Characters are more than a list of characteristics. Seems obvious, right? Not so fast. I teach writing classes at two local colleges. We spend a lot of time building characters. Every semester I ask the students to tell me who their characters are and at least one student will tell me about a character's eye color and height. Last I checked, eye color doesn’t say much about who you are.
So, how do we develop the complex, interesting characters who will carry our story?
First, write out a list of those physical characteristics for your main characters – height, weight, etc. You can even include a blanket statement about what your character does for a living. Now, put that list to the side. You need to know these things, of course, but they say very little about who your character is and how they got to be that way.
With the "what do they look like" out of the way, now we can concentrate on the "who" and "why" of these main characters. We need to do that because those are the points that help you determine how your character acts and reacts to events in the books, as well as what he/she thinks and says. To get there, we need a few building blocks.
So, second, I want you to think about your hero, heroine and other main character (the villain or a secondary character who is integral to the plot conflict by either adding to it or helping to resolve it) and for each of those main characters list 6-10 characteristics that describe each of them. Just a simple list, like:
Make sure that you have a mixture of positive and negative characteristics because, really, a perfect character is kind of a boring character. Also, people are complex and rarely just one thing, so your characters need to be complex as well.
Third, now for each of the words on your list, ask yourself why the character has the trait. Add on to your list this way:
This is about history. For example, if you say your hero is honorable, think about why you wrote he word down. The answer is not that he's honorable because he's in the military. That's circular. For this exercise you need to go backwards, to the origin of the characteristic, rather than looking at how the characteristic manifests today. This is the "how did he/she become that way" piece. He's honorable and that sense of honor made him join the military, but the question you answer in this exercise is where that sense of honor came from. Maybe from his military family. Or maybe from having a grifter (con man) for a father and vowing never to be like him. Or maybe from losing his adored older brother in war and wanting to pick up the legacy. You decide the "why" but make sure you know it because it will impact how your character acts and reacts to situations and people as the story progresses.
Your question now may be how you get to the "why" and the answer is easy. You take apart the character's life. We are all a product of our upbringing and the things that happened to us, of everything that came before. The people we meet, the decisions we make, where we were raised, how we were raised - these are just examples. The answers can come from anywhere. The important thing is you know where and why. If you're stuck or not sure, ask yourself the following questions:
1. What was the character like as a kid and what was his/her home life like. You're looking at things like parental relationships, dysfunctional (or not) families, relationships with other kids, and the things that happened to your character (got lost in the woods and had to be rescued or was almost kidnapped or lost a sibling or...whatever).
2. What was the character like in high school and what, if anything, happened that affected how he/she viewed the world. This is the point where your character started making grown-up decisions about sex, life, work and a whole host of other issues. Knowing what your characters were like and why they made the decisions they did, and how those decisions then defined their lives, helps you figure out who they are today as grown-ups.
3. What were the character's choices once he/she was out in the world - college, work, military, etc. These are the professional choices. What were they and why were they made.
4. Where is your character right now? Chris Vogler refers to this in his book, Hero's Journey, as the character in his/her ordinary world. But go deeper in terms of analyzing this point. If where they are now is a change from where it looked like they were going in numbers one through three, then know why they changed. If they have followed the course set from number one – and just imagine that person who is unrelenting and always knowing what they want – and figure out what it would take to knock them off course and what doing that would do to your character.
5. Where does your character "think" he/she wants to go next? This is different from number four in that it's totally forward-looking. It's about the character's goals and dreams. This one can easily change, and likely will during the course of your story. A heroine drops into a hero's life and all those perfect plans go to haywire. A villain moves onto the scene and whatever the heroine thought her life would be is no longer possible. But before you start changing and adding conflict, have a good idea where the character thinks his/her life is going.
This list of characteristic and historical events/backstory are the building blocks of character. From these, you can SHOW (as opposed to TELL) your reader who these people are through actions and dialogue and the choices they make rather than through telling words like "he's honorable" which means something but doesn't really allow the reader to invest in your characters on an emotional level. When you know how your characters came to be who they are, you not only create deeper characters but you also open up new paths for plot conflict and develop your backstory.
Now you're ready for plotting!
To learn more about Helen Kay Dimon, her compelling characters and her books, visit her website. her most recent books are Fearless and Ruthless.