Creative Writing Project: Create a Character | Dani and Steve Alcorn | Skillshare

Creative Writing Project: Create a Character

Dani and Steve Alcorn, Authors, Mentors, Online Instructors

Creative Writing Project: Create a Character

Dani and Steve Alcorn, Authors, Mentors, Online Instructors

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5 Lessons (12m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Your Protagonist

    • 3. Your Antagonist and Other Characters

    • 4. Project: Create Your Character

    • 5. Next Steps

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About This Class

The Creative Writing Project series helps you complete a novel, short story or screenplay. Each class focuses on a specific step in the creative process, from brainstorming to publication. The goal is to get you published!

This class gives you all the tools you need to build a character, including my Comprehensive Character Attribute Form. When you complete this class you will have a clear, written character sketch for your Creative Writing Project.

The classes in this series include:

  • Creative Writing Project: Brainstorm Your Story
  • Creative Writing Project: Create a Character
  • Creative Writing Project: Structure Your Story
  • Creative Writing Project: Write Act 1
  • Creative Writing Project: Write Act 2
  • Creative Writing Project: Write Act 3
  • Creative Writing Project: Structure a Scene
  • Creative Writing Project: Create a Setting
  • Creative Writing Project: Write Great Dialogue
  • Creative Writing Project: Energize Your Manuscript
  • Creative Writing Project: Publish Your Book
  • Creative Writing Project: Market Your Book

Meet Your Teacher

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Dani and Steve Alcorn

Authors, Mentors, Online Instructors


Steve Alcorn is the author of many novels and non-fiction books. His publications include mysteries, young adult novels, a romance novel, children's books, history and non-fiction about theme park design, and the writer's guide How to Fix Your Novel.

Dani Alcorn is the Chief Operating Officer of Writing Academy, a writing instructor, and author of Young Adult fiction, screenplays, and a screenwriting handbook. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Northwestern University, where she majored in Psychology and Radio, Television, & Film.

Steve and Dani have helped more than 50,000 aspiring authors structure their novels. Many of their students are now published authors.

