How to Create a Character

You’ve heard us talk time and time again here on the Toy Photographers blog about the importance of story telling. We enjoy featuring artists like Austin and Joseph who always seem to have a fully developed story behind their photos. Yet I rarely practice what I preach, much less read. So with the #BirdBattle2018 in full swing I thought I might take a more deliberate approach with my half of the battle.

The Inspiration

The other half of this battle, BrickSailboat, has always been great at developing characters in his instagram feed. in fact it is his extended story involving pirates, ninjas and the inhabitants of a sailboat that got me hooked on his feed in the first place. It seems like all his character have interesting backstories. I might not fully understand what they are, but I can feel the depth of his characterization. As I was creating a new set of Chima figures mashed up with Ninjago (#Chimjago) I was wondering what would happen if I created detailed backstories for my figures. Would my imagery be better? Could I create interesting stories and captions like Austin and Law? Could I move away from my reliance on clever literary quotes?

There is only one way to find out!

How to Create a Character

Lucky for me there is plenty on line about how to create interesting literary characters. Much of the advice has to do with physical attributes like hair and eye color, clothing choices and distinguishing marks. I will skip this area because one of the great joys of LEGO is you can mix and match until you find an interesting combination that feels right. In my research I was more interested in what I needed to do to create an interesting backstory. What did I need to do to flesh out my characters from small bits of plastic to full fledged characters we can all root for?

Here are a few of the questions that I can use to create compelling characters:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Job
  • Pets
  • Hobbies
  • Marital status
  • Nervous gestures
  • Temperament
  • Etc…

If I want to dig a little deeper and add complexity to my characters I should consider answering these questions about them:

  • What is his or her driving need or goal?
  • Does this character have a secret, one that if revealed would change our understanding of the character?
  • Is there a contradiction in this characters personality?
  • What is the characters vulnerability?
  • Are there any important memories to be considered?
  • Do my characters have hopes and dreams?

Now that I have the outlines of what it takes to create interesting characters lets see how I apply these ‘rules’ to my own characters. Lets see what happens when you know who these characters are…

Yukio

Yukio is the mischievous young scout for the Chima Clan. He was adopted by the Clan six years ago when they discovered him swaddled in a basket near a trail on one of their periodic treks to the North country. Everyone loves Yukio! He’s always quick to offer a smile or tell you a bad joke. While he frequently wonders what his life would have been like if he had been found by members of his own tribe, he’s grateful for the love and friendship he’s found with his adoptive family.

Yukio’s days are kept busy scouting the perimeter of the Chima lands with his constant companion Rex. They’re forever on the look out for intruders, especially the legendary Aztec Birds. Rumors have been swirling that the Aztecs are on the march and heading towards Chima country. Yukio has been practicing with his bow everyday and he’s ready if those evil birds show up. Even though Yukio still yearns for his native snowy lands, he’s intensely loyal and would do anything to protect his adopted clan…including die in battle.

Einar

Einar is the legendary Swordmaster for the Chima Clan who has lead them to many successful victories. His prowess in battle is as legendary as the armor that he liberated from one of his many combat opponents. Einar’s quick movements and strength bely his advanced age. While Einar never married or fathered a family; he sees the entire Clan as his extended family. One he is prepared to defend with his life.

His most prized possession is his ancient teddy bear. The bear was a gift from his big brother when he was a young child. At those times when life feels overwhelming, Einar will take a walk with his beloved bear and reflect on whats truly important in his life.

Einar has an extensive weapons collection. His weapon of choice is a modified Kama but he also enjoys using his trusty, and versatile Sai. When Einar isn’t leading classes in classic marshal arts training, he can be found taking long walks with his pack of dogs or at the local pub having a drink with friends. If you buy Einar a pint, he will tell you a tale of one of his legendary fights. I will leave it up to you as to whether you believe him or not.

Jina

Jina runs the school for the Chima Clan. She’s a well respected teacher with an inquisitive mind and strong leadership skills. She’s a firm believer that knowledge is as essential for every warrior as the battle lessons they learn from Einar. While Jina is a pacifist she knows that you can’t reason your way out of every disagreement. She believes that diplomacy should always be the first line of defense, and when that doesn’t work knowledge of the enemy is key to victory. She works hand in hand with Yukio and Einar to defend the Clan from outside forces determined to destroy their peaceful way of life.

Jina’s favorite book is The Art of War. This ancient Chinese text, attributed to the brilliant military strategy Sun Tzu, is often used in her lessons for both the tribes Raptor allies as well as young Chima students. While her love of the Art of War might seem a paradox for the peace loving Jina, it aligns with her strong loyalties to her tribe as well as her own sense of honor. Jina loves to relax by boating on the nearby river with her dog Gus.

Conclusion

Can you see how filling out the backstory for your character can bring them to life? Not only for you, but for your audience? Some of these Chima character you’ve probably seen on my G+ or Instagram feeds; or maybe a past blog post. But did you connect with the characters? Or simply admire the pretty pictures? I know in my own mind I had some idea who these character might be. But honestly it wasn’t until I took the time to fill in the backstory, did I begin to truly connect with them. Now as I move into the epic battle of 2018, I have a better understanding of how these character might act.

Have you ever taken the time to create a specific backstory for your own unique characters? If so, did it change your relationship with the character? Or simply bring the character into focus? If you haven’t done this exercise, and creating unique character is something your interested in, I challenge you to do this now.

