It's taken nearly 4 drafts of an entire novel before I established the mannerisms and habits of my main character in my upcoming book. I wish I had thought about the challenge I was undertaking before I began, because maybe I could have found who my leading protagonist was a little sooner. I don't believe for a second that the formulas I'm going to give you over the next few weeks would have made my job less difficult. Life experience creates good characters. Nevertheless there are aspects to character development that are critical, and finding a way to mold a character consistently over a large volume of pages is both an art and a procedure. This first lesson deals with Character Sketching. This stage involves creating archetypes and roles for each character. Artists do something similar before sitting down to create concept art for new projects. They arrive on what is called a Silhouette for the character. This is what I will be primarily speaking on today.
Every silhouette starts with a grey bubble. The grey bubble is negative space, and creates an aura for the character. The more iconic a character is, like Bugs Bunny or Popeye, the more distinct their silhouette is. In writing, creating characters involves the same thing.
The difference between a good writer and a bad one involves the silhouettes they create for their character. Good characters are immediately recognizable. They jump off the page, and communicate their voice to the reader as soon as they speak. Why? What allows them to do this so well?
I believe the answer to this lies in the adherence to archetypes. The villains have accents in Disney films, or they are Nazis in Spielberg pictures, but these models are not based on archetypes, but stereotypes. A writer could write a book featuring Nazis but what they are actually writing about is an interpretation of a historical perception of Germans. The same goes for Disney villains, which are just racial stereotypes, and are relied upon for their memorable and familiar traits. These are poor ways to creating a silhouette. What this process should begin with is an archetype.
Now certainly archetypes can be cliche in their own way. The Byronic villain, like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, is typically jaded and self-destructive. Their own unbridled passions ruin and end friendships and partnerships. This character at it's inception was very appealing and groundbreaking, but by the end of the Romantic period there were many Heathcliffs, and they were all terrible and being the original one. What made the original Heathcliff who he was lied in Emily Brontë's ability to take an existing archetype and make it unique.
Building your character begins with choosing between Hero, or Villain. While one could argue an anti-hero is a category in and of itself, the power of the anti-hero derives from the conceptual framework of the Hero and Villain molds. They just teeter between one another and it gets old. They are predictable. Heros and Villains are predetermined, yes, but they also have tremendous freedom. Think of it like Classical music. Classical music operates on a multitude of regimented rules and tonal regulations, yet there is so much variety and beauty to the classical repertoire. The reason for this is that famous composers accept the limitations of their art while simultaneously deconstructing the approaches to satisfying these expectations to their sound and style. Just like these genres of music, the Hero and the Villain are expectations waiting to be thwarted.
Villains don't need to be evil. Likewise, they don't need to be unfair either. They can be role models, soldiers, or struggling pianists. Your character as a villain already is immediately recognizable because he is in opposition to the hero, but the villain can also be passionate about why he/she struggles. Villains do what they do because they are motivated to do something for themselves or for a greater cause they envision themselves to be apart of. Lex Luthor for instance is the nietzschean Superman, a human who have evolved beyond average potential into the what he is now. He hates Superman because the big blue boyscout, as long as he is alive, will always outshine him and make him lesser than what he is. In the words of Grant Morrison via Luthor, even with all our strength and intelligence and intuition, as long as Superman is living and breathing, the man will be a parody of himself. You can't be mad at Luthor for feeling this way, but he is still the villain because he is in opposition to Superman.
Rooting for the underdog, the aspiring artist or musician, has always been trendy. The Hero likewise is a difficult archetype to make interesting. The Anti-hero role was developed for this specific difficulty, and it as all but ruined the way storytelling works. Anti-heroes arrive at no resolution other than the insistence that the human race has fallen from grace, and is now mired in cynicism. The Hero to surmount this challenge must then become something more than he/she is to endure. I like Billy Batson from the SHAZAM! comic books because to me he is what a real hero is. Billy's origin story revolves around his being orphaned at a young age, and despite all odds he maintains his good nature, eventually being rewarded for his good heart by the wizard Shazam with the powers of Captain Marvel. Billy must call on the power of someone greater every time he gains his powers. In doing so, he becomes something more when he becomes Captain Marvel, the World's Mightiest Mortal. Billy is the Hero, but his life is far from perfect. He is constantly betrayed and hurt by those around him. He even wishes deep down to stamp out the bullies in his life through lethal force, but he doesn't. The Hero doesn't need to be perfect by any means. They need to, at the end of the day, lift their heads up and do the right thing, selflessly.
You can play with these archetypes as I mentioned before. It is your role as a writer to create a character that fulfills his/her purpose in your story. They need to be immediately recognizable. This can be done through their choice in apparel, or their physical build, but most importantly a character's silhouette is founded on their heart and their role in the narrative. Everything else is fluff.