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1. Introduction: Hello and welcome to the creative writing project. I'm Steve Alcorn, your instructor and mentor. These classes air all about projects. They're all about creating your own original novel, short story or screenplay step by Step one project at a time. The ultimate goal of this course is by the time you've completed these projects, you'll be ready to publish. I'm the author of a number of novels, travel books, Children's books, nonfiction books about the theme park industry and the book How to Fix Your Novel, which tells you all about the techniques you'll use to structure and create your own original work of fiction. It's techniques that will draw upon throughout this class in order to achieve your ultimate goal of getting into print. So let's get started the creative writing project. This lesson is all about creating a character in this over. You will take a look at what's in the rest of these lessons to create. A character will begin by getting started this introduction, and then will go over. Some key concepts will begin by defining your protagonist. That's your main character, and then we'll take a look at the antagonised. That's the character that chiefly opposes your protagonist and the other characters and how to construct them. In the project section of this course, you'll have an opportunity to write a character sketch, and finally, I'll show you some next steps that you can use to further your writing career. So let's get started. 2. Your Protagonist: So who is this character that is your protagonist? It's simply a fancy word for the main character. It comes from the Greek meaning pro, and so it's someone who works for a particular goal. So what does it mean to be a protagonist in a story? Well, there's only one of them. The protagonist is the main character, and this story is about the protagonist. So you want to introduce your protagonist right at the beginning. Now what have you have? Two or three main characters in mind? Well, that just means that you have more than one story in your plot, but still there's only one protagonist in each story, and so you need to create a story arc for each of those characters if you wanted to do that . But most strong novels, if you look at them, Onley, have one main character and one story and one viewpoint. So especially if this is your first project, I would encourage you to focus on that one main character. Now, once you've introduced your protagonist, you must also make the protagonist an active character. People don't want to hear stories about unmotivated, inactive people. They want stories about doers. So make your protagonist be trying to accomplish something. Have them being an active character out there, striving for their goal and in addition to their own personal goal, giveth, um, a cause for the greater good. This doesn't happen to happen at the beginning of your story. It can happen later on. But in order for your audience to really sympathize with your protagonist, they're going to want that protagonist to be doing something that can benefit others as well as themselves and try to create conflict within your protagonist. This story is really about that. The story is about your protagonist having to change and having toe overcome some problem in order to achieve their goal. And so that inner conflict is what's really interesting about this story, and the outer conflict about the plot is what they have to do in order to accomplish that goal, make your protagonist complex. Don't make them be unit dimensional. Don't make them be a complete stereotype. Make their characteristics be ones that we would find interesting in someone if we met them on the street. It's a great idea to draw upon yourself because you know yourself very well in designing your protagonist. That doesn't mean they need to be exactly like you, but they can be, ah, lot like you, and that will give them some believable depth and make sure that they stay in character if you create the protagonist a certain way. For example, if you make them lack self confidence at the beginning of the story, then they should not set out to do some ambitious goal until such time as they have overcome that lack of self confidence. Or it would be inconsistent with the character that you've created. And so if you draw your protagonist from yourself, don't confuse that with writing a biography. A lot of my students first novels are very biographical, but if you stick to the facts, you are writing a biography, and fiction needs to be more dramatic, more exciting. Ah, and have a more cohesive theme than real life tends to without some of the conflicting messages that make life a messy thing. So don't get carried away as you draw your protagonist from yourself. So how do we make the reader care about the protagonist? We use, um, tools for creating sympathy, like putting them in danger or having them make a sacrifice for the benefit of others or making them be very virtuous, but not so virtuous that there's someone that we would despise in real life. They can also be generous everyone like someone who is generous and make them clever. People don't want to read about people who are dimwitted and slow in general. They want people who have a certain spark of intelligence and maybe make connections that we wouldn't make in normal everyday life. Finally, there's the matter of appearance. Should you describe your protagonist in great detail? I think not. Readers, as they read, like to become the protagonist, and it's easier for them to do that if they can imagine that the protagonist is a lot like themselves. So unless there's a compelling reason to give your protagonist a particular hair color, eye color, freckles or other characteristics, just stick with what's important had kind of skip over that physical appearance thing. Above all, don't have your protagonist look in a mirror and see what they see in the mirror and describe that that's really become a cliche. For the most part, you'll find that you don't need to have any appearance description at all for your protagonist in order for your story to work. But if there's something important, like they draw attention in a crowd because they have bright red here, well, then, by all means, go ahead and mention that finally, you want to give your protagonist a flaw. They could have several flaws, but your story is going to be structured around one in particular, and we'll discuss these flaws in more detail when we start talking about story structure. But for now, think about what one thing your protagonist most needs to overcome in order to achieve their goal. This is a flaw that they have at the beginning of the story, but that they will overcome about 2/3 of the