I've designed loads of characters, most remaining in my head, some being written down on paper and others even having the honor of being in a book/short story. I'd like to pride myself by saying I'm good at filling in all details and having a full picture of who my character is and all other important details... If I had inspiration for them in the first place. If, on the other hand, I know I need to make a character, but I haven't had any 'wow' moments or vibes as to who they are, it's a real struggle for me to make them.

In the current book I'm planning, I have my main protagonist (designed and fine) who meets a travelling companion in the first chapter. They then stick together for the rest of the book and grow a close relationship (not romantic). Problem is, I've focused all my energy and time on developing the main protagonist and have now realized I know next to nothing about the other incredibly important character.

I have scene ideas and a rough plot line which I know how to incorporate him into, but if you were to ask me the classic basic questions for OC making, I wouldn't be able to answer them. I don't have background, motivation or even clear-cut strengths and weaknesses. But as mentioned previously, I'm really bad at making a character unless I have a clear idea in my head.
I have tried doing those sheets where they give you a scale, 2 antonyms either side (intelligent vs. dumb, etc.) to try and map out who he is but a) I never get far because I don't want to set in stone someone who I can't envision and b) the sheet doesn't make his character any clearer to me.

What do I do? How do I create a solid backstory? How do I create strong motivations? How do I do what’s normal when creating a character whilst adding him to an already made story?

4 Answers 4


I design my characters pretty simply.

My hero (usually heroine) has some outstanding skill, combined with some critical weakness. This is designed completely by the plot: She faces a problem that cannot really be solved by her outstanding skill, and in fact plays directly to her critical weakness.

Thus she must overcome her critical weakness in order to solve the problem. Her outstanding skill is something that comes in handy many times on this journey, but is not going to ever solve the problem on its own.

To actually solve the problem, she is directed (somehow, even ordered by a superior), to pursue a person that can help. This person ends up being, not necessarily who she needs to solve the problem (which can be seen as a setback), but incidentally has the ability to help her overcome her own weakness, so she can grow and become competent enough to finally solve her problem on her own.

Your sidekick can be similar.

Problem is, I've focused all my energy and time on developing the main protagonist and have now realized I know next to nothing about the other incredibly important character.

In my view, your sidekick needs to have one outstanding trait, and as many other incidental traits as you find convenient.

That one outstanding trait is simple: This is the one person on the planet that can help your hero overcome their most critical weakness, their soft spot, the chink in their armor that makes them vulnerable and is holding them back.

The sidekick's super power may be humor, or super intelligence or uncommon insight, or they are a great thief or pickpocket, or a fantastic liar, or a salesman par excellence, or perhaps a near magical lie detector.

Of course, the sidekick's superpower must be the hero's weakness; and that weakness must be a stumbling block in the hero's journey 2 or 3 times in the story. You have to engineer those moments into your story.

Don't make your sidekick just another body along for the ride.

What you need in a sidekick is called synergy. This means the two of them together are more competent, and can get more accomplished, than the sum of what they could separately.

They both need imperfections, but as a team, they are whole: The hero has something the sidekick lacks, and vice versa.

Once you figure out what the sidekick can bring to the partnership that the hero lacks, you have the handle on your character. How did he get that way, between childhood and adulthood? What happened to him?

You don't need a lot of detail here, maybe even just one crucial story he tells around the campfire one night. But as the author, you should have some ideas about how the sidekick came to be, how they met your hero, and how the synergy works that keeps them together.


Try auditioning characters for the role

Brainstorm a list of 3 or 4 characters (motivations, backstories, personalities, etc), and the write a scene with each of them interacting with the main character, playing the role of the character you're trying to fit. It can be the same scene for each, or different scene for each version of the character. Ideally write it from their point of view.

After that, analyze what you wrote. What worked about that particular character, and what didn't? Use this information to figure out the details of the real character who will get the part.

The point of this exercise is not to pick any of the characters you auditioned. You can, of course, but you probably won't. The point is to understand how different aspects of their characters work or don't work in the role required of them.

It might take multiple iterations of auditions to get the information you need. If things aren't working out, try getting more extreme. Audition a talking mouse, or a five-armed alien. The Queen of England, or a dwarven wizard. Don't limit yourself to what will plausibly work in your story - if you can't figure out what part of map your character resides in, maybe you need a bigger map.

