Have you ever wanted to write a story? You have the perfect plotline, you know where you want it to be set, you even know how it’ll end, only to realize you are short on some characters?
Well, do not fear. No, seriously, stop freaking out. It’s okay. Really. I know the fear, and let me tell you, it does eventually turn into some sort of bizarre frustration. But I can definitely give you some guidance with that one. Building characters has actually become one of the things I love most about writing.
There are five things that I tend to go for when fleshing out a character in the first drafts of a novel: Name, basic description, basic personality traits, relationships, interests.
Now, I am aware it’s kind of an odd mix, and sounds a little complicated for newbie writers But, actually, it’s something I started doing the first time I ever wrote my own novel. It was something I naturally did as I wrote.
You don’t have to go all crazy and do anything like taking Myers-Briggs personality quizzes or drawing out the exact facial expressions each character is making. I was one of those that used to look up those complicated character profile sheets that want to know ever minute detail about your character, down to even the way they make love with their significant other.
In the first draft or two of your novel, knowing every detail isn’t necessary to create the story. Sometimes, those little details about them come as you’re writing the story.
One of my current projects, Codename Brotherhood, actually started out very differently. The story wasn’t staring Seth Jones Jr, it actually started out with his friend Remus Carter. So many drastic stories have changed, and storylines have been put into place that I couldn’t fathom.
While we do this character study, to show you the way I build characters, I’m going to use Remus, and show you not only the simplicity I started with, but how they flesh out naturally as the story changed.
This one was really easy to come up with. I. Love. History. I also, at the time, was a huge Harry Potter fan. The name Remus- rooted in the mythology of the Remus and Romulus story from the creation of Rome- really made me fall in love with that name. Other names for characters, such as Seth, Jeremy, Sebastian, Nathaniel, came from a mix of loving the older-fashioned names, and using websites where expecting parents would find themselves to assist in naming their children.
There’s a lot of good name generators and resources out there for fantasy names, names with meaning, even if you want a random generator to name a character for you. I use https://www.behindthename.com/ when I want to find out a name in a specific language, or with a specific meaning. For more of a general name generator, I have used https://www.name-generator.org.uk/character/, and for fantasy names, I used https://www.fantasynamegenerators.com/ (also a great tool for world building, real names, and more). You can use these, or get online, and find one you like the most. Have fun with them!
When I started out writing Remus’ character, he was a shorter guy, two years younger than his classmates. He had auburn hair, and dressed in sweater vests, bowties, button downs, kakis, and loafers. He spoke with no contractions in his words, and his tone was very clipped.
He has had an overhaul sense then and is nowhere near as awkward and cringey as he was when I created him at sixteen. To make matters worse, this is the kind of guy I wanted to date when I made him.
When getting a basic description, it doesn’t have to be super complicated, or in depth. It’s not like the Sims, where you need to ensure Remus has an outfit for every occasion, has specific personality traits, and you’ve got into the nitty gritty and started pinpointing exactly how his cheekbones look.
I make sure to hit the most obvious and clear points you would need to describe a character. Name, Approximate Age, eye and hair color, race, sex, and approximate height. It doesn’t have to be anything like “Remus is 16 and 5/8thold, with auburn hair that is cut with a number 8 guide on the clippers, he’s exactly…”
Basically, I write it out like this:
So, for Remus, it looks more like this:
Name: Remus Michael Carter
DOB: June 11
Height: Approx. 5’10
Hair: Auburn, short
The ideal character profile gives you a base to start with and can be fleshed out as you go. Fill out these points to get your story started, and then go grab a profile off of the internet and start plugging in the rest of the details later. (For the more in-depth that comes later, I really like this one: https://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html. Remember, don’t stress about filling this out right away, and honestly, if you can’t fill out every space, don’t. You can’t always answer every question.)
This one is a little bit more daunting, and I’ll admit, I do get stuck here a lot. For personality traits, you can do a series of things. When I was creating Remus, I wanted to make him more like me. I made him a nerd/geek type immediately. He was also happy. Then again, I’d never written much before, and I was just breaking out into creating him. I recommend aiming for four or five basic personality traits, something you would notice about the character right away.
For example, my character here Remus is a good guy; he’s compassionate, intelligent, warm, a tad innocent, and funny. These are the kind of traits you’d find out having a ten-minute conversation with Remus. If you knew him like Seth did, you’d also know that he loves passionately, he’s loyal to a fault, he’s far too trusting, he’s almost too sensitive to other people, so much so he can be hurt easily. Those are the traits I chose later as I developed him as a character. The ultimate goal is to get a base to start with.
If you need a good description of personality traits for characters to have, there is this book I purchased a couple years ago from Barnes & Nobel. It’s called “Writer’s Guide to Character Traits” by Linda N Edelstein, and was published with Writer’s Digest Books. It’s the Second Edition, and you can purchase it here. I also found an online guide as well that described them https://writerswrite.co.za/a-fabulous-resource-for-writers-350-character-traits/. These both are an excellent idea of how each trait describes them.
This one is the easiest, in my humble opinion. It boils down to a list; what kind of relationships does this character have? Do they have parents? Siblings? Friends? Right now, it’s a basic yes or no answer.
Does Remus have a girlfriend? Yes. Two actually, throughout the course of the novels. Does he have siblings? Two. Parents? Yes. Other friends? Yes. I don’t always have names for parents, grandparents, or friends. You can make a list of the people their close to by saying “Mom, Dad, brother, sister,” or get a little more in depth by naming everyone. I do go a tad further and might say they have a good or bad relationship with that person. For example, Remus has an awful relationship with the first ex-girlfriend, because she abused him. But he’s got an incredible relationship with his best friend, his parents, and his siblings. I don’t go into the details of the abuse, or what makes their relationship strong. Sometimes, you have to fill in the other blanks before you really know yourself.
This one can be simpler as well. It piggybacks nicely with what your character’s personality traits are. If they’re creative, your character might like music, books, art, movies. Remus, for example, is a bookworm. He loves to read. He’s also intelligent and takes a surprising amount of joy in learning. It can also help make a decision on other factors; a job your character might have.
This is one I wouldn’t go super crazy with either. You don’t need a list of every hobby and how they got into it, but it does help to have at least one or two, something that motivates the character, and helps flesh it out.
Final Tips, Tricks, and Reminders
It’s good to remember that you are just starting out, whether it’s a new book and you’re trying a new character technique, or you’re a brand-new writer looking to get your food in the door. It’s not going to make you the perfect character, and it actually would make a very bland one if you don’t grow beyond this.
The whole point of getting these basics down when you develop your characters, is simply to create a character that is open-ended, and slightly malleable. Sometimes, and us veteran writers can tell you, the story can be outlined one way, and take a completely different turn even you didn’t realize was going to happen. You want a character or two that fleshes out very nicely as the story progresses.
Another bit of advice I can offer you is using the real world around you. Take a notebook with you everywhere and take notes. Go to the park, the mall, a restaurant, Starbucks, anywhere and just people watch. Write down the funny comments, the hair styles you love or hate, the cool and quirky outfits, people’s tattoos, how they interact. Everyone you come across is an awesome source for building characters and developing storylines. It’s an old cliché, but it’s definitely true; the world is your oyster- just don’t shuck it up!
Feel free to contact me with any other questions, tips, or advice, and good luck developing your characters!