way through at the end of what will call act to in order to accomplish their goal. And so some of these flaws need to be looked at carefully because they seem at first glance to be somewhat similar. But there are specific differences between them, and you should know what those are and pick one very clearly based upon those shades of distinction. So, for example, lack of self confidence is doubt about one's ability. That means you don't think you can do something. But that's different than a lack of self worth, which means that you don't really think you have any value. So, for example, someone in a superhero story who had just been turned into a Spider Man might lack confidence in their spider abilities and would therefore not be able to accomplish their goal until they became confident with those new abilities, whereas someone who had say been adopted might lack self worth and feel that their parents had given them up because they didn't have any value and so they would go on a story in search of their parents and when they discovered their birth parents. Perhaps they discover that in fact, their value does not come from who they were born to, but from who they are inside, and that way they discover their value. So that's a distinction between self worth and self confidence, and then insecurity is more plot oriented. Insecurity is a word that we use to applied people that we think are slack self confidence or lack self worth. But when we use insecurity, we should be more careful. It's really someone's circumstances that we're talking about. If someone is in a loveless marriage with an abusive spouse, then they might lack security in that situation. They don't have money. They don't know how to get out of that situation. But that's different from if they're motivating Factor to stay in the relationship is that they don't think that they have value that anyone else would appreciate, in which case there flaw would be lack of self worth or that they believe those things. But then they simply lack the confidence to break out of that relationship. So as you can see, a protagonist could have all of these flaws. But you need to decide upon the one key flaw that they're going to have to overcome in order to solve their problem. Other good flaws for your protagonist are naivete, which is very relatable for anyone because someone young and just learning things can behave in a very naive fashion. Make sure that you don't confuse naivety with lack of knowledge, though someone can't overcome a lack of knowledge instantaneously. But they could naively believe that they had all the knowledge they needed for a particular situation, and then realized their naivete later on and discover that they would have to do some studying and learning to gain that knowledge. Two other closely related flaws. Our inability to put the past behind and inability to face the past. They sound like they're very similar at first, but they're somewhat different because if you can't put the past behind your constantly remembering some event and it's controlling your everyday actions, whereas if you have an inability to face the past, you're not thinking about that event at all. Might not even know what it is. But don't want to go and find out. Don't want to revisit the places and people of your past in order to overcome something that you've completely blocked out. So those flaws air in a way related. But in another way, they're opposites, and then prejudices, a common flaw. Prejudice might apply to race or two sexual prejudice or to academic levels lots of other things, but it can also be very specific to one's circumstance. Person might think that anyone who didn't go to their school wasn't as good as those who did, for example, or anyone in their class or their clique was not as good and those airways to use prejudice in a story as well. And then, finally, stubbornness. People might stubbornly refuse to overcome some of these other flaws. So that could be a secondary attribute, but also if their main flaw actually is stubbornness, that they just don't want to change their opinions or change their behavior than perhaps their main story Structuring flaw is simply stubbornness. And so, by using these flaws on your character, you can define your character and define how they're going to behave in a way that is consistent with your story. So inthe e lessons that follow will be drawing upon this. And it's important that you create a very well defined character right now because you're going to make a lot of use for them in the projects that come. So in this lessons project, we'll ask you to create a character sketch drawing upon all these things that you've learned. I'll see you there 3. Your Antagonist and Other Characters: Now that we've taken a look at the protagonist, let's take a look at the antagonised and other characters, so you might think that the antagonised is always this evil guy. But in fact, that's not the case. If we look back at the original Latin and Greek derivations of these words, pro means four and anti means against. So the protagonist works for a goal, and the antagonised works against that goal, so they're just in opposition with one another. It's actually possible, although difficult to write a story where the protagonist is a fairly evil person and the antagonised is a good person. It's a little difficult to get audiences on your side when you do that, because they tend to want to relate to the good person. But it is possible. And that's where anti heroes come from, because they're heroes who are not necessarily, uh, the normal type of favorable character that one would expect in that protagonist role. As for the antagonised, in addition to opposing the protagonist, they may just be arguing they might even be a love interest. For example, in some romantic comedies, the two lovers are the protagonist and the antagonist in others, the antagonised is 1/3 force who is trying to keep the lovers apart. In that case, the protagonist has a love interest who is more a member of the plot, and the antagonised is this opposing force trying to keep them apart. So the antagonised has a role, and it's a role to create the conflict that drives your story and your plot. So the antagonised often mirrors the protagonist. They might be the opposite, or they might be exactly the same. For example, if you have a protagonist who has a lack of self confidence, sometimes it's really effective to get across your point, to have an antagonised who is over confident. But it can also work to have an antagonised who also lack self confidence, particularly if the two similar flaws and manifest themselves in very different character behaviours, which is often the case. Just as you wanted the protagonist to be an