Building a character is a lot like making a cake. Except you don’t want just a basic yellow cake, you want layers and frosting and all the fun stuff that makes cake great. Or maybe it’s sushi you like, you aren’t just going to eat rice and be satisfied when you want sushi. Archetypes are like your basic yellow cake batter. They form the basis to start from, but it’s up to you to add all the stuff that will make an epic cake. What kinds of things do you like in a layer cake? Fruit, nuts, chocolate something a bit more exotic? Then we need the icing, or maybe you like frosting or fondant and lots of it. Good.
The point is we start with a base, but we don’t stay there. That’s boring. Spice it up. Experiment, see what flavors work well together and which ones don’t.
So, let’s get cooking.
Step 1: Start with an Archetype.
The ones I listed a couple of weeks ago are just one set of archetypes. Schmidt’s book A Writer’s Guide to Creating Characters contains more lists. I’m going to stick with my list and pick the Waif because it’s so well known. Plus I have a fun idea to play with.
Step 2: Determine the Flavor
So who is the Waif?
Tami Cowden defines the Waif:
This is the original damsel in distress. She was the star of many a Grimm’s fairy tales. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel, all required rescue, and so does she. Her child-like innocence evokes a protective urge in the beastliest of heroes.
But don’t be fooled, because the Waif has tremendous strength of will. She won’t fight back; she’ll endure. Audrey Hepburn often played this heroine – think of Sabrina. Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits was a classic waif. And an updated version is found in Peta Wilson’s La Femme Nikita. A classic Waif is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. She overcame mistreatment, and her innocence and purity won her Mr. Rochester. Another good example – Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s heroine in The Flame & the Flower.
These women are pure at heart, at times a little too trusting, and also insecure. They seem to be untouched by the world, patient and adaptable to any situation. They carry on, looking for the day when they are free of their travails, but taking little action to bring that day closer.
In a bar fight, the Waif is most likely to turn to the hero to get her out of this situation. If that fails, she’ll be found pressed against a wall, well out of the fray. But let an unwary fighter venture too close to her little island of safety, and he’s likely to have a bottle smashed over his head. When cornered, the Waif will take desperate measures, but only when she has no other option.
This is when you decide just what kind of cake you want to work with; is it chocolate, red velvet, angel food, or lemon? This is what we will build on so pick something that feels right for your character.
What core moral value do we see that might fit the Waif? Looking at The Positive Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi in Appendix C on page 236 there is a list of moral traits. A couple that jump out at me as potentially fitting the Waif archetype are Innocent and Patient. I can hear you wondering why I’m not trying to stay as far away as possible from the whole definition of the Waif archetype. We still need a basis, a starting point. So let’s look at these two moral values.
Innocent is defined at being of pure intent and motive with possible causes being a sheltered upbringing or seeing only the good in people. Some associated behaviors I’m going to pick for my Waif are:
- being exceptionally trusting
- seeing things in a practical light
- being willing to help others
- being excitable
Patient is defined as exhibiting self-control and composure under trial or strain with possible causes being believing everything will work out, maturity, or being focused on others rather than self. Some associated behaviors could include:
- calmly waiting
- not complaining when things take too long
- enjoying the moment rather than always thinking about what’s coming next
- bouncing back quickly from setbacks
- not being surprised by the unexpected
- managing one’s time wisely
- delaying gratification
Personally I think patient fits my vision for my Waif a little better than innocent so I’m going with that. We have the core trait, the thing that gives them their sense of right and wrong. Now lets look at the next set of traits.
Step 3: Add the Extras and Bake
So I have my batter and am ready to add some fun flavors. This is the what the Positive Trait Thesaurus describes in Appendix B on page 233 as the achievement tier and while being aligned with their morals, is focused on what traits they’ve developed to help them achieve their life goals.
What might fit the Patient Waif? When creating my characters I like to pick at least three complementary achievement traits. For my Waif I’m going to pick adaptable, cooperative and persuasive. I generally like to pick a fourth that doesn’t seem to quite fit with the others. I’ve decided on meticulous. So to go along with the analogy I’ve got a few complimentary flavors and then something to add a little texture like fresh fruit or nuts. Now we bake and assemble the tiers.
