I really believe that knowing your characters, and knowing them well, is the only way to go. If you don’t have any idea about your character – where they’re from, what they do – then what hope does your reader have? The character becomes nothing more than a cupboard cutout and your novel becomes not worth reading.
I’m going to give you a list of questions to ask yourself about each of your main characters. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use all the information you gather but knowing these people well, will give you more insight into what they would do in any given situation. It will make your characters real and believable and make your reader love them.
When building your characters, don’t use these questions for your main character only – use them for the main support characters, the villains, the love interest and even the minor characters if they have a large enough role in the story. The better you know them, the better you will portray them.
Here are the questions:
- Name/Nick name and meanings?
- Hair and eye colour?
- Skin type/colour?
- Physical disabilities?
- Physical body? (including carriage/posture)
- Movement? (Include way of walking – slow, fast, with a limp, with grace)
- Facial Expressions when sad, happy, confused, hurt, angry, in love, tense?
- Voice/Speech? (low/high pitch, guttural, smooth, stutter)
- Verbal Expressions? (favourite sayings, use of language/slang)
- Heredity physical characteristics?
- Clothing they like to wear? (style, chosen or unchosen, uniqueness)
- Appearance? (casual, posh, student, clean, unkempt, tidy)
- Sexuality? (do they have hang-ups, how do they express their sexuality, is it important to them)
- Tension (how do they express/act)?
- Emotion (how do they express/act when they fall in love, hate someone, feel uneasy, are happy, are nervous)?
- Abilities? (languages, music, skills, talents)
- Inner directed/Other directed
- Disposition/Temperament? (easy going, rebellious, controlling)
- Other Qualities? (awareness, imagination, judgement, poise, sensitivity)
- Complexities/Maladjustments? (compulsions, hang-ups, inhibitions, obsessions, phobias, prejudices, superstitions)
- Frustrations/Major disappointments in Life?
- Emotional Literacy (most common feelings, what the character feels most comfortable/least comfortable feeling, does the character know what they are feeling, do they block some emotions)?
- Attitude towards life? (militant, relaxed, nervous, resigned)
- What do they like best about him/herself?
- What do they like least about him/herself?
- Do they deny/not accept any aspect of their personality?
- What hidden aspects of their character do they reveal?
- What do they think of themself?
- How do the other character feel about them?
- What does the character feel towards the other characters?
- Is the character a ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ in life?
- List their family members (names, ages, occupation)
- List their friends and lovers
- List their co-workers, employers, employees (what are the attitudes and relationships like between them?)
- Special abilities/skills?
- Religious beliefs? Include importance.
- Political attitudes? Include importance.
- Values? (morals, ethics)
- Dominant traits?
- How does the above impact on each other?
- List the major events in the character’s life.
- What is the character favourite memory?
- Goals/Ambitions? (immediate and long term)
- What is the character’s greatest passion?
The list could go on and on, please add more questions if you feel they would be helpful (I believe all questions are helpful).
By answering these questions you’ll be giving yourself knowledge of a person that will seem real and you will know what they will and won’t do. Yes, this will take many hours to do (if you do it right) but in the long term, you’ll be saving yourself a lot of time and frustration.
If you want to take this one step further, write a one page summary on each main character (including your antagonist) point of view. How does each person see what’s happening? How does it affect them? How will they change throughout the story? What is their goal? And what might they loose?
Build and know your characters BEFORE you start writing!