I love building characters, probably because I love finding people, discovering them. You know when you’ve known someone for years, but then suddenly in an intimate moment or a sudden action, you see them in an entirely new way? They open themselves up to you, maybe in a deep conversation over coffee or maybe just through a look from the corner of the kitchen, and for the first time you are seeing who they are. Those moments are so magical to me. I search for them everywhere. We really do all have interesting stories to tell, stories that are always changing, developing. People are unpredictable and contradictory. I’ve always found the adage “Be yourself” annoying. Who are we, anyway? I’m not the same person I was yesterday, and I’ll probably be a different person a minute from now. Accepting the innate dynamism of people means accepting it in your characters. Some writers see characters as very separate entities, that is, they don’t see them as people. And true, you might not see a living, breathing grouchy Mr. Smith walking through your neighborhood grocery store…but then again, you do. Make your characters believable. Be honest when you write. Write people.
Of course, this is a lot easier said than done. But if you’re a writer, you’re probably already interested in creating characters that are relatable and that matter. Please do not create cookie-cutter people, even if it’s easier. Avoid the ditzy friend and the smart guy and the goth girl. These characters signify amateur writing. People are multidimensional. Sticking your characters in a box makes them unrealistic, inhuman. Take risks with your characters. Let them be more than one thing. After a lot of practice, you’ll find that your characters don’t need to be identified or marked by a single trait. You’ll know them, you’ll see them. You will have really gotten to know them. You will have reached that thrilling moment when suddenly, they are alive.
Stephen King scoffs at too much character development in On Writing, suggesting that focus should be on moving the story along and keeping the reader engaged. In thrillers and mystery novels like that of Mr. King, characters mainly serve as a vehicle to tell the story. Pacing and having an interesting, worthwhile plot are clearly major concerns. However, I tend to disagree with Mr. King (without disregarding his talent and skill) on the importance of filling out characters. There is no excuse for flat characters.The story is important, but if I don’t buy into the person telling it, credibility is lost and I close the book. In order to care about the story, I have to care about the people. You know The Da Vinci Code? Fascinating book. Main character Robert Langdon? Perhaps the most boring and most obvious example of I’m-just-using-this-guy-to-tell-you-all-the-cool-facts-I (the author)-know. I urge you. Don’t be that guy. Give the world someone they’ll remember, like Mrs. Dalloway or Harry Potter.
How do you do that? Character questionnaires are a good way to get started. When I first started asking myself preliminary questions about new characters, I realized just how little I knew about my old ones. Now, I strive to know as much of my characters as possible. As a writer, I feel it is my responsibility; I owe it to my reader. I also find these questionnaires to be incredibly exciting and, gosh darnit, fun. The two links above provide sets of questions that deal with everything from employment to family history to biggest fears. Try them out. Don’t feel like you have to answer everything. You aren’t going to tell the reader all of this information, but knowing it as you write will help shape your characters into real people with thoughts, feelings, pasts and futures. When you feel good about this character sketch, write exactly how their living space looks. Write a brief biography of their life up to this moment.
The number one rule for any writer, especially when it comes to creating characters: observe. Be very aware of the people around you. How do they interact with their environment? Can you read their emotions just by looking at their face? Do they play with their hair? Body language? Tone of voice? Any habits they are trying to kick? What draws you to someone? What pushes you away? Any speech patterns? How do the physical things you observe reflect personality?
As important as it is to get to know your characters, don’t get bogged down in these exercises. Your characters will develop and change as your story unfolds. Get a good plan of who this person is in mind, and then get ready for it to change. When you feel your character going down a different path, don’t try redirecting them to the first. We writers are only hold so much control, believe it or not.
So go create someone! Let them tell you, and the world, something meaningful.