So, this is something I was really struggling with on my last book (yes, I have three stories published and I’m still working on the craft). While writing “Clouds”, I was also reading “These Sheltering Walls” by Mary Jane Hathaway (which you totally need to read, by the way. It’s amazing!). But, while I was reading, I started noticing something about the way the characters are and compared them to Luke and Tabitha. The characters of Henry and Gideon were so believable, so deep and complex that I couldn’t help but be sucked into the story. I turn and look at my characters and I was like “Uhh.. something’s wrong”.
After that, I started doing some research about character development. Early in my writing career, I made what I called “Character Bios” for each of my main characters. This was something I carried over from my days of role playing on chat forums. It included the basics like name, hair color, eye color, ambitions, etc. I stopped doing that after a while because I thought I had a clear idea in my mind of who my characters were. But, I’m discovering that I need to return to this habit and develop it a little more.
There are many, MANY ways to develop a character and flesh them out. Below, I’m providing my comprehensive character bio sheet with explanation for each one.
Name: Duh, right? I know it may seem simple, but sometimes finding the right name can be challenging. Most of the time, I try to find a name that fits well with the character and the story, especially if it’s the protagonist. Since I deal with romances, I try to find a name that has a bit of a flair to it. If it’s a girl, the name must sound pretty and lilting off the tongue. I’m not going to name my heroine “Betty” or “Marge” (no offense to anyone with that name). Instead, her name could be “Annabelle”, “Katey” or “Samantha”. Also be careful that if you’re writing a historical novel to get the name right for the time period and location. A great tool I’ve use for the SCA persona creation and for names is “www.s-gabriel.org“.
Nickname: For example, in my novel “Clouds”, Tabitha is affectionately called “Tabby” by her mother and a few times by Luke. It can be an endearment nickname or something shorter. I gave the example “Samantha” earlier, but in the story she is more often called “Sam”.
Parents: Only include this if it’s a predominate factor in the story. And if they aren’t, don’t develop names or their whole life history because it’s not important. The story is about your protagonist and their journey, not their parents’.
Siblings: The same goes for siblings ^^
Other Relatives: If your protagonist was raised by their grandparents or uncle, this is important. Or, if your protagonist had an inspirational aunt. Otherwise, just leave this category alone.
Birthdate: Whether this is mentioned or not, this is important because of what follows below…
Time of birth:
Western Astrological Symbol: This is why! Yes, it may be a bit extreme to delve into the astrological aspects of a person, but it will help you understand the character better, trust me. And you can do this backwards. If you want your character to be a Saggitarius, pick a birth date that falls in that time. A few times I’ve used this bio for a character, I picked the birth date and then when I’m doing the research for their signs, the traits have lined up with exactly how I imagined the character. Funny, huh? It can also give you a little help into how your character behaves in general if you’re having issues with that.
Traits associated with:
Chinese Astrological Symbol:
Traits associated with:
Eyes: Don’t be afraid to get too specific with this. The more specific, the better the reader can envision your character.
Hair: Don’t just say “black” or “blonde”. Describe the length. Is it straight? Is it curly? Does it have a mind of it’s own? How does the character wear their hair? Do they treat it with anything? How might it look in the morning? These are all things to consider.
Height: Yeah, this can get tricky. I’m liable to say “tall” or “short”, but it can be more complex than that. When you’re writing, you aren’t going to say your heroine is exactly 5 foot 5 inches. Instead, look for something to compare their height to. Can they reach the top cabinet easily or do they need a step stool?
Physique: Skinny? Fat? Average? Buff? Big hips? No butt?
Ethnicity: White? Black? Native American? Asian? You’ve got a lot to pick from.
Family Descent: A person’s family descent can say a lot about their facial structure and temperament. I often just try to find a picture of someone my character resembles, but this can be a helpful tool still.
Righty or Lefty: Yes, this might be important. It can say a lot about a character. And if they are a lefty, imagine all the different things they have to do from where the sit at a table to how their desk is arranged.
Distinguishing Marks: This can be tattoos, scars, piercings, anything that makes them stand out in a crowd.
