“We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files, We’d like to help you learn to help yourself.”
-Simon & Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson”
Characters make the story. You can have a wonderful tale, but unless there is someone (or something if it’s some sort of fable/fantasy-like work) then it’s difficult for the reader to relate or get lost in the world. It’s like putting a face to someone, but not really because you’re reading. We all know people love to compare their lives to other people: fictional, biographical, celebrities, dancing celebrities, random people stuffed onto an island or into a house, and so on.
Weather it is a book character, a real person, someone who is to be portrayed on the silver screen, or an individual a song is about, the readers or audiences need to feel for this character. They need to love them, hate them, feel sympathy, wish misfortune, laugh at and with them, question their actions, and do everything else you probably feel for a real-life family member or peer.
I created a template for my writing that helps me develop characters. One of the enjoyable things that guides me, though it may seem tedious, is giving every character a complete background even if they’re minor and it never comes into play during the story. It helps you understand why they act a certain way, why they speak a certain way, and also assists in writing the character with consistency throughout. Here’s a list of what is on the template:
CHARACTER: Their name or what they’re referred to as in the story. Ex: ‘John Smith’ or ‘Waitress’.
ROLE/OCCUPATION: Depending on genre and format. Ex: Male Lead/Data Analyst
HERITAGE: Even if they’re American, everyone’s family is from somewhere. Ex: English-Irish
RELIGION/POLITICAL: Two controversial character traits, especially in reality. Ex: Catholic/Independent
AGE/APPEARANCE: A vague range works. Ex: Late-20’s/Casual attire, lanky, brown/green (hair and eyes), curly hair, manicured beard, glasses, walks with a slight limp that is barely noticeable.
PERSONALITY: Don’t be afraid to use that Psych 101 material. Ex: Loaner, always rushed, doesn’t sleep much, hypochondriac.
POWER/ATTRIBUTE: Everyone is great, good, or at least average at something. Ex: Math and reading binary code (this can also be used in super-fiction or fantasy as a character’s abilities or powers).
FLAW: Nobody, I mean NOBODY is perfect. Ex: Gets nervous in public settings, stutters speech (this can also be used in super-fiction or fantasy as what can take down a character, like kryptonite).
QUIRK: Mannerism or vocal oddity that separates them from other characters. Ex: Always repositioning glasses.
BACKGROUND: This part can get fun. Ex: Single, every girlfriend he’s had has cheated on him, middle child, parents divorced later in their lives, older sister is married with four kids, younger brother is married with two kids, never participated in athletics, played the clarinet growing up.
GOAL/PURPOSE: They must have a point. Ex: Overcome nerves and unravel a family secret.
FIRST DESCRIPTION/APPEARANCE: Chapters or page numbers. Ex: Ch. 1/Ch. 2 (so John Smith was described by another character or the writer in chapter one, but doesn’t enter the story until chapter two).
TO REMEMBER: Don’t forget to jot things down you write during the story that has to do with your character. Consistency matters.
ADDITIONAL NOTES: The character is still your creation so feel free to add traits as you write.
John Smith has now become a person.
This may seem like a lot of information, but it really isn’t. None of these categories should really consist of more than a sentence, even a couple words at that, except maybe the character’s appearance and background. Keep in mind, this is for the author’s reference, it can be disorganized and grammatically incorrect as much as you want because the reader will most likely never see it until you pass away and it’s auctioned off for a million dollars (monetary compensation based off success of story). Just as long as you, the author, know what you’re talking about.
Three things I can recommend: Give your character something memorable in their appearance, give them a personality disorder, and don’t be afraid to have them break character. Ex: A man with a scar under his lip who is obsessive-compulsive and very serious, but he will tell a quick joke or crack a subtle smile every once in awhile.
So there you have it. You can be as creative as possible, but what it boils down to is that your character will probably be more like a real person (you know or know of), a description of yourself, or a representation of your ideology. Have fun and see if it works! Please feel free to comment questions or opinions!