I've seen this issue come up on the Board time and time again: hopeful writers presenting would-be that fail to meet the standards of the PPC in their bids for permission. It's a tricky thing, trying to make a good character without falling into a few pitfalls. So, as I mentioned wanting to try my hand at a few workshops in my return message, I decided to start off with character creation. I'l begin with a few tips and tricks of my own and conclude with a writing challenge for all of you.
NOTE: The following is geared mostly towards making PPC agents, but can be applied to creating characters for works outside of our little group as well.
Typically when one creates a new character, one has at least a basic idea of what said character is going to be like. It can usually be parsed out into a short and simple description, like "lazy and reluctant upper-class soldier" or "aggressive gamer girl." Those lines are good places to start but you should never get too attached to them. You might find yourself taking the character in a different direction as they become more developed. If said direction seems like a good one, then you should pursue it to its end.
Notice how neither of the descriptions mentioned in the previous paragraph said anything about appearance. That should be your last concern when making a character. If you've ever made a model car or figure, then you know to never paint it first. Plus, you might find something in the fleshing-out process that affects the look of your character. That's where Laura's broken nose came from.
Fleshing It Out
A simple line is all very well and good for a background character with one or two bits or dialogue, but agents need more. That means you need more. The best way I've found to flesh out a character is to free-write them into very short scenarios -- drabbles, if you will. The first thing that comes to your mind regarding how your character would react? Write it down. The nature of their reaction can aid in shaping their personality. Using this new aspect of your character, write another random scenario drabble. Repeat the process until you feel like you've got a good grip on what this character is all about.
You should also know as much about your character's past as possible. What events shaped them in their childhood? In high school? In college? Did they even pursue an education? What's their family like? And so on and so forth. I'm not saying create a timeline (although that might help you), but you might want to consider writing short stories about some of those major events. The best way to know your characters is to write about them.
From Elsewhere and Elsewhen
Obviously, the nature of the PPC means that agents can be from just about any piece of fiction to have ever come into existence. If you're going to make an agent from another reality, then you should bone up on the various aspects of said reality. That goes double if you're making a character from a continuum that you know is popular amongst the community you're writing for, like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter for the PPC. Fans can be, well, fanatical about the little details.
At the very least, you should comb through any specific wikis relating to the nature of your character. I'm not the biggest fan of the Halo series -- played parts of some of the games and read a few of the novels -- but I looked up everything I could on Haloverse AIs when creating Cornelius.
Making a character with powers -- magic, metahuman abilities, chi, or whatever -- is a bit more complicated. I'll get into the nuances of that in a follow-up post.
Find Their Voice
A good character has something distinctive in their voice that sets them apart. It might be something big, like an accent or a verbal tic, or small, like what specific words they choose. A lot of swear words might indicate a coarse character who doesn't care what other people think. Strictly structured speech can reflect an equally structured mind. Basically, if you're writing or reading back-and-forth dialogue between two people without descriptors like 'he said' or 'she said,' you should be able to tell who is who based on how and what they say without having to look back at the beginning of the conversation.
The Final Details
Keeping everything you've learned about your character throughout this process in mind, you can finally get to work on their overall look. Constantly ask yourself questions throughout this process. How does the character move? How do they walk? Are there any familiar gestures they use? Do they smoke? Do they drink? Do they have tattoos or piercings? Anything that can reflect on the nature of your character should be considered at least for a moment.
You should consider the hairstyle and clothing choices of character as reflective of how they are, and not how you think they should be. I wrote Danny as being a somewhat serious-minded lover of literature, so I put him in the sweater-shirt-tie combination. Gremlin the athletic street thug would obviously have clothing aimed at free movement as well as a few tattoos. The only reason she would wear something even remotely formal would be for flirtatious reasons.
Take a character -- it can be a concept you've had brewing in your mind or a pre-existing figure, although I would prefer the former -- and pick one of the following scenarios to write a few paragraphs on.
