Get a starting image
I like to have a visual of my characters before I even start to ask them who they are. So far all of my main characters have been based on real people (in How Not To Be Popular Abby was based on a person I knew who had bright red hair and a smiley, kind face). Pick someone you know, or you’ve seen on the street, or perhaps start with the face of an actor. Searching through a stock photography site might also help you find a visual that is a good basis for your character.
Begin with a personality type
Is your character a choleric or sanguine type? Are they an ENFP or ISTJ? Which of the five natural elements do they identify with most? Check out the Enneagram tool as well.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to define personality and plenty of tests you could do. I’m not so much interested in the science of these things (and frankly there may not be much) as the helpful descriptions they can give us of how people act and react in life.
Make sure your characters are different from each other
It’s easy to have everyone in your story sound the same, react the same and learn the same way. As well as doing character work for your protagonist, you’ll also need to do similar work for your minor characters. They need to have their own voices and their own stories, even if all of that story isn’t told.
Make sure your character is different from you
Beginner writers often end up creating what’s known as a ‘Mary Sue’ character, an idealised version of themselves. It’s not deliberate most of the time - it’s just easy. Check your character. Does she have flaws? Is she annoying at times? Are there bits of herself she’d rather not show, but which poke into the story and make it interesting? Check yourself: can you bear to write your character’s flaws, or are you somehow too attached to her to show her, warts and all? If you don’t want her to suffer or be exposed on the page, you may have written a Mary Sue.
How does your character make other people feel?
I pinched this question from author Claire Zorn’s writing workshop I attended recently. It’s a useful one because it goes to the heart of the interactions between characters — which is really what every story is all about. You can create a well-rounded, complex, interesting character, but if she doesn’t interact with other characters in a way that brings about tension, conflict and sparks of emotion, you’re not going to have a very effective story.
Related to this is: how does your character speak and act around other people, and what do they leave behind them when they go? Checking out the personality types may give some helpful insights into these interactions with others. Most of the personality tests I’ve mentioned above not only describe personality types, but offer insight into how they might operate when they are stressed or happy, and how they react to other personality types.
Talk to your characters
One of the most helpful things I have ever done to create, uncover, discover and form a character is to ask them questions. ‘Send’ them a list of questions, and ask them to write back the answers to you, in their own words. (Obviously, you do the answering… but you’re just the pen holder for their words. Let them find their own voices.)
Here’s a sample letter for your character with a list of questions you might like to try. I’ve created them for a younger character: feel free to adapt as appropriate for your character.
Dear ___________ ,
Kinda weird, I know, but I'm hoping you'll be interested in answering some or all of these questions. If you don't want to, it's no problem, but it would be cool if you could. I'll start with the easy ones... I think! (:
When you were eight, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Who was your favorite friend when you were ten? what stuff did you do together?
What was your first memory of your mum? Your dad?
Who do you hate most, and why?
When have you felt most alive?
What was the hardest thing in your life when you were 12? What's the hardest thing in your life right now?
Be honest: what do you really think about your mum?
What intimidates you?
When do you feel most confident?
What makes you laugh so much you can hardly stand up?
When was the last time you cried - and why?
Are you a 'lots of friends' person or 'just one friend' person? Why?
What are your favourite shoes?
Dogs or cats?
Meat or veg?
Ice cream or pie?
Mountains or beach?
What music do you listen to when you feel sad?
What music always makes you feel happy?
Describe yourself in one sentence. Or maybe three sentences. Whichever suits you better. (And why did you pick one, or three?)
Your thoughts about swimsuits?
And now I'm going to ask you one more question. I want you to answer with the first thought that comes into your mind. Don't think about it too much, okay? Just scroll down until you find it and then answer it.
What do you really want, deep inside?