When an author is struck by a bolt of inspiration for their next “bestseller,” it’s often accompanied by character ideas. A lot of my story ideas are based around characters I would like to write about, personalities that I want to stick into certain situations just to see how they are going to act. But it’s important to learn as much as possible about a character before you start writing about them. Note that I said “learn,” not “make up.” You can’t tell people how to react. For example, you cannot tell your boss he isn’t going to be annoyed that you just spilled coffee all over his urgent paperwork. It’s the same for characters in your books. How they react is all about how you develop them while they are still budding ideas, barely on paper. This article is a short piece on creating and developing compelling characters.
When I have an idea for a new character, I try and name them as soon as possible. A good name is everything. Not only will it endear the character to readers, it will help make them feel “real.” Once you have named your character, they will start to take form in your mind; they won’t be just a thought any more. A name is also important for the character’s impact on the story. If you name your rough and tough biker Ichabod Osmond Nadeir, then he is going to get some strange looks. Perhaps that’s why he always introduces himself as Ion, his nickname. Personally, I like to know what my characters’ names mean. In this instance, Ichabod means, “the glory is gone.” The nadir is the lowest point of an object. However, Osmond means ‘divine protector’ and Ion is an ancient Greek hero born of the Sun god Apollo. This man must have a hard past and an interesting future.
Once your character has a name, you’re ready to start fleshing them out. I always start with their past as it’s what makes them who they are now. Look at the character’s life prior to the beginning the story. Look at their parents, their birth, how they were raised, where they were raised. Did anything important happen when they were young? A few years ago I created a profile template, which I use for my characters to this day. It’s about five pages long and it’s a great point of reference if I get stuck. It has the basic questions like “Who is their Best Friend?” But it also has some more interesting questions like, “What is their favourite food?” and, “Their most hated colour?” While these little questions might never be mentioned in your novel, they will make the character much more alive in your eyes. Take the time to create your character’s past, as it’s probably their most important aspect. Go into as much detail as you are able. Remember that you don’t have to mention all, if any, of their past in your story. A detailed past simply allows them to be a more rounded character in the present.
Now that your character has a past, they should appear visually in your mind. As such you can now write down what they look like. Has their past scared them? Remember that both mental and physical scars appear visually. A mental scar could be seen in the way he regards his world through stone cold eyes while physical scars are much more obvious. Note the clothes he wears and how he wears them. Don’t forget the basics like height, weight, hair colour etc.
Personality is another aspect that is heavily based on the past of the character. This is a good place to discover if they have any obvious mannerisms or quirks. How your character has reacted in the past is going to dictate how they react in the future. If they hated apples in the past, they are going to hate them now. That is, unless you introduce a new stimulus. That stimulus could be the cute young thing tempting him to try them. One bite of the crunchy skin confirms his suspicions that apples are still horrible, but he never could resist a pretty face.
Your character now has a base for starting their journey through your story. It’s time to ask them what they want of their future. These are their drives, what they are striving for and just how far they are willing to go to get it. How would they react if someone told them no and how do they get along with other people? A great research tool is a written set of questions you ask friends and family. Ask them how would they react if they were attacked by zombies? Or if they were betrayed by a close relative? Their answers may surprise you. Someone seemingly mild mannered may react in a way totally contradictory to their outward personality. It’s great to ask them why they answer that way. These resources can give you different perspectives. A mother can be very calm as an everyday character, but threaten her child and watch the claws appear.
The fourth aspect you need to think about when creating a character will not be included in the actual book. It’s in the mind of the reader. As a writer, you need to know how a reader will respond emotionally to certain situations, and know how those emotions will change as the plot moves forward in your story. How you write your character will affect how the reader feels about them. If you write a man who is mean, arrogant, and generally dislikeable, then it’s no surprise when he doesn’t win any popularity contests. Don’t forget that every reader is different. There’s a character in my second novel that one person I know loves, while another friend absolutely hates her. Once again, it’s great to listen to each friend’s opinion on this. It will help you understand how readers think. In this case, the character has a very strong personality and is quite mean to the main character of the series. The friend who hates her doesn’t like how she treats the main character, while the friend who likes her adores her tough attitude.
While characters are one small aspect of a novel, they are one of the most important ones. Your story may be set in an amazing universe, told with an awesome writing style, but if your characters are flat, you won’t connect with your reader. Overall, the best advice I can offer is don’t stop talking to your characters. They know what they want and what they are willing to do. If you ever get stuck and are having trouble moving your story forward, just stop and ask your character what they are going to do. At times, their answer is something you don’t want to hear. I have one character I write about at the moment who loves to ruin my plans because she wants to do something other than what I have written. But it’s always better. Had I forced her otherwise, the story would stall and become flat.
When writing characters, remember that while you may start the story by telling them what to do, by the end you will find they are telling you. Listen well and your story will have characters that can stand on their own feet. Then you are free to sit back and watch them walk themselves into the sunset.