Character development is probably my favorite part when it comes to writing. Sure, I love the entire writing process. (Admittedly there are some aspects I enjoy more than others.) But, for me, creating new characters is so much fun. Creating characters might seem like it would be one of the easier parts of writing, but coming up with a well-rounded, realistic, compelling character can be really quite difficult. Take my main character for example: Carrie Shatner is a female detective who works for the Wyatt County Sheriff’s Department in Eastern Texas. She’s also a whole lot more than that. She’s also a strong, independent, kick ass woman who just happens to be related to a surprisingly large number of criminals. And even that description barely scratches the surface of who she is. I first created Carrie Shatner in late 2005. She started out as a vague silhouette of a woman – she had a name, curly brown hair, and a desire to fight crime. Two novels and almost twelve years later, my notes concerning her character development and backstory are 16 pages long, and they’re still growing.
TYPES OF CHARACTERS
Just to review, there are four different types of characters.
1. Central Character(s) or Protagonist(s) – This character is most likely to be the narrator of the story. This character has to be completely developed both externally (appearance, actions and reactions, dialogue, and body language and gestures) and internally (backstory, thoughts, likes and dislikes, memories, and dreams). And keep in mind that contrast between exterior actions and interior thoughts create tension and helps reveal characters and advance plot. As the writer, you need to know everything about this character – from what they look like to how they lost their virginity (if he or she even has). You won’t tell (or show) the reader everything, but you’ve still got to know it. (Just because I will probably never have a scene where Carrie Shatner is sitting around watching her favorite movie doesn’t mean that I don’t know that her favorite movie is Tombstone.)
2. Major Characters – These characters, who will appear in numerous scenes, are necessary to the story and play major roles. These characters get to have opinions, and they will take part in the story’s actions. When introducing major characters, you’ll want to give their name, age range, gender, appearance, personality, and their relationship to the central character(s). These characters will also have a bit of backstory – especially concerning their relationship to the central characters(s) and/or the plot.
3. Minor Characters – These characters play minor roles that are necessary to the story. They only appear once or twice, but they should make enough of an impression to be remembered. As the writer, all you really need to provide is the minor character’s name, age range, gender, and a few telling details. These characters probably won’t have any backstory beyond what is necessary to showing their character.
4. Walk-on Characters – These (usually) nameless characters are more of an element of the setting than actual characters. They should get no more than a sentence or two of description. (Example: your central character is at a bar and is waiting for his/her date to show up. A bartender is necessary to the scene if your character is going to get served a drink. But the bartender doesn’t need a name or backstory. S/he just needs to take the central character’s order and then serve the drink.)
Choosing names for characters can be a bit of a struggle. Personally, I use a book of baby names to help me out. When I’m coming up with a new character, I flip through the book and glance over the names until I find one that I feel fits my character. (Though I’ll admit that I use names I like for characters I like, and vice versa.) When looking for a name I try to find one that conveys the character’s age range, gender, region of origin, ethnicity, social class, family background, and time period (keep in mind that there were no Savannahs or Beyonces in Regency England).
I also make sure that I haven’t already used a name that look or sounds similar. (Example: Since my main character’s name is Carrie, I will never have characters named Barry, Sherry, Terri, Katie, Carol, or Karen.)
The problem with appearance is that your readers are most likely never going to picture your characters the exact same way that you do. I know what my mental picture is like of all of my characters, but your idea of them might be different. And that’s fine.
When creating your character’s appearance, consider their age range, physical build, eye color, hair color and style, facial hair, and dental work. Did your character have any plastic surgery? What are his/her typical clothing choices? Do your characters have any tattoos, body piercings, or scars? What is your characters’ ethnicity? Do they have health problems?
Unless you want to have a two-dimensional, boring character, you’ve got to give your characters some personality. Are they happy, depressed, cynical, outgoing, introverted, or homicidal? Think about what motivates your character to get out of bed each morning. What are they afraid of? What upsets them? What makes them laugh? Consider their usual mannerisms and gestures, their attitude(s), major and minor flaws, etc.? When creating your characters’ personalities, think about what makes them unique from your other characters? What makes this character stand out from the rest of the crowd? Think about what kinds of skills and talents your characters might have, as well as what their hobbies and interests are.
Just because your character only comes to life on the first page of your novel doesn’t mean that they don’t have a history. The central and major characters need to have some sort of life prior to the novel’s beginning. They had to get to where they are somehow. Knowing your characters’ past helps shape who they are in the novel. When creating your characters’ background, consider their immediate family (parents and siblings, and their past and current relationships with them), where they grew up and what their childhood was like, what their education was like, their work history, the best and worst days of their lives, and anything major that will have affected who they are as a person. You don’t (and won’t) tell the audience everything about your characters’ pasts, but you’ll need to provide them with enough details to show that your character didn’t just spring to life, fully-formed without a past, the first time they make an appearance.
YOUR CHARACTERS RIGHT NOW
All right, now you know what your characters look like, what their personality is like, and where they came from. But who are they right now? Who are they from the first page to the last page? Are your characters married or single? Do they have children or pets? What’s their current job, and do they like it? Where does your character currently live? How does s/he live, and with who? And what does your character want for the future? What is driving them throughout the novel?
Creating characters is fun, but it’s also a lot of hard work. The minor characters don’t matter so much, but you really need to get to know your central and major characters. So go on and create them. Figure out what they look like. Go online and look at pictures of houses until you find one that suits your character. Then step inside – check out their furniture, peek in the fridge, and raid the trashcans. Spend some time with your new characters and let them introduce themselves to you. Yes, you’re the one creating them. But don’t get in the way of them creating themselves.