Creating characters is so much more than just deciding what they look like!
(Transferred and updated from my author website.) I’d like to talk a little bit about creating characters and the process I use to flesh out a character. How deeply I dive into it depends on what character I’m developing. Some of the information that I cover may differ depending on the genre. For example, the kinds of things you might need to know about your character in a romance novel may be quite different from the kinds of things you might need to know about a character in a thriller. And these things aren’t all necessary on the page, but they are things that you should know about them in your mind or in your outline because it helps to inform what kinds of decisions they’ll make, what their actions are, what makes them tick.
I have a detailed character development process that’s divided into sections: Personal Details, Physical Appearance, Likes/Dislikes and Other Miscellaneous Things, Theory of Misbelief, What They Want, What They Need, and then some super detailed stuff that I’ll get into in just a bit. Some of these things were sparked from craft books, like Save the Cat Writes a Novel, and some from fellow thriller author Becca Day, but I essentially created a character development sheet (or sheets, let’s not kid ourselves) that works for me. These sheets are available for FREE when you sign up for my newsletter!
So, the first thing I do is cover the basics: name, birthdate, physical appearance, immediate family members, where they live, are they married, do they have kids, what their job is, etc. I’ll even get right down to details like what kind of car they drive or if they still live in the same area they grew up in. The details that you reveal in the book should be ones that have some sort of place in the story. So for example, you might want to note that your character has a tattoo or a scar in a certain area—if that’s going to come up at some point later on in the story or if it’s pertinent to their personality. Maybe if it’s a tattoo, they got it for a certain reason, which can tell us something about them. The details that you reveal on the page should be specific and meaningful to the plot. Some could be used as clues.
You might want to know what their favourite colour is, if they’re a morning person or a night owl, their least favourite drink, etc. You might want to know miscellaneous things like have they ever broken a bone. If you’re coming up with a character who’s going to be running in a race of some kind, they may have had a break occur when they fell out of a tree as a kid, and now they get an injury that could re-break that bone since it’s already not 100%. Other miscellaneous things are—are they close with their family members? Have they ever had surgery? What are they scared of? Do they like to travel? Do they have aversions to foods or smells, do they have hobbies?
So, all of these things might seem mundane at first—and remember, the point isn’t to tell your reader what all of these things are. You need to know your character inside and out. The more deeply you know them, the more authentic they will be on the page. Working through a character development sheet is a really great way to do that.
Consider the image below. What do you notice? If your character has a scar down the side of his face, there needs to be a reason it’s there; otherwise, why bother including it? The scar would likely give the reader a clue as to why he is the way he is; perhaps he was involved in a fight with a group of mobsters and wants to get revenge against the leader. Or maybe he’s a secret agent out on a rogue mission because he wants to assassinate the guy who killed his lover and left him for dead—the only failed mission on his track record and the reason why every agency is after him. Who knows? But the scar is a key feature of his character development, and it can say a lot about his past and why he behaves in certain ways. When you’re pointing out a feature like this, be intentional and make sure there’s a plot-related reason for it. Pro tip: only allude to the scar in a casual manner; a subtle hint dropped in at a point where either he’s irritated by it if he’s the POV character or where another POV character is noticing it. Bring the details behind the scar in later when it matters significantly to the plot.
Now we get into the nittier, grittier stuff. Something that your character must have in the story is a flaw. A misbelief about themselves. Something that holds them back from reaching their true potential. This is an internal struggle they have about themselves that’s preventing them from reaching their goal, and it’s going to help inform their character arc. If you’re a Save the Cat follower, you’ll recognize this as the Shard of Glass. If you’re a Lisa Cron follower, you’ll recognize this as the Third Rail, which is essential in a story; all external circumstances must come into contact with it in order to build tension and a character arc. So, you should know things like how and when did this flaw start? What happened to give them this misbelief? How does it affect their relationship with others? Or their work? Or their view of the world? How does it affect their personality? How do they deal with stressful times that trigger this misbelief? Is it a secret from others? What physical habit might they have as a coping mechanism? And—very importantly—how do the external circumstances of the plot affect the internal struggle(s) of your main character? With each plot point that occurs, your character’s inner struggle must be affected, elevated, and moved forward with tension.
And then of course, you need to know what they want. What’s your character’s desire or goal? This is the thing that the character thinks will make them happy and solve their problems—but it may or may not be the thing they need and get at the end of the novel. How do they plan to get what they want? What stands in their way? In addition, you need to know what they actually need. As I mentioned, this may or may not be the same thing as what they want. What do they need to realize about themselves to reach the goal? When do they come to understand this? What’s stopping them? How is this related to them getting what they want?
Now we get into the most detailed stuff. These are things that you may or may not wish to do. There’s no right or wrong way to develop a character, but the thing to keep in mind is, the more you know your character, the more you can understand what their motivations are, and the more authentically they will be presented on the page.
So, with that said, let’s talk about a few other more detailed ways you can get to know your characters.
You can do an Enneagram personality test or a Myers Briggs personality test. I won’t get into everything that they cover, but I’ve found both of them to be fairly accurate personality tests based on people I know, so it should be no different when creating a character. With either of these tests, after you know their basic details and a little bit about them, you can go really deep into their personality to find out all kinds of interesting details about what makes them who they are—habits, tells, emotions, things they struggle with internally and how they might portray that externally, etc. So you can find these websites at www.enneagraminstitute.comand www.myersbriggs.org.
The other thing you can do, and I just find this super fascinating, is pull up a birth chart or natal chart from astrology websites like Café Astrology or Astro.com. Now, these are not your typical horoscopes—these go way past horoscopes. These dig down deep into a personality based on the positions of the planets and stars in the sky at the exact moment of birth. And they’re REALLY interesting, so I encourage you to try it out on yourself and see what it says about your own personality.
The aspects of the planets and other objects in the sky and what they can mean for a person’s personality and characteristics and life path are so fascinating and accurate. You can get surface-level details, which are still more detailed than just a regular horoscope, but you can also get sucked down into a rabbit hole because there is a lot of information out there on this stuff. But basically, you can get a fairly accurate look at who your character is in all the different facets of their life. And from that, you can pull out the details that really speak to you and use them to craft your character.
One other thing that is super interesting is the use of tarot cards. I used to do readings here and there, but it isn’t something I’ve practised recently. Even if you don’t believe in tarot or are unsure how it works, it can still be an interesting way to help build your characters. I recently read an article on Jane Friedman’s website by author, book coach, and tarot reader Margaret McNellis. But this article takes us through a simple 3-card pull that can help define your character. Go ahead and give it a shot! It’s fun to do and makes you think and interpret and reflect.
So these are just some of the ways that you can use to build your characters. They can really help you determine what their deepest fears are, what’s their core motivation, what job they might have, how they behave in social situations, how they behave romantically, what personality types or astrological signs they get along with—or not, and all kinds of other useful information.
The last thing I do is answer a whole whack of interview questions—from my character’s perspective. As in, I answer as if I was them. Sounds silly? Maybe. But I’ve found it really, really interesting because sometimes your character’s answers can be a lot different—or more detailed—than if you were to answer them from your perspective. Try it! I have about fifty questions that I use, sometimes I change them out for other ones that come up if I find I’m not using some of them.
If you do anything like this when you’re developing your characters, I’d love to hear how you approach it! Let me know on Twitter @FoxxEditorial.