Sexual History: This might be a sensitive subject. Are they a virgin waiting for the right guy? Or a promiscuous brothel-hopper?
General Health: Are they well most of the time or do they have some aches and pains?
Medical History: Did they break a leg falling out of a tree or have a dangerous fever once?
Allergies: Food or pollen?
Chronic Illnesses: Do they get a cold twice a year like clockwork?
Handicaps: When someone gets a bad injury as a child or young adult, it can affect their later years. Did they throw their shoulder out during a baseball game and it gets sore every once and a while?
Face Specs: This is where you can get specific about their facial features.
Eyes: Narrow? Wide set? Deep set? Hooded? Google “Eye Shapes” and take a look at some examples.
Face: Round face, square face, diamond face, triangle? Again, you can Google for help on this one.
Lips: Full? Thin? Pale?
Voice: Does your heroine have a silvery, soft voice and your hero a husky deep voice? Specify that here.
Relationship status: Single? If so, are they looking or not? Or is it complicated? Think of this as like a Facebook relationship status update.
Pets: Past or present.
Friends: Everyone’s got friends, right?
Enemies: Doesn’t have to be an arch nemesis like the Batman and Joker deal. Maybe they have that one cranky neighbor that steals their newspaper.
Beliefs: A character’s beliefs shape how they react to people and circumstances. Do NOT ignore this.
Religion: This neither. Even if they don’t have a religion or they are atheist, this can give you a better idea of your character’s attitude.
Superstitions: This kind of falls under the same category as “Beliefs”, but this takes it a step further. Do they believe in karma? How about angels and demons? Will they have a heart attack if a black cat appears?
Diction/Accent: Where they are from and where they are now may dictate what you put here. If she’s from Alabama, she’s going to have a southern accent. If he’s from England or Australia, but has been living in the USA since he was a teenager, his accent may be a bit diluted.
Highest Education: Did they go to college or drop out of high school?
Degrees: If it applies.
Occupation: What’s their job or are they employed at all?
Employment history: Did they have a job while going to school or is this their first job?
Salary: You can get technical with this and do some research for what a bookstore clerk would make on average in Arizona so you can get an idea what kind of restaurants they will eat out at. Obviously someone who gets paid minimum wage is not going to go out to eat at a fancy steakhouse every week. This can help shape what the daily life of your character is like.
Status and Money: Lower class or high class? Do they blow their money as soon as they get it or do they have a methodical savings plan?
Own or Rent: Self-explanitory, but you can give a little more detail as to where they are renting or what kind of neighborhood they live in.
Living space: Are they a slob or neat-freak?
Work Space: Do they work in a comfortable office, a cramped cubicle or outside?
Mode of Transportation: Do they walk to help the environment or drive a luxury sports car?
Fears: What makes them quiver in their boots and their foreheads damp with sweat?
Secrets: What are they hiding from the other characters in your story?
IQ: No need to get specific with numbers. Are they pretty smart or are they missing a few marbles?
Eating Habits: Do they eat like a bird or gorge themselves? Does your character have any eating disorders like anorexia? Do they only eat at certain times of the day? Or are they one of those weird people that don’t like their foods to touch on the plate?
Favorite Food: What’s their guilty pleasure when it comes to cuisine? Do they treat themselves with chili cheese fries after a long day at work?
Sleeping Habits: Insomniac or do they get a full eight hours? Plagued by nightmares or pleasant dreams about ponies and rainbows?
Book Preference: If your character was in a bookstore, what section would they flee to? What kind of a book would they pull down from the shelves and read the back cover?
Favorite type of music: Would they turn to a different station when country music comes through the speakers and keep it set to classical, or the other way around?
Handwriting: Is it neat? Can you barely read it? Cursive or not?
Preferred Style: Do they keep up with the latest fashions or do they create their own style?
Groups or Alone:
Leader or Follower:
Planner or Spontaneous:
Journal Entry?: Do they keep a journal? If so, do they keep up with it pretty regularly? What would a normal entry look like?
Hobbies/Recreation: What do they do in their spare time when they aren’t catering to the whims of the author?
