Article begins

So, you’ve decided to build a fictional character for your game, novel, or film.

You’re going to need a few ingredients:

1 quart of context,
2 cups of conditions,
3 tablespoons of choices,
and a pinch of empathy (don’t be afraid to go heavy on the empathy).

Obtaining these ingredients is no simple feat. Consider the following tips toward developing a character with depth.

Step one

For context, you’ll need to consider the cultural system in which the character resides. What myth structures was this character born into? What language(s) surround the character’s world? What political and economic structures exist in the culture? What religions exist in this society? In other words, think about the time period and the norms and values of the culture in which the character was born and raised. Don’t forget to consider the cultural interpretations of purity and what the society labels clean and dirty.

Step two

To find the conditions, you must consider the life experiences of the character within the cultural system. For example, if there are three possible religions in your fictional world, which religion is this character? Are they devoted to these beliefs? If so, why? If not, why? What are their personal experiences with gender? What about economics? What does their family look like? What kind of education did they have? Are their parents important people? Pariahs? Think through your character’s backstory within the cultural framework you’ve created. How well do they navigate their own culture and where do they fit in the hierarchy (or lack thereof) in their cultural system? Does your character have any skills or abilities? How are these skills and abilities perceived and treated in their society?

Step three

Once you have obtained your quart of context and your two cups of conditions, choices will be much easier. Contemplate how much agency your character has. How do they present themselves or perform their identity? What kinds of choices are they likely to make? Do they have any emotions that they struggle with? Do they take decisive action? Are they indecisive? How much freedom of movement do they have? If they get themselves into trouble, will they be able to find their way out of it? You will need to decide if your character will change as a result of their choices or if they will stay the same. Or perhaps they begin to change and then retreat into old behavior patterns and choices.

Step four

If you’ve measured the other ingredients correctly, then you can season with empathy to bring out the flavor of your character. What are your character’s strengths or flaws and weakness? What kinds of things stop them from achieving their goals or dreams? What are they passionate about? What do they fear? A good character has realistic flaws that your player or reader or viewer can either understand or relate to on some level. If the character is a villain, understanding their motivations can help your audience to appreciate their complexity. Even if they ultimately don’t like them at all (or even despise them), your audience will enjoy their interesting flavor. If your character is the protagonist, what kinds of things are important to them and how do they plan on achieving them? Don’t make it easy for your character—sprinkle in a little difficulty and failure. Let your audience watch them struggle to achieve victory.

Step five

Once you’ve managed to gather all the ingredients, mix them all in a large bowl. You may find it tough to mix by hand, so go ahead and use whatever tools you find useful, or rather, what kinds of objects and material things are important to your character? If they have a favorite war axe, don’t be afraid to chop at those ingredients with vigor. They enjoy playing a lute, you say? Well, stir with the broken string that would make your character cringe.

Step six

Next, spread the ingredients on a baking sheet, preheat the oven to the temperature most likely to give your character a hard, crusty exterior or a soft underbelly (depending on their temperament), and cook for approximately however long it takes. When you’re finished, consider how the character would like themselves presented to others, and create the appropriate garnish for how they perform their identity.

There you have it, a simple (maybe not so simple) recipe for character creation.


Michael Kilman

Michael Kilman is an anthropologist and author who occasionally travels to other realities and writes about what he discovers. He is coathor of Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers and author of the sci-fi series The Chronicles of the Great Migration.

Cite as

Kilman, Michael. 2022. “How to Build a Complex Character with Anthropology.” Anthropology News website, October 24, 2022.