active character, you also want the antagonised to be an active character. Ah, it's not very exciting to have an opposing force that just lays down and dies. They need to create actual conflict, whether it's in the form of dialogue or obstacles or danger or what have you? And just as the protagonist had a flaw, the antagonised also has a flaw. But the antagonised slaw is a tragic flaw, and the reason that it's tragic is because the antagonised can't overcome the floor. And so that contrasts the difference between them, because in the story, the story is about the protagonist overcoming their flaw. But the plot is about the antagonised unable to change behavior because he or she cannot overcome their flaw. And so sometimes, in the climax of the story, you are able to finally have the antagonised overcome his or her flaw. But it doesn't occur in time for them to not have been defeated in the climax. It only comes too late. So in a lighter story, like a romantic comedy, the protagonist needs to be proven correct in the climax because she or he changed. But in the climax, the antagonists, even if it's the love interest, didn't change quite in time. So they have to admit that they're wrong, and then they can be an acceptable love. Interest in the couple can be together. The antagonist is often disguised through much of the story This is particularly the case in mysteries where the antagonised might not even appear until the climax, although usually in mysteries the antagonised has been around. There have been clues, but their behavior has not tipped off the fact that they're in the antagonised until that point. So this is different than the classic snidely whiplash story, where the girl is tied to the railroad tracks every other scene and the antagonised is very clear. So it's fine if you're antagonised has not explicitly stepped on stage during the first or even second acts of your story. So how do we make audiences not like your antagonised justus? We created tools for sympathy for your protagonist. We can create tools for antipathy for your antagonised, and these can include behavior such as being a bully. Nobody likes a bully being self absorbed, selfish, um, being a liar. These air all really unsympathetic characteristics. As I mentioned in the Protagonist lecture appearance is a tricky thing because it's a bit of a cliche that all good guys air really handsome and all bad guys air really ugly, so I would be careful to avoid stepping too much on that cliche. Although If you want to give your antagonised a couple of unappealing physical characteristics, that's fine. Now let's turn our attention to other characters. You're going to have people who are on the protagonist side. Those would be the protagonists allies, and you're going to have people who are on the antagonised side. So those are the pawns of the antagonised, these air minor characters. They're not characters who need an entire story structure, but they're important, Um, and they may have characteristics that reflect attributes of the protagonist or of the Antagonised, respectively. Then there's another character that I like to call the nemesis. The nemesis is kind of a bad and a good character. Many times, the nemesis is somebody who seems like they're the antagonised. Early on in the story, they might even be working for the antagonist. But then, somewhere around the end of the second act of the story, they sort of change sides. They decide that, you know, they've kind of been misguided. They've seen how the protagonist is really sort of a good person, and they decide maybe they want to be helpful in Act three. And so if you have a character who sort of changes. Sides changes roles during the course of your story, becomes more supportive of the protagonist than they started out then That might be a good person to attribute the nemesis role, to even ask yourself Who else is there? This can happen It a number of different levels because everybody has parents and family and friends and acquaintances. But you don't want to load your story up with lots and lots of characters who serve no particular point. And in fact, one of the things I do is I go through when my first draft is complete, and I try to look for ways that I can combine multiple characters into a single character. This really strengthens a story if you can minimize the number of roles, and if you're writing a player a screenplay, it makes it less expensive to produce, easier to cast and less confusing for an audience who only has so much time to learn who each character is, if you can combine some of those roles, but then there's also the lower level of who else is there? And these are the minor minor background characters. People in the back, um, for example, your protagonist goes to a bank. Teoh transact some business. Maybe they meet with the bank manager or a loan officer or even just interact with a teller . So those people are sort of secondary characteristics characters. But there's 1/3 level, at least and maybe below that even. And those of the other people, like there probably were people in line to see that teller. We don't need to know who they are, but they're there. Maybe you need a brief description of their existence, their presence or what they look like, and so you'll need to create all of those characters as you plan out your story as well. And so this is a good use for your character notebook. Whether that notebook is a physical notebook that you take notes in with the pencil or if it's files on your computer, which is the way that I do it, I'm constantly taking notes about characters. Sometimes I'll invent a character and not know where they're going to go, but it'll be a nice little character sketch, I'll say for later. Other times I'll be listing out scenes and listing the characters that I'm going to need to have in each of those scenes and then trying to consolidate those characters later on in tow, a concise character list before I write. So that is called character pyramid ing and in a pyramid, just as the top of the pyramid is the most visible part. So your protagonist is also the most visible in your story, and then, secondarily, is the antagonised. The antagonist is the next most important character. Then we have those helpers or members of the opposition that we talked about who are more fully described than other characters, but much less than the protagonist or antagonised. And then we have bit players that would be like the teller or the bank loan officer that I mentioned. And then finally, there are the extras. These in a movie or the people in the crowd scene. This is, uh, where you don't even need to describe that there's a character you can just say that there's a crowd of people gathered around, and so that pyramid