Falling in love is a glorious process. Remember how it felt when you just met someone and learned all about him? How he seemed to do no wrong and you wanted to be with him every second of the day? Then one day something happened. Something he did or said made you see that there was no perfection there after all, but a regular person whom you choose to love anyway or to leave behind.
Creating characters can and should be a lot like this. You imagine a scenario and build a grand hero. Smart, strong, good looking, witty—your hero has it all. The problem is, if you don’t make it to phase 2 when the flaws set in, your character will be stuck in dream phase and will seem unreal or even boring.
People are screwed up in all sorts of ways. Personally, I tend to talk too much, say things I shouldn’t, can be quite selfish, and struggle with issues of pride. There are a million nuisances to my flaws—I am usually messy, I start projects and don’t always finish them, I buy books that I never read. I could go on, but really, this isn’t about me (see—I can learn to be humble, really!)
Point is, your characters are screwed up, too. If you don’t see it, then you don’t know them well enough yet. So, how do you get to know them?
1. Spend a bunch of time with them.
Think about them, imagine them in various scenarios—both in and out of your story. Go shopping with them. See what kind of music they like, what sort of clothing they wear, that kind of stuff. You know, the same things you find out getting to know real people. What makes them smile? What makes them mad?
2. Ask about their pasts.
Your characters weren’t born in a vacuum (unless you’re writing that sort of sci-fi book, but you get my point). They have pasts. They came from somewhere and they had experiences before you met them that made them the people they are today. You will not use 90% of this information in most cases, (Or rather, you shouldn’t unless the story is about that. Don’t add in backstory unless it’s necessary.), but if you know it, the details of that past will come out naturally as you write.
3. Ask all sorts of questions.
This always makes me think of that scene in For Love of the Game where she’s asking the guy all sorts of questions about himself. How do you like your chicken, do you believe in God, what’s your favorite color, do you want to have kids someday? Throw everything you can at them and take note of what they say.
4. Meet the family.
This goes along with your characters’ pasts. They have family somewhere. Even if now dead, they weren’t always. Someone raised them, or many someones. They likely have aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, cousins. What is the family like and how did these people shape your characters?
5. Go through their stuff.
As if you were house sitting and they would be gone for days, go through the boxes in their closets, the papers in their offices, the medicines in their cabinets. What are they really like? What are they hiding?
6. Open their closets.
No, this isn’t a repeat of the previous tip. I mean the closets where the skeletons live. Everyone has secrets. It’s either as major as murder, or as minor as a chocolate stash, but there is something that your characters won’t tell just anyone. And another thing to explore is, who would know these secrets? Is your character open enough to tell his mother? His best friend? Or no one?
7. See how they change.
Your characters must change in your story, or your story didn’t do its job. By the time you get to the end, your characters should be unable to return to the beginning of the story because they have changed too much. Maybe your character loses someone, maybe she grows and becomes stronger, maybe she does something that brings her shame. Whatever it is, there must be change.
One of the easiest ways to accomplish all this is to use a character sheet. There are a ton of them out there, or make up your own! Here are a few links: (sheet 1, sheet 2, sheet 3, sheet 4, sheet 5).
As much as I use character sheets, they can get tedious after a while. I have a lot of fun taking personality profiles, pretending I am my character. The added bonus to doing this, is that it will also tell you the weaknesses and strengths of that personality type. These quizzes are somewhat easier, I find, because instead of discovering things about them, I get to be them and see what they’d do in a certain scenario.
My favorite site right now is 16 Personalities. They have a free test, too: http://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test
Do you have any other methods for making well rounded, interesting characters?