Whoever invented LEGO® blocks understood that there is a little world-builder in every kid, one who needs only a simple but intriguing set of materials to create something amazing. Anyone who has ever built a LEGO® creation knows how satisfying it is to fit those pegged blocks together while figuring out the construct. The best part is the creation never has to be permanent; you can use the same blocks over and over to make new worlds.
The same is true of storytelling. Words are our building blocks, and they can be sorted and combined and recombined to form an infinite number of characters, plots and worlds. Because we all build according to our imaginations we don't need a new set of construction materials every time we start a story. You can give the same set of words or story ideas to ten writers, and you'll get back ten different creations.
Today I'm going to apply some LEGO® logic to our characters. As with everything in the story, they are created from a series of components that when fitted together form a person. Here I've put together a little male protagonist, aka Our Hero. At first glance he seems like a happy if somewhat fashion-challenged dude. Irish, likes green, needs a shave. We'll call him Lucky, which he really won't be.
Lucky is made up of very specific parts: physical characteristics, personality, personal talents, intelligence, experience, etc. If we were to sort these character components into four major groups using the word LEGO as our inspiration, we might call them this:
Liabilities -- the flaws, limitations and other aspects of the character that in some way handicap or hinder.
Extras -- the assets, talents and other aspects of the character that in some way help or facilitate.
Goals -- any or all of the character's desires and ambitions.
Obstacles -- that which stands between the character and the goals.
Naturally characters are much more complex than this, but to create them you can use these four categories as a starting place or foundation on which you can build. Let's look at Lucky again and sort him out according to our LEGO categories:
Liabilities: he doesn't blend in too well in our world. He has problems relating to other people. He seems over-confident, probably because he relies on magic to deal with his problems.
Extras: he's cute, which makes everyone think he's harmless. When people see him they think they've found a treasure. As long as his magic hold ups, he's financially independent.
Goals: Lucky wants to hang on to his wealth, meet a nice Irish girl and settle down somewhere at the end of the rainbow.
Obstacles: Girls don't take him seriously. Everyone else thinks they're entitled to his gold and are constantly hunting for him. The magic that he's always taken for granted is about to fail him.
Lucky wouldn't be much of a protagonist without some challenges, so he needs this guy: our antagonist, Gruesome. As dark as Lucky is light, Grue is a scowling, black-hearted fully-armed disaster waiting to happen. Grue doesn't much like Lucky, and he'll be happy to relieve him of that beanpot of gold, his hat and, if Lucky stands still long enough, his head.
But why is Grue such a bad guy? He's made up of the same parts as Lucky; his are just different:
Liabilities: Grue has an attitude problem, a rotten temper and a terrible case of perpetual halitosis.
Extras: He has a sword of unimaginable power, a lair filled with minions, and black magic.
Goals: Lucky's gold, Lucky's magic and any girl Lucky manages to snare.
Obstacles: No one is ever happy to see Grue. His armor is one size too small. The minute he opens his mouth everyone runs.
Lucky will have to deal with Grue, but he may also have another character running major interference in his life. For some of us that's a secondary protagonist like Hilda here. Don't let her easy smile or silly costume fool you; she's a tough chick. As the third side of a story character triad Hilda brings her own personality to the table. She may be Lucky's polar opposite, but you can be sure that on some level she has a bond with her fellow protagonist -- even if the only thing they have in common is not liking Grue.
I'd sort out Hilda like this:
Liabilities: Hilda's had her heart broken so she doesn't trust anyone. Her suspicious nature borders on paranoid. She's so broke she's agreed to wear a silly costume and dance on the side of the road to make rent money.
Extras: Hilda is honest and compassionate. The costume she puts on endows her with magical abilities. Using her last buck she buys a ticket that has the winning numbers for PowerBall.
Goals: To get over herself, find a nice guy worthy of her trust and get season tickets for the opera.
Obstacles: Grue's lust, Lucky's gold, and her own fear of commitment.
Too many main characters muddle a story, so to flesh out your cast you're going to need secondary characters. Our girl Fanny here is one of the support cast that make up the other people in the story. Because she's not created to occupy center stage she won't own as much of the story as your main characters, but she's surprising adaptable to any number of roles; she can be anyone from Lucky's ex-squeeze to Grue's minion. She may be in the story to be Hilda's best friend or worst enemy. The key to figuring Fanny (and the rest of the support cast crew) is to build her according to your main characters' and story's needs, using the same LEGO logic to figure out what her components are.
Liabilities: Fanny has no self-esteem. She uses hostility to hide her vulnerability. She has terrible taste in men.
Extras: She's smart, resourceful and loyal.
Goals: She wants to be loved, respected and cherished, first by Grue and then (after he dumps her) by Lucky.
Obstacles: Grue's evil plans, Lucky's gold, and her BFF Hilda, whom she's never really liked.
No matter how you build your characters, or how many you put into your story, there is always one who is in the middle of everything. One who calls all the shots, finalizes all the decisions and makes or breaks the story. One who knows everything about the characters including the stuff no one else knows. Your first reader, your first editor, and your storymaster all rolled into one. A presence that should always be there but never be noticeable: the storyteller, you.