How do they relax?: Bubble bath? Candles? Long walks in the moonlight? Music?
What excites them?: What gets their heart racing and makes them happy to be alive?
Pet Peeve: What is their equivalent to nails on a chalkboard? Be creative here.
Attitudes: How do they act most of the time? Are they placid or bubbly? Grumpy or mellow?
Stressors: Almost the same as pet peeves, but this is a little deeper. Finances can stress people out. Their job, relationships, or inner conflicts that no one sees on the surface.
Obsessions: Is there anything your character just can’t live without? A better word for this part may be “Passions”.
Addictions: Love sugar a bit too much? Need to light up one more cigarette?
Ambitions: What do they strive for in life? Most people do not live day to day just to survive. They’re working towards a goal. Do they climb the social ladder or the corporate one? Do they dream of owning their own restaurant? Maybe they want to start an organization to help kids in Africa get cleaner water? Or are they simply working towards a comfortable living? Everyone has dreams. What is your character’s?
As seen by others: How do the other characters in the world you created see your protagonist?
As seen by self: When your character looks in the mirror, do they see someone they are happy with or do they harbor a deep self loathing? Why?
Objects Kept In: This is fun! Go down this list and think about everything you just listed for this character in the bio. Based off of that and what you interrpret about your character, what would they keep in the following places. This can really say a lot about the character.
Halloween Costumes: Did they even celebrate Halloween growing up? If they did, what did they dress as? What was their favorite costume?
Tricks: Can they balance a switchblade on their finger? Can their mount a horse while it’s at full gallop?
Talents: What can they do that is special and makes them stand out in a crowd? Can they cook an amazing apple pie or design a workable electric engine in their head?
Politics: Conservative or Liberal? You can get a detailed as you want with this if it’s important to your story line.
Drugs/Alcohol: Do they like a little merlot every once and a while or do they take shots of whiskey? Did they ever experiment with drugs in college?
Passwords: As you probably well know, a password often reflects your own personal interests because it has to be something that you’ll remember easily. You don’t have to get specific with this.
Email address: Just as for passwords, the same goes for email addresses.
Prized Possessions: Do they covet a crinkled and dogeared family photo or a tattered stuffed doll from childhood?
Special Places: Where does your character go to escape from the real world? It can be a physical place or one inside their own minds.
Special memories: Does your character pull up this memory when they need something to smile about?
Strengths: What is their strong suit? This is different from “Talents”. Someone may have a strength in logistics and numbers. Someone may be strong with the ability to face social confrontations.
Weakness: What makes them crumble and become utterly useless? Seeing a child cry? Hearing their name sullied by someone they care about?
Tragic Quality: I don’t know about you, but I can’t get emotionally attached to a character unless they have some sort of tragic flaw in them. Do they have amnesia? Are they the bastard child of a famous actress and no one knows it? Have they been in prison for fifteen years for a crime they didn’t commit?
Motivation: Your character is not going to stay the same throughout the story. They will change. If they don’t, you wrote a crappy story. I like to distinguish it as what their motivation in life is in three parts; beginning, middle and end.
At Beginning of Story:
– At the beginning of the story, what is going on with them? Are they battling depression? Is everything going right?
– Wants: At this point, what do they want from life? Peace? Happiness? Escape? Love?
In Middle of Story:
– After your character has had time to interact with others and deal with the conflicts you’ve thrown at them, what’s going on now? If they were battling depression before, is it still there? Are they finding a way of coping with it? Are they worse off than they were before or better? This point takes place close to the climax, but not just yet.
Towards the End of Story:
– Right at the climax or just before, what’s going on with them? Are they totally confused by what’s going on around them? Are they finding closure to a part of their life that they rejected?
Once you have established everything above, think about what else there is about this character that makes them special or develops them. These twenty things can be simple details like how they like their coffee to complex life events that have shaped their behavior. Sometimes these things don’t even have to be mentioned in the story itself. They simply exist to give you a better understanding of who your character is.
I hope this guide gives you a little better of an idea on how to develop your character. If you have any suggestions or other ideas, feel free to comment below. I’m always open to hearing how other writers flesh out their characters.