I definitely consider character creation to be one of the most important aspects – if not the most important – of writing great fiction.
Even in genres generally considered to be more plot-driven, characters matter – and excellent characterisation will set your fiction apart, giving it a definite edge over any other novels or short stories out there.
I have previously written post about my personal character development process, and about how to create believable characters – as well as various related posts, covering topics, including naming characters, and writing realistic dialogue. I would definitely encourage you to take a look at some or all of these, if you haven’t already.
I have already mentioned not finding “laundry list” style character profiles to be particularly useful.
I used to feel almost guilty for not liking this approach, but have learnt, over the years, that many other writers feel the same way.
I think the problem lies in the fact that we’re required to, in effect, give our characters the third degree. We may well end up “writing anything”, in response to some of the questions, simply so that we can tick the “completed task” box, with regard to character profiles.
In real life, we usually get to know people gradually, over time.
It’s a natural process. You wouldn’t suddenly go up to someone in the street and start interrogating them: asking about their childhood, favourite colours, favourite foods, and political views. Even if someone was prepared to tell all, attempting to absorb so many details, at a rapid pace, would become overwhelming. You wouldn’t remember half of it, or take in its significance.
So, here’s what I like to do instead…
Gradually, intuitively answer questions, that may sometimes be quite random, and sometimes, more obvious and generic.
When people include lists of nine thousand questions to ask your characters, I actually feel kind of inspired. But only momentarily. The questions may well be amazing, but they aren’t much use to those of us whose heads are spinning, from even attempting to take them all in.
So, my solution. A *series of blog posts, each including a few things to think about – properly, and slowly, minus the dizzy spells. *December 2018 note: I originally planned to write several posts in this “series”, which is why I used to term. However, I ultimately felt that two were sufficient, using this precise approach.
Let’s start at the beginning: your character’s name.
Presumably, your main characters already have first and last names. If not, you should probably read my naming characters post – mentioned earlier.
But does your character have a middle name, or middle names? Most of us do. Mine is Michelle. Okay, some people don’t have one – but, if the character specifically has no middle name, you should know that, as a fact. It’s probably not realistic to give every character in your novel a middle name, but it helps, when it comes to the main characters.
Also, consider maiden, and previous married, names for women, where applicable.
Now, pets – because pets are so important in many of our lives.
Do you know whether your MC currently has pets? And how about previous pets? Know dog breeds. The number and colour of gerbils, throughout the years. And yes, names. Our pets all have them, right? Then for personalities…
I believe in being thorough. That’s why too many questions in one go doesn’t work for me.
But if you do want to decide upon something with a simple answer – try your character’s birthday.
Date of birth is more specific though, so let’s go with that. Give your character a date of birth.
Oh, and if your head is currently spinning, from trying to approach this my way – maybe try one of those extensive questionnaires.
Each to their own. Just because I find them dry, doesn’t mean that they can’t help many writers. They wouldn’t be so enduringly popular, after all, if many people didn’t find them invaluable.
See also: Part 2, for more on character development