displays the hierarchy that you'll be working with throughout the creation of your story. So as you build your characters, think about filling in this information about them. Certainly their gender is an important trait that defines many characters and their age as well. Most characters have a goal. Sometimes we don't care what the goal is like that bank teller. We probably don't really care what that person's goal waas. But we certainly care what the goal is of the protagonist and the antagonist. You need to be crystal clear on those because that goes to their motivation. And for both of those characters, you need a character flaw. Well, some of your other lesser characters may also need a flaw, and the flaw may have derived from a back story. So if the antagonist has enlisted a bunch of goons, then those goons might be selfish. They might be greedy. They might be ruthless. Whatever their flaws are, you might want to work up a back story to explain them so that they're not just behaving the way that you want them to behave, is the author. They have some underlying motivation that makes sense. Even if it doesn't make it into your manuscript, it will make them more riel. And then there's the question of physical description. Whether or not it's important or not. I think for the minor characters like those goons. Sure, go ahead and describe them a little bit. All we've got is what's called a narc type, basically to work with. If somebody is unshaven and low hung and kind of gruff looking and very muscular than we make certain assumptions about their role in the story. And if you've only got a sentence or two in order to establish that using an arc type like that can be a very effective way to do it, and then finally name is really important way to distinguish your characters. Soft, appealing nice names or good for good characters and hard rough, um, difficult to say name, sometimes their good names for mean characters. Also, as you name your characters, try to make every name distinctly different. Start with a different letter and don't make the words similar because readers read somewhat casually. And if you have characters named Jan John and Joan, they're going to be very confused when they encounter a page that has all three of those names on it. So try to make each name distinctly unique, and then drawing upon stereotypes is a little different than drawing upon archetypes stereotypes are when the character is completely as we expect. And if you only have a few words to establish the character, it might be okay to use a stereotype, but it's usually better to use an arc type where you'll establish some characteristics like the thug E characteristics that I described earlier would be good if the person is indeed a thug and has got a black jacket, is gonna beat someone over the head with it. But then, wouldn't it be fun to have them spouting Shakespearean lines as they were attacking someone ? If you just give that little twist, you can sort of avoid that stereotype syndrome, and you've used a shorthand to make us expect the character to be one way. But then you've just tweaked our expectations a little bit to make it more interesting. So those were all good guidelines. And as you apply them to your characters, always remember to try to show, not tell. We'll have more about this in later lessons, but showing is where someone acts a certain way or says a certain thing or looks a certain way that conveys what the character is like rather than telling us this character is brutal , where this character is stupid or this character is uncooperative. Have them behave that way rather than telling us what they're like. It's much more interesting to read. And so again, we've talked about flaws in the past, and I bring up this flaw slide just a za refresher here. These are the same flaws from the protagonist lesson. Ah, and these would be good flaws to ascribe to your antagonised. There's a few other, less sympathetic flaws you might also consider, such as greed and selfishness, um, and ruthlessness and so on. But this is a good starting place for antagonists who are not completely out there, not the Voldemort's of the world but the love interests in the romantic comedy, for example. And so this is a great place to start. And some of your other characters can also inherit some of these same flaws if they're important enough characters to be on stage long enough for us to perceive those and so that brings us to the conclusion of this lecture about antagonists and other characters, and I'll join you in the project section, where you'll have on opportunity to create your own. Also, you there 4. Project: Create Your Character: in this project, I'd like you to create your own character sketch. It's really a pretty simple process and drawing upon all the information that was available in the protagonist and antagonised lectures, I think you'll have no trouble at all coming up with a really interesting character. And it's totally up to you whether you want to describe a protagonist and antagonised or one of the other incidental characters I'd like you to start by completing the comprehensive character attributes form that I've included in this lesson as a supplemental resource. That form asks all sorts of questions, and by the time you've answered to them, you will know your character very well and easily be able to write a paragraph about them. And so one of the most important things to do in that process is to select one of those character flaws. I encourage you to select one from the flaws list that I included in the lectures and also a supplemental material. And so then finally, write a one character, a one paragraph character sketch. Just describe your character, um, inwards in maybe 23 sentences. Describe what they want. Describe what's wrong with them in terms of a flaw so that we understand why they can't get what they want immediately and just describe anything else really important about them that you discovered during that process of filling out the comprehensive character attribute for and then poster work so that we can see how your character turned out. Have fun with this project. Enjoy, and I look forward to seeing your results. 5. Next Steps: thanks for joining me on this journey. I've enjoyed it and I hope you have to. Thing is one of a dozen different projects that are available through this series, of course, is if you follow all of these projects from brainstorming all the way to marketing, you'll be able to bring your idea for a novel, short story or screenplay to reality, step by step and project by project. In the meantime, I hope you'll follow us on Facebook and be sure to sign up for free writing tips. I look forward to seeing you there. Until then, happy writing.