Character formulation

Liam McGann

Having observed the comments on several authors’ groups it became apparent that character formulation commands the attention of many writers. So when the BOTR editors reminded me that I still hadn’t written a blog for the web-site, I thought it might be a good idea to share one of the techniques I use to create characters with depth, without having to do a massive amount of work to achieve this challenging requirement.

The system I use is based on a Chinese principle, which gives templates far less complex than astrological profiles, but allows for a framework that easily makes distinctions between different characters apparent. Basically, it’s a three part profile – one has an initial identity, a communications capacity and a lifestyle/tendency. All these are based on a system which features natural energies. It sounds complicated in the abstract, but it’s not so in practice. It also allows the author to have insights into the relationships between characters as there are inner and outer energy patterns which allow for varied combinations. 

The second paragraph above is a good example of ‘tell don’t show,’ which any author will recognise as the antithesis of what we need when writing – so let’s switch to ‘show don’t tell,’ one of the fundamental principles of effective creative writing. Here is an example:


Character 1 – 

Identity – represented by earth in its mountain form

A mountain is curious, especially about knowledge, persistent, opinionated, loves the idea of wealth accumulation, is adventurous, wilful, hates external authority, is tenacious, revolutionary, self motivated, self indulgent, ambitious, obstinate and energetic.

Even with this basic group of ideas, one can see the foundation for a specific character, but it gets more interesting when we add the other elements to the mix

Communications – represented by Fire

Fire energy in communication allows for foresight (these people do a great deal of thinking before they speak); but can be impulsive when they’re challenged. There is intelligence and creativity in this element so expect that they’re going to be coming out with some ideas and statements that others might find strange or even a little weird. Fire can be still as in embers, so they might keep their ideas to themselves for long periods, but when they flare, they can be quite stormy and emphatic – and blaze away about subjects which interest them. There is flamboyance in how they communicate, quite a bit of charisma, and they’re excellent at communicating enlightened aspects of the human condition.

Add this domain to the identity energy and we already have quite a complex character; when the third element is added there is a further addition to the overall profile.


Lifestyle/tendency – represented by wood/wind

This third domain relates to lifestyle preferences, likes, dislikes and how life pans out in actual action. Wood, in its wind jacket, shows a person who has a great deal of care and concern for others, a kind of tenderness. It is also impulsive, adaptable, changeable, creative, scattered and moody. In the lifestyle position we see people who are better at dealing with change than others might be, adventurous and welcoming new experiences and life opportunities. The opposite of this though is that decision making is a real challenge. Calendars and diaries are not the preserve of ‘fours,’ they tend to be flotsam and jetsam, spontaneous and impulsive.


So, these elements combined give us quite a complex character and this is a useful tool for those of us who wish to create a little more depth to our characters and maintain some notion of integrity throughout a plot line. We can always pose the question ‘What would my character do in a given situation?’ by referring to the profile – it acts as a guide and keeps us on track. Our character has integrity because we always have a road map that allows us to handle its responses to real life experiences in a consistent way. If we need our character to grow and/or change, we can also use the profile as a guide to exactly how this might be managed. 

I shall add to this blog at a later date and comment on relationships, and how profiles allow for a simple but sophisticated way of guiding conduct between others in our story lines.

If you have any queries or would like to ask questions please use the web-site address and I shall be pleased to respond. Liam Mcgann.