As a character-driven author whose stories almost always come into being due to a cool character who took up residence in my brain, characters are something I often create by a subconscious process rather than by consciously fleshing them out. That’s why, for so long, roleplaying was a huge part of my character development process. Over the past few months, however, my character-building process has become more conscious and I’ve been able to identify some details that help make more engaging, realistic characters. Here are five details to think about when creating your characters.
While the basic ideas for characters come to me quite naturally, creating deep and multi-faceted characters is something I feel like I’m still learning, and quirks are something I’m terrible at thinking up. This is actually one thing that I realized not from my own character development process but from my best friend Allie, who naturally comes up with really intriguing character quirks. It adds so much dimension to a character to give them a unique quirk. Real people have quirks, so shouldn’t realistic characters also have quirks? One of Allie’s characters in our collaborative story has vitiligo, and Allie decided her quirk is to trace around her spots with Sharpie. Another character has the ability to create anything out of nothing and tends to weave together threads of nothingness when he’s bored. The real key to these quirks is that they’re not random; they fit with the individual character and who they are and what they’re like as people. Realistic quirks enhance a character by showing what they think of their traits through how they treat them.
This is a broad topic, so I’ll try not to overload you with information, but giving your character a backstory and developing what they’ve gone through in their lives adds a lot to a character. Those events shape why your characters do what they do and what they believe about the world. It’s important to know why your characters do the things they do and why they’re so passionate about the things they’re passionate about. I’ve written about backstory before and how it affects your characters’ present, so you can check out that post for some further insight.
Have you ever been writing a story and realized you have no idea what the characters should do next, or that they’ve been doing the same thing over and over again? (I’m guilty of having the characters in The Shadow Raven play incessant chess and do little else.) It might be time to think harder about your characters’ interests. Realistic characters have lives and interests and goals outside of the scope of a single story. When thinking about your characters’ interests, it might be helpful to look at their backstory. What did their parents like to do that they might have passed down? What are things they were encouraged to do or discouraged from doing when they were younger? (Depending on your character, they may be more likely to do the things they were encouraged to do or might be more likely to do the things they were discouraged from doing.)
Also think about their environment. Someone who lives in the forest with very few other people is probably going to have very different hobbies and interests from someone who lives in a bustling city, or at least have access to different hobbies as possibilities. Maybe your forest-dweller enjoys gardening, or hunting, or woodcarving, or tree-scaling; while your city-dweller