to impress her boss but it’s causing her to push her boyfriend way down the priority list. Maybe your character feels torn between divorcing parents. Maybe your character has to arbitrate disputes between his mother and his wife. Find the conflict and make a note of it.
That’s a lot of material, eh? Make sure you have a consistent place to keep it so you can find it at any time! You might want to check out this post to help you do that, or you could just use these lovely ol’ worksheets to keep it all straight.
Look at that … look at that! If you’ve worked through this series from beginning to end, you haven’t just created a character: you’ve created a character with a meaningful name, figured out what they look and sound like, and learned all about the people most important to them. That’s pretty darn impressive! Let’s have a cup of cocoa to celebrate, eh? Okay, and maybe a brownie, too.
With these pieces in place, you can carry on with character building for a whole new character until you’ve got the whole cast filled out, or you can jump right into plotting the story. At this point, you have more than enough material to get started.
If you want to carry on with character creation (and why wouldn’t you, right?), my free course, Create an Epic Character Foundation, will be right up your alley. It’s got everything you need to delve into the depths of your character’s life. After all, the juicier the character, the juicier the story possibilities!
For now, though, I’d like to thank you for joining me in this series. I loved writing it and hope it proves useful to you for oodles of characters to come! If you have a minute, I’d love to hear about the character you’ve created as you worked through these posts. Pop a note in the comments below and introduce us, ‘kay?
For the full set of worksheets I've created for this series, come right this way!