If asked what makes a good story, a lot of people would answer, good characters. We like to read about people we can empathise with or despise. A good character is one that balances detail and depth with realism and believability. The biggest pitfall to avoid is creating characters that are stereotypes or caricatures.
If you’re lucky, your characters will present themselves to you fully developed, but you may have to work at exploring the depths of their personality and fleshing them out. Either way, the chances are, you’ll want to keep track of all those ideas you have in some kind of character profile.
You might start with the vital statistics of appearance, height, weight, hair and eye colour etc, but what else do you include?
People are strongly defined by their relationships, be it family relationships, friendships or romance. Relationships have a formative effect on how someone’s personality develops, so ask yourself things like; what was my character’s relationship with his mother like? Did he have any siblings? How many girlfriends has he had and did those relationships end badly?
The more you understand about your character’s past relationships, the more you will understand how they will react to people and form new relationships in your story.
Physical and verbal habits can be a really useful way of giving your character an identity on the page. Particular gestures or turns of phrase can create a visual impression for the reader which stays with the character and encourages a sense of familiarity, and it can convey certain personality traits and emotions.
A character with a habit of ending their sentences with tag questions would come across uncertain or alternatively aggressive depending on the context.
Of course you want to avoid over using this, or having a character entirely defined by their habits.
Nobody is perfect and your characters shouldn’t be either. Make sure you know what their flaws are, be it a propensity towards jealousy, or not trusting in their own abilities. These flaws are going to play a big part in your story as they hamper your character in their pursuit of their goals.
Think also about which flaws you want to address in the course of the story and which will remain static traits.
While it is often hard to put into words, it is worth attempting to write a description of your character’s personality. What are their defining character traits? How do they react to difficult situations? Are they selfish or generous, reckless or sensible, emotional or calculating?
There are some personality type tools/questionnaires on the web which can provide an interesting exercise. Try answering as your character and see what you can learn. Here’s one you can try – Free personality test by iPersonic.
Often you may find you need to get to know your character. This is part of the process of drafting your story. You will know your character better by the time you have finished writing than when you started, so make sure to take advantage of this when you go back over the story to edit.
Another tool to use to get to know your character is to write short stories or flash fiction pieces about them. Write about the day they started their job, or the tenth birthday party where they developed their fear of clowns. It all gets you thinking and feeling like your characters and the more you do, the more they will flow onto the page as real and engaging people.
There is no limit to how much detail you put into your character profiles, or how much time and effort you spend developing their background and voice with practice pieces. But, don’t make the mistake of thinking all that detail needs to make it into the final story. Doing this extra work is not a way to provide more material for your story, it is a process through which you come to know your characters so well that you can create real, believable, multifaceted people for your readers to meet