Compelling characters are a crucial part of any good book. Characters stand out to readers, and memorable ones have a habit of staying around long after the cover of the book has been closed. As writers, we want make sure our characters are vivid and three dimensional–they should feel like real people.
Personally, developing characters is one of my favorite aspects of planning a book, but it’s also one of the most challenging. Crafting a life-like and unique fictional character is no small feat. Over the years, I’ve encountered some methods to help develop the figures in my stories, and and I wanted to share a few of those today.
1. Character Profile Sheet
It’s as straightforward as it sounds. Compile a list of questions about everything you need to know to regarding a character’s appearance, personality, mannerisms, outlook on life, and past. For example, part of the section on their personality might look like this:
What is their love language?
How to they react to criticism?
What are some adjectives to describe their personality?
My list is fairly extensive (5 pages), but use whatever length is most helpful for you. This is a simple way to get the essential, bare bones description of a character. Plus, I find it’s a useful reference for making sure I stay consistent in my facts about them. Having a solid picture of the key aspects about a character is necessary before fleshing them out any further.
2. Aesthetic List
I learned this technique from an author on YouTube, and she described it as getting to the soul of a character. This idea is to poetically write down the items, moments, and images that seem to embody the essence of your character. Think of it like a mood board in written form. Because this one is better shown than explained, here’s a sample for Scar Hawksbury, one of my characters from The Selethar.
Paints smudges on your fingers.
Pulling your sleeves over your hands.
A single feather falling to the ground.
Wrapping your hands around a cup of tea.
Crying over a really good book.
I find this really helps me get the “feel” of each character. An alternative way is to do this on Pinterest with images, but getting distracted on the internet is always the danger there, and then I don’t get the benefit of articulating these things in words. So, I would suggest utilizing both approaches vs. one over the other.
Part of what makes humans so complex is the fact that they’re walking, talking contradictions. Sometimes it’s simply interests that appear opposite at first glance (an intensely logical computer programmer who’s also passionate about meditation, martial arts, and tai chi), or perhaps their normal tendencies don’t hold true when applied to one area.
A great example of the last type is Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. For a young woman who’s usually so perceptive about others, the reader sees her fail at this when it becomes more personal. It seems to contradict the typical acuity she displays, but it actually provides depth and realism to her character (along with an interesting plot point).
Or, consider Ender Wiggin from Ender’s Game. He’s a small, young boy who’s brilliant. However, he’s also a fighter, a leader, and a tactician. Combine his apparent confidence in his own intelligence and ability to protect himself with his fear of becoming cruel and powerful like his older brother. Suddenly, that atypical mixture of traits creates a unique, believable character.
This tool of contradictions guards against filling your story with flat, one-note people. In my experience, when I start exploring the contradictions and unexpected aspects of their personality, my characters will really begin to shine.
In music, phrasing goes hand in hand with how you want a passage to be communicated. In writing… well, it’s pretty much the same. Getting into the mind of a character enough to know how they would say something is a big part of solidifying their personality on the page.
Figuring out what words they would choose, how their personality would determine the tone, and what they would focus on will give a strong sense of who they are. Beyond that, it will also help readers understand the character without simply describing them. It allows the characters to display themselves in their own words.
For example, let’s say another person unexpectedly shows up again in the character’s life. How they question what the person’s motive is can reveal quite a bit about the character.
“What are you doing here?”
“What do you think you’re playing at, showing up here like this?”
“Why did you come back?”
“I don’t know what you want, but I really don’t think you should have come.”
It’s a simplistic example, but each phrasing communicates something slightly different about the character’s emotions and personality. It ties back to the old adage “show, don’t tell.” Telling has it’s purpose, but showing what a character is like through their words and actions is often far more effective than repetitively reminding the reader.
One concern that always seems to crop up is wanting to make my characters likable. Not merely that they have good, admirable attributes, but they’re all-around winning. Of course writers want their readers to empathize and adore the main characters. It’s hard to keep a story going if the MC is unbearable and readers end up wanting them to fail.
However, the issue arises when this leads to either extreme of toning down or intensifying a character. Water down the people in your books too much and they become forgettable. Bland even. Crank up a character’s personality too much and you end up with an obnoxious caricature.
So, this last tool boils down to two things.
- Know your own tendencies when creating.
Do your characters lean more to the side of bland or annoying? How can you balance them out?
2. Write your characters to be authentically themselves and human.
When I think about my favorite characters, many of them have vivid personalities, but they’re also balanced out and made human. People aren’t just one thing, and neither are they perfect. It’s good to write characters with a strong natures so long as they’re also given depth. Don’t blur the lines between good and evil, but also remember that people contain both strengths and weaknesses.
To sum it up, I’ve discovered that my best characters are born when I write ones that reflect an understanding of and compassion towards humanity. I hope a few of these tools helped you.