A story could not exist without characters. But a good story contains interesting, well-drawn characters who appear three-dimensional. The trick to creating characters who appear real? You have to believe they are. You have to see them flaws and all, and be willing to pick apart their personality, to hear their voice and to lend them unique characteristics.
All of these details come from observing and interacting with other people. You might also be inspired by characters in books, movies or even songs. The inspiration for creating characters is everywhere; in every conversation you have, in how you view yourself and others around you.
I love to create characters. I love choosing names, hair and eye colour, body type, ulterior motives, weaknesses, conflicts. But it can easily be made a chore by filling out detailed character charts, dissecting everything from the character’s past to what they like to eat for breakfast.
It’s not necessary to know everything about a character before you start writing their story – the magic is in how they slowly reveal themselves to you as you write. They start showing quirky behaviour, they say things you never imagined they would and do things you hadn’t planned. They start running the show and if you listen hard enough and go with the flow, they may even tell you how the story will end.
Free-Write a Character Analysis
Having said that, I think it’s imperative to spend a little time getting to know your characters. Picking their brains rather than inventing characteristics that you think will please the reader. My background is in psychology, so I am naturally curious about how people tick and what happens when things go wrong. Villains and disordered personalities fascinate me as much as beauty queens and heroes. I like to make characters a little unique in some way by going deep into why they do the things they do. What they fear, what makes them sad or angry. What they are fighting for.
I do this by free-writing. Using a Character Prompt Sheet as a guide, I sit down and think about who this character is that I am seeing in my mind. It’s a stream-of-consciousness exercise – letting the character tell me who they are. I write in block paragraphs but not dot points.
In this analysis, we are focusing on how the character feels about, and interacts with, other characters in the novel. We are letting them divulge what their secret motives and desires are. We may touch on their past experiences and their childhood to get an idea about where they have come from, as well as how they’re living their life now – their job, hobbies, what they do with their time. It’s all about being an amateur psychologist, delving into their personality and life philosophy.
The freedom of the Character Prompt Sheet is that all of the questions do not need to be answered by the time the exercise is finished. It’s simply a list of things to begin to ask when creating your characters. Some sections may be more relevant than others.
The Character Prompt Sheet
There are many examples out there, but this is the list I use in my novel writing process. I hope you find it helpful. Use it as a starting point in creating your own list of prompts if you like. I adapted mine from Elizabeth George’s excellent writing reference Write Away.
Star sign & meaning:
Gestures when talking:
Family (mother, father, siblings etc):
Ambition in life:
Positive/negative aspects of personality:
Laughs or jeers at:
What others notice first about him/her:
What character does alone:
PROMPT QUESTIONS: Personal History
What is the most difficult thing my character is struggling with right now? How does that struggle give them one problem they must solve? Who or what will stand in the way of the solution they seek?
Will reader like/dislike character? How will they view this character?
Does he/she change in the story? How:
Significant event that moulded the character & one that illustrates the character’s personality:
If you haven’t been able to see your characters by now, the Prompt Sheet will have helped you. Now that you have more of an idea of who your characters are, it’s time to try to find a visual representation of them.
Who are you imagining as the main characters in your novel? Do they resemble an actor or actress, a public figure, someone you know, or are they simply invented? Scout out pictures to use as a visual aid when writing the first draft.
Good old Dr. Google image search is great if you know the person’s name. Pinterest can give you a more detailed search and throw up some good pics of young women with brown hair, for example. If you still can’t find what or who you’re looking for, free stock photo websites like Pexels and iStock are chock-full of beautiful images for all types of characters.
I have a Pinterest board for The Cloud Sisters and all my characters are there (including many of my hero who I have a little crush on…)
Here’s Heath Howley (the delectable model Christopher Mason):
And Elodie McAllister (an unknown stock photo model):
If you use Scrivener, you can plug these photos into your project using the Corkboard feature. I do this with only a select few images as I still find Pinterest easier.
The most important ingredient in creating believable, intriguing characters? Have fun and enjoy playing with it!