Characters are an essential element of story, even more so than plot I’d say. You can write a story in which nothing really happens, but I dare you to try writing one without a single character. Pretty tough to even imagine, right? If your characters are weak and unbelievable, chances are good your story is also weak and unbelievable. They are that make or break.
There are a handful of popular methods for creating believable characters out there.
What better way to get to know someone than by asking them questions? There are about a million questionnaires out there specifically for creating characters, including one by Marcel Proust!
But asking your character any and every question because it’s on a list doesn’t guarantee you will be creating a believable character. Sure, knowing their favorite color is fun, but does it really matter to the story you’re telling? I suggest going through a few popular questionnaires and pull out the questions that are the most relevant and get to the heart of your character.
Character sketches are pretty similar to questionnaires, in that they involve asking questions, but they can also be a bit more fleshed out. Just like questionnaires, there are a bunch of worksheets to get you started sketching your characters, but you can also create your own system by considering the following:
Create a physical description
Think about what your character looks like, and be mindful of your choices. Go a little deeper here by asking yourself questions like: How does my character feel about their looks? What does my character’s personal style say about them? Does that match up with how they feel about themselves?
Consider things like their lifestyle and/or profession and how that might affect their appearance. Add in some faults, because no one’s perfect. (And I don’t mean cutesy faults like how Jess from New Girl is kind of “clumsy” but still completely gorgeous. That’s tired, people.) Body language is an often underdeveloped part of a character but can go a long way in showing rather than telling. Do they stand tall with near-perfect posture? That’s a good indicator of self-confidence. Do they have some sort of gesture they make often or a nervous habit?
Get Inside their Head
Think about your character’s state of mind at the very start of your story. How are things going for them? How do they feel about their day-to-day life? What are some habits or routines they participate in? You might also put them into certain situations and write a bit about how they react. Do they shy away from confrontation? What are their personal relationships like? How are their communication skills?
Consider the part they play in the story as well. What is their motivation/the thing they’re working toward achieving throughout the story? Without desires, characters fall flat as pancakes. Everyone wants something, so it’s important to determine that for your characters.
Essentially, with character sketches, the idea is to ask as many questions as you can think of to help you nail the details of your character. But keep your answers brief, this is a sketch not a portrait after all.
This is sort of a fun way to get to know your character. Writers will sometimes take different personality tests and draw from the results when creating their characters. The most prominent of these is the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, which comes with sixteen in-depth personality profiles. But I think this method can be even more fun if you were to simply go on Buzzfeed and take a few of their silly personality quizzes. For instance, which Friends character is your character? And how do they feel about the results? (Don’t lie. No one is happy about getting Ross.)
The key here is to remember to answer as your character, not yourself.
Thinking of a Real Person
Have you ever heard that the truth is stranger than fiction? Humans contain millions of little details that make them, well, human. That’s why channeling a real person while you write is often the easiest way of creating believable characters. Thinking of someone you know personally can help you get into their mindset and call up their habits. Although to avoid making anyone angry about potentially unflattering fictionalizations, it’s sometimes safest to combine a few real people.
Mix and Match
The writing process is all about you doing you, so if you like and want to try more than one of these methods you should! Mix and match these techniques until you come up with a system that helps you to create fully fleshed out characters.
Once you know more about who your characters are, it’s time to start thinking about what they’re up to. Download my Character Arc Packet below to make sure their journey is well structured.
Download the Character Arc Packet
Never forget the basics of creating well structured character arcs with this handy packet.