Step 4: Frosting
Now, I’m going to move from personality traits to external elements because the interactive and identity traits deal more with how the Patient Waif reacts to their surroundings. They need a goal, motivation and conflict for me to understand them better and flesh them out a bit more. We have our cake tiers ready to go, and now we need to layer on the frosting and decorations. But to do that I have to understand their environment, the frosting needs to compliment the cake itself.
I know that my Patient Waif has endured something that gave them that core trait. So now I brainstorm. You’ll probably come up with something entirely different given your interests and life experiences, and that’s perfect. Every character needs a sliver of yourself within them to make them feel alive and real to the reader.
So what goals, motivations and conflicts might my Patient Waif have? That depends on the story, the setting, their history and such. As an example I’m going to pick a character from a current WIP of mine. It’s just now in the planning stages so this will be a good exercise. It’s a high fantasy setting but more technologically advanced, think pre-industrial revolution instead of medieval. Magic is a science all to itself.
The interactive traits are described in The Positive Trait Thesaurus Appendix B page 233: “Strengths form through interaction with people and the environment. These traits help the character work with others, handle conflict, convey ideas and forge healthy relationships.” This layer is our frosting, icing or fondant before you start adding any other decorations.
For my Waif I’ve picked; Diplomatic, Observant, Perceptive and Tolerant. These are things they’ve learned from their life experiences and reflect how they interact with other people. These traits compliment their core morality of being patient while enhancing the overall flavor.
Step 5: Decorate
Now for the decoration, the identity traits. These are the traits that the thesaurus describes as being tied to a personal sense of identity. This is what makes your character, your cake, stand out as unique. It’s the surface qualities that draw the reader in so they are tempted to take that first bite.
For my Waif I picked some fun things; Intelligent, Philosophical, Sensual, and Witty. Typically now I would get a notebook and start going through the thesaurus jotting down the various attributes of each trait I feel fit the character and getting an idea of who they are.
It’s helpful to go through the Positive Trait Thesaurus, Appendix A on page 229 at this point and start going through the topics. I also like to fill out character profile sheets so I have the information in one spot to refer back to. Just remember that this is your test kitchen. Once you start writing you might discover whole new things about your character and who they really are. Be willing to listen to them and see how the new direction fits.
The main thing to remember when creating a character, give them foibles, faults and quirks. Pick one trait and take it to its extreme and see what happens. This is when you pick up the Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi and go to Appendix B. This pyramid is very helpful: http://cdn.writershelpingwriters.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Character-Pyramid.pdf
We need to understand what their goal is, why they are striving for it, and what is keeping them from it.
Sometimes I actually find it more helpful to figure out the goal and then work backwards figuring out who this person is. I’ll go more indepth about this next week and we’ll fill out the pyramid together.
So who is my Waif and what makes them an atypical hero? Let’s find out.
Cirbus is tall even for his race, the Daoine Sith. As a knight of the Unseelie he is supposed to be working for the Winter Queen in her never ending struggled against the Summer Queen. Except after several hundred years he’s a bit fed up. Maintaining the gates between the realms he’s had to witness much cruelty and heartbreak and nothing bothers him more than seeing intelligent beings suffering.
One day he witnesses the capture and vivisection of a young mage who is then left to die on the side of the road once the butchers are done. Leaving his post he heals the now normal young woman and sends her on her way. The incident leaves him questioning his duty but he remains until word is sent that his actions have not gone unnoticed and he’s subsequently banished.
For the first time in his life he’s alone. He has no idea about human culture or how anything works. He’s never been out of the glade where his portal lay. He doesn’t wander far, only making it as far as the crossroads where he runs into a group of magic hunters. Daoine Sith aren’t just rare, they are a myth and the hunters are prepared for the vicious evil creatures the myth calls them. Cirbus is understandably unprepared for their assault and is captured and taken to the nearest principality to be sold. Instead of trying to escape he waits patiently for the next several decades until the principality is no more.
What happens after that? That’s a spoiler. Point is I have my cake—er my atypical hero. Cirbus eschews the stereotype by being a male waif for starters and also by choosing not to react and to instead be patient. We’ve taken the archetype and built something entirely new in just a few steps. It does take some work and experimenting but in the end you’ll have an awesome cake that readers will devour.
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As always your comments and questions are welcomed below. Do you have a favorite ‘flavor’ you like to write? How do you go about creating your characters? Do you like to start from a different approach? If so what is it?