Techniques to Build Your Characters
Characters are the heart of any story. Most readers read because they’re invested in the characters. They want to see how a character reacts to their circumstances and how they succeed in getting what they want.
That means you, as the writer, really need to know your main characters inside and out, which is often difficult.
Whether you need to build a character from the ground up or you have an idea for a character but need to flesh them out more, you might find it helpful to try some character building exercises. So, here are some methods to try:
One of the most straightforward ways to get to know your characters better is to simply outline them.
Writing everything out ensures that you have a well-rounded idea of who your character is and how they interact with their environment and community. It also gives you something to come back to if you ever forget a detail about your character.
Outlines detail your character from head to toe, including information about:
Background Information: full name, nicknames or aliases, titles, job, age, gender, ethnicity, native language, etc.
Appearance: height, weight, hairstyle, eye color, clothing style, etc.
History: major life milestones, tragedies, and successes.
Ambitions: what do they want and what are they willing to do to get it?
Relationships: with family members, friends, mentors, enemies.
Skills: technological knowledge, educational background, magical powers, pickpocketing skills, etc.
These obviously vary from genre to genre.
Quirks: Speech habits, fidgeting, superstitions, etc.
Other Facts: likes, dislikes, fears, strengths, weaknesses, etc.
Stay tuned for a later post containing specific questions for character outlines.
A Day in the Life
Sometimes putting words on a page is not enough. To truly get to know a character, you may need to spend a day in your character’s shoes.
It doesn’t have to be a day. Even a few minutes of acting like your character could give you incredible insight into their thought processes, values, and ambitions.
How do you do this?
While you’re completing a daily task, try performing it as your character would. Consider, for example, cleaning up your room. Would your character procrastinate? Would they finish in ten minutes with an artistic flair? Would they get distracted by everything they find? Perhaps they would begin helping their siblings clean their rooms.
Behave like your character and see what problems arise. Then, react to those problems as your character would.
You might also consider following your character’s quirks. If your character has a catchphrase, use it in your daily conversation. How do people react to it? If your character strikes a conversation with everyone they meet, try doing that.
This can give you a better idea of how your character may interact with the world around them and you may also gain a deeper understanding of why your character is the way your character is.
Find a Source
Sometimes, the best way to create a truly well-rounded character is to have a model. Characters based on real people are bound to seem realistic.
If you know a person you want to base your character off of, get to know them better. Figure out what makes them tick and how they would behave in situations similar to those of your character. If your character reacts the way a specific real person would, the character is more likely to seem coherent and relatable.
If you don’t know the person (i.e. you want to base your character off of a celebrity, a friend’s friend, or someone else you’ve heard of), use what you do know to develop your character.
Importantly, you don’t have to keep every aspect of the person the same in the book. You can certainly change certain personality traits, relationships, or other details, but the goal is to create a character that makes sense. Make sure all your changes connect to the rest of the character in an understandable fashion.
And the best part is, if you change enough details about the person, your source may never even know they’re in the book (unless you tell them, of course).
Additionally, your source does not have to be a real person, although reality is always the best source. Books, movies, TV shows and other media are great sources for characters. While you should never steal an existing character, don’t be afraid to draw inspiration from these sources.
What is your favorite character building technique? Let me know in the comments!