Developing characters is one of those things where everyone has their own method, and it often takes time to find out what works for you. There's no right or wrong way to do it.
Some folks interview their characters, others make lists of key traits, some fill out pre-designed forms with a variety of details, maybe even find photos online of what they look like. One friend of mine creates collages that represent that character, letting her mind find images that feel right to her, then thinks about the kind of person who'd create that collage. Another friend dives deep into the emotional states of the characters and needs to understand how they tick before she can do much with them.
I'm pretty footloose and fancy free when it comes to my characters. I know a few key things about them as I start a novel, but it's usually a few background facts and some general emotional or personality traits. I like to know generally who they are and what they want, since this drives all their actions, but I really learn about who they are during a first draft. I put them into trouble and see how they respond when their beliefs and morals are tested.
For example: for my character, Nya, I knew she had a magical ability that allowed her to shift pain between people, she was an orphan, had a little sister she looked after and would do anything to keep safe, that she struggled every day to survive, was smart, and a good person at heart. She was also practical, impulsive, and had faith that things would get better. I discovered the rest as I wrote her.
Everyone is different, but knowing too much about a character before I write stifles my creativity. I end up trying to make plot fit the character sheet and not letting the character develop organically to the story. I have learned that knowing the emotional aspects works far better for me than knowing the physical, as does knowing some critical moments in their past that have shaped who that character is.
If you're not sure how to create a character, or you're looking for a new way to develop them, try asking a few questions. Start with these, and add (or delete) questions until you find the right balance for your writing process.
1. List five traits for this character.
What are the things that come to mind when you picture this character? Are they physical or emotional? Bits of history or skills? Maybe it's their goal or character flaw? The things that come to mind first are often the core elements of that character, and you can build from there. Nya being practical and impulsive told me how she'd react to things. Her being a good person let me understand what lines she wouldn't cross, or what would have to be at stake for her to cross them.
2. Pick five details that show: their family status, their economic status, their morality, their personality, and their fears.
No matter where your story is set or what genre it is (present day mystery or created-world fantasy), these are elements every character will have. Identifying them will tell you not only about the character, but a little about the world they live in as well.
3. Pick three emotions this character regularly feels.
This can tell you just as much about the story you're creating as the character, as choosing fear, grief, and sadness tells a very different tale than love, hope, and desire. It can also show where you might need to balance a character. If there are no happy (or sad) emotions at all, that could indicate a story that is too one-sided emotionally. It's the emotional ups and down that help characters grow (and draw readers in).
4. Pick the most common way(s) this character reacts to a problem.
In general, people tend to take the easiest path to get what they want. No one wants to work harder than they have to, especially if they're in trouble. But what's easy for you isn't always what's easy for the character. Personality plays a big role in how someone responds to problems. The impulsive character will dive in and act without thinking, while the cautious one will wait, watch, and plan their next move.
Is this character a fighter or a diplomat? A team player or a lone wolf? Would they ask for help or struggle on their own, even if it means failing?
5. Pick three weakness or flaws this character possesses.
Perfect characters are boring, so be sure to give them a few flaws. Not only does it make them feel more real, mistakes are a great way to cause trouble and conflict in the plot. These flaws are also where the character arc typically falls, and overcoming those weaknesses are part of the character's overall growth.
6. Pick three things this character would never do.
It's helpful to know what lines a character won't cross, or where they'd put their foot down and refuse to move forward. Personal morality typically influences this, as does the ethics of the world. It's also a good thing to consider in case you want to make the poor character cross that line at some point in the story.
7. Pick three ways in which this character won't act like themselves.
On the flip side, it's good to consider the contradictions of a character. Everyone has them, but it helps identify the areas where a character is being forced out of their comfort zone, just being quirky, or if the character is being forced to fit plot. Really look at why the character might go against who they are.
8. Pick three ways in which this character will change over the course of the story.
In most novels, characters will change and grow as the story unfolds. Sometimes these changes are huge and the point of the entire book, other times they're small steps with a few minor lessons learned. This can be a good test to see how character driven your story is--large growth can indicate a lot of character development, while little to no growth typically shows a more plot-driven novel.
Now that you've answered the above, try asking/summarizing:
1. What kind of person is this?
2. What are their strengths?
3. What are their weaknesses?
4. What are their flaws?
5. What do they want out of life?
6. What do they fear?
7. What are the key defining moments in their past, both good and bad?
This should give you enough background to either jump in and write, or identify where you want to develop further. One word of warning though--creating a rich backstory can be both a benefit and a curse. You might discover a lot of interesting things about your characters, but you can also lock yourself into people you won't want to change later. Plus, you might find yourself trying hard to get all that "cool stuff" into the story and bogging it down.
For example, I knew Nya's parents died in the war, but no more than that until I got to places in the story where that information became pertinent. History was revealed naturally because I wasn't trying to find spots to tuck in already created backstory, I finalized it as I needed it. It freed me up to write what felt right based on what I knew about Nya and her world.
Of course, you can write yourself into a corner this way, so also be wary of being too free if that's not your nature. You don't want to make up a bunch of wonderful backstory and discover none of it works on the grand scale--or worse--contradicts itself.
Whatever you do, remember that characters are people. They're not 100% anything, and have all the contradictions a real person has. They're wrong sometimes, believe things they shouldn't, and can be total jerks. But they also have great strengths when needed, good qualities that surprise people, and unplumbed depths.
How do you create your characters? Do they start fully formed or as empty shells?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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