Additionally, check what assumptions you've already made

People tend to have an internal template of what a "default" person is, and by default give a person those traits unless told that the person doesn't have them. Think about what assumptions you've already made about this character, and try replacing them with other assumptions. For example, I noticed that you used a male pronoun for character. Do they have to be male? What happens if they're not male? Even if you think that they have to be, try changing their gender and see what happens. (Brandon Sanderson wrote the entire first draft of Mistborn with the protagonist as a boy before figuring out that she worked better as a girl )

Don't be afraid to experiment

Nothing is ever set in stone in writing until the book is published. And no writing is ever wasted. Everything you write makes the book better, even if it doesn't make it into the final book. As Ms. Frizzle would say, "Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!"


Usually, when I have characters that are in some kind of relationship with each other, they appear in my mind as a group or social system and I don't develop them individually but together or in relation to each other.

In your case, where you have developed one character without considering the other, it may be that you have "developed yourself into a corner", so to speak. I guess what I would do is scrap the character I have developed and start fresh, using these questions as guide:

  • Who are the two persons to each other (over the major part of their relationship)?
  • How do they meet and how does their relationship develop over the course of the narrative?
  • Which character traits best fit each role within that relationship?

Start with that an then (or in parallel) develop the individual characters.

I use graphs similar to character arcs to plot out the changing feelings and dispositions the characters have in towards each other. Here is an example for one such graph for a scifi action love story I once worked on. Each color is one character.

I also develop all the characters in a spreadsheet where each column is a character and every row is one aspect of each character (skills, backstory, needs and goals etc.). This helps me keep an eye on all the other major characters while working on each of them. Here is part of an example for the two protagonists from the aforementioned story.

I got this approach from character design for animation movies. Character designers try to make each character as distinct from all other characters as possible, going so far that the silouette shapes of all the characters in an animated movie are designed to be distinctly different. Here is an example for Disney's Mulan:

An image of the silhouettes of the main characters of the animated movie Mulan

That is, all characters are designed in relation to all others!!!

In the Mulan example it is interesting to see, how the heroine and her love interest have similar silhouettes, the more rounded (feminine) and more angular (masculine) variants of the same basic body shape, while all other characters clearly belong to other types. This shows the affiliation of the two visually, even before they become a couple. You can see that they belong together!

You can do something similar in writing, too, when you develop your characters, giving them traits or backstories or goals that contrast or coincide with each other.

  • Thanks so much Ben! This is a very helpful approach and I'm gonna go and take a look right now. But is there any more advice that maybe doesn't involve deleting a character? Commented Mar 6 at 21:02
  • @BubbleQueen Maybe you don't have to completely "delete" the character you have. Try my approach. You'll probably find that much of what you have already developed will find its way into the new character when you get to the second step, that is, developing the individual characters after you have developed their relationship. If only because the character you have will be in the back of your mind while you try and figure out the relationship. I'd maybe sit down for a weekend and try this approach, and if it doesn't work, you have lost two days and can still try something else.
    – Ben
    Commented Mar 6 at 21:43

Oh, but you aren't making your character from scratch. What you're starting with is the role you need them to have in the story. And you're trying to figure out the character that will plausibly fullfill that role.

Say, for instance, that the plot needs this guy to skillfully play an organ at some point. If he can play, he must have learnt. How? One possible way to pull this off is if you make him someone who's deeply interested in organ music and invested effort into getting access to an instrument he could play. Another possibility is someone who was an involved member of a church, and when they lacked an organist, he decided to fill in. Or, his wealthy mother made him learn because it would get her bragging points in the local community.

This goes for personality traits too. Do you need, for your story, someone who habitually invites every person in need under his own roof? Maybe someone did that for him in the past and he's paying it forward, or he's good friends with someone with that experience, or a devoted follower of a philosophy that prescribes generosity, or he did it once reluctantly and it turned out so well he's trying to repeat the success.

Take in consideration everything you need this character to do in the course of the story. Think about what kind of person is likely to plausibly act that way, and what experiences may have formed them to be that kind of person. (Some basic traits deep down will be innate, but there are more floors to build on that.) You'll still have options to choose from, but not a vast empty space with no orientation points at all.

Give a thought also to how those same experiences may have affected the character in other aspects than the one you need for the plot. This may help you flesh out the character's complexity.

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