- [Character] is late for an important event.
- [Character] is helping a friend with a favor.
- [Character] is going through their morning routine.
- [Character] has suffered some momentary setback.
- [Character] is responding to criticism.
Did that help you understand your character a bit better, or perhaps uncover some part of them you didn't know about? (You can see why I now prefer you use a concept rather than a character you already know.) Read and critique other entries as well, just because. I put it to you, PPC!
Have fun and good writing to you all. Stay tuned for future workshop/advice/things in the future!
Addendum: Powered Characters
Wizards. Superhumans. The gifted. Whatever you'd like to call them. Crafting characters with special abilities is a task with a few special hurdles of its own. It's not that powers themselves make a character a Sue or Stu; even the most powerful heroes and villains can be balanced and well-crafted characters. It is, however, easier to create a Sue or Stu with powers if written poorly. As such, there are a couple things to keep in mind during the character creating process.
Knowing Their Limits
Whenever I make someone with special abilities, I make sure to give them clear(ish) limits on what they can do. It's too easy to allow the limits of someone's power to creep up over time as the threats escalate. The Dragonball series is a prime example of such a phenomenon taking place, as is Silver Age Superman.
There are two kinds of limits I use: physical and mental. Physical limits are just as they sound. The character in question can't use their power in certain ways, or if they do they run the risk of hurting or killing themselves. Mental limits are things that a character could do with their power but don't because it violates their personal code. The psychic who doesn't read other people's minds because it's an invasion of privacy. Mental limits are obviously easier to push past, but doing so might open up an entirely new can of worms. Maybe they become wracked with guilt. Maybe they start questioning the rest of their moral code and start on their way to the Dark Side (so to speak).
For example: I used both physical and mental limits when creating Gremlin. She has the ability to manipulate electricity and electrical fields, which by itself could have a pretty broad application (electromagnetism, weather manipulation, technopathy, and so on). I put a physical block on her by making her ability a subtle and unflashy one. She can't hurl lightning bolts or fly or anything like that. At most, she could manipulate existing electrical phenomena. I wrote an (as of yet unpublished) interlude where she 'pulled' the electrical arc out of a stungun and was able to shape it into a marble-sized bit of ball lightning. Even then, doing so caused electrical burns to her hand. That's pretty much as showy as she can get.
Her mental limit is a bit more interesting. I decided when refining Gremlin for the PPC that she could, with a great deal of focus and effort, manipulate the natural electricity in creatures she happened to be touching. That is, she COULD but WOULDN'T. Despite being a thief and something of rebel, Gremlin isn't a psychopath. Puppeting someone around by their own nervous system, tightening their muscles so hard that their tendons tear and their bones break, stopping their heart with a thought: those are the acts of a lunatic. It's invasive, brutal, and horrifying. The only way I could see Gremlin doing something like that was if her life (or someone she truly cared about) was in imminent mortal danger. Even then, she'd definitely not be okay afterward.
Limits don't just apply to things like superpowers. Certain types of magic might require personal risk or sacrifice, like blood magic or bartering with a demon. Maybe learning certain spells means you can't learn others, in the vein of classic D&D. Chi techniques might require mediation and adhering to strict personal vows like chastity or solitude.
Limits. Know 'em. Get 'em. Use 'em.
The Most Important Rule
Characterization always takes precedence over the power. ALWAYS. If you want to make a metahuman because you think that someone with a certain power would be cool or awesome, you're doing it wrong. Ask yourself if this character really needs a power or an ability.
A method I will sometimes use is I will craft a version of my intended powered character sans powers. The World Prime version of that individual, as it were. Then, knowing what I do about their character from that process, I add in a power. An origin story, as it were (if such a concept applies).
You shouldn't be afraid of creating characters with powers, nor should you automatically be suspicious of OCs with them. It might be easier to slip down the path into Sue or Stu-dom, but it's not a given. The most important thing to remember is to make them a real character, and not just a set of cool abilities.