Maybe you can use some of the ideas I’ve written down and flesh out a back story for your character. If you do, please post the image to either G+ or Instagram and tag me in the comments. Or feel free to leave a link in the comments below. I want to know how you feel about this process and if you think it is a worthwhile exercise. I know I thoroughly enjoyed creating these three character and now I need to work on the other six character destined for Bird Battle 2018.

Thank you for reading and I look forward to seeing (and reading) about your own characters!

Shelly

PS – Now that you know who’s on team Chima, I hope you will root for us when the BirdBattle gets heated! 🙂

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10 Comments

  1. I love this post. Your Chima photos are always a pleasure to see and I love the Chimjago mashup! I really like the idea of creating characters and your backstories add so much to the beautiful images. I’ve got similar stories in mind for my own figures (I have a misunderstood Swamp Monster who is a bit of a foodie) so maybe I’ll be more explicit in telling their stories in the future.

    • Thanks for your comment Stacy; thanks for your kind comments about my photos and crazy character. I cant tell you how happy it made me to finally name these friends and bring their stories to the forefront. I would be interested to see how you feel if you do the same for your Swamp Monster. It sounds like he has a great story to tell!

  2. When I do photos of existing characters (Star Wars figures, for example), I try to keep them mostly in character. Sometimes a figure’s role in a movie is full of action, so I may show action but I may also try to imagine what they’re like when they aren’t in the middle of a battle or whatnot. I’ll show them in a quiet moment, or going for a walk, or picking flowers.

    Sometimes knowing an existing character’s backstory also gives me ideas for doing something out of character for them, for the contrast or the humor of it. Taking a monster character and having them picking flowers is always a fun contrast.

    But the most surprising thing I’ve found about creating characters is that they often surprise me. It’s not so much that I “make something up” about them and then go take a photo. Instead, I put them somewhere, take a photo, and discover something about them that I didn’t know before. They come alive through the lens.

    This happened with a Barbie doll character that I took to Hearst Castle. I knew I was going to call her Emi, but I didn’t know anything beyond that. I was trying to imagine what her personality and background was, and she surprised me with her playful sense of humor. There are a ton of sculptures of classic mythological characters on the grounds of Hearst Castle, and Emi started mimicking the poses of the sculptures as she posed for the camera. It’s one of the most playful toy photoshoots I’ve ever done, and I’m smiling ear to ear right now just remembering her antics.

    All that to say: it can happen either way. We can create a story and then act it out through photos. Or we can take photos and over time begin to know the character as we see them react to their surroundings. Sure, it’s our brain coming up with things both ways, but I will never tire of that creative miracle when a figure goes from being a piece of plastic to something with personality and intention.

    • This is a great comment Teddi! Now if you can just write this up for the blog post we talked about. With all the stories you tell I knew you would have a great point of view on this topic.

      I love your story of Emi, I think we underestimate the ability of our toys to have their own opinions. You can mystical and feel that they have their own personalities, or believe that by playing with these toys they access bits and pieces of our own personalities. Maybe this is why so many people find toy photography so relaxing and therapeutic. Its like we’re doing an end run around our own defenses.

      Thanks for adding this great point of view to an interesting topic.

  3. An under-appreciated subject. Most of my characters have backstories. At the very least I try to imagine how someone got himself in the situation depicted. Then there are a few characters who keep returning in my photos; Dwaas (duh), Willy the one-eyed wizard, The Dark family, Francis, The bookbunny, Unimpressed art-critic, The unlucky bear-hunter, Cool chef, Darryl, etc…. etc… All with their own story. Over the years I’ve come to believe most of them represent some part of my own personality. The thing I’d like to improve is that I’d like to dive deeper into them, show the other sides of them, maybe in the photos, but another option I have for this is the comic.
    Anyway, I know the brilliant work of the Brick Sailboat. By connecting all his images he has the option to develop these characters fast and good. A comic, one picture at a time.
    Dwaas

    • Dwaas, thanks for your awesome comment. Yes I would place you on my list of people who have influenced me to be more purposeful in my stories. I love seeing familiar characters appear in your images and in your comic. It gives your work an original and complex feel. After writing my comment above to Teddi I realized that you’re right – these characters do represent bits and pieces of our own personalities. I know that when Im thinking about my subjects / friends I’m diving deep into my own experiences (both real and fictionalized) to bring them to life. Maybe thats why I love this new stage of my work so much, it helps me to feel better.

      Thanks for being a wonderful member of our growing community!

  4. I love to take existing character’s backstory and flip it around so that they would do the most unexpected thing. If the character is very well known , making them do what is expected makes it a bit predictable. Sometimes, new Lego characters are born because of all the figures that are strewn on my work desk and on slow days, I would steal mix and match them, my latest creation being a pair bickering pair of Aliens on vacation!

    • Sunny you are the master of the unexpected. As a big fan of your style I cant help but be influenced and inspired by your ability to continually surprise me. Someday I will get there! Maybe I too should just drop a bunch of figures on my desk and see what happens. 😀

  5. Great read again, Shelly! You lines remind me of a quote by one of my favourite crime writers, Larry Beinhart: “Character is limitation.” He suggests that when constructing a character, we should also define what they can not do? Is our hero afraid of heights? Then to make your plot exciting maybe get him into a situation where he has to climb a high mountain or tower to achieve his goal. I always liked this concept.

    • Tobias – I love this comment! Thank you for sharing what you have learned yourself. Now I need to think about the characters limitations. This feeds well into a larger project that is brewing in my head. More to think on and ponder. Thank you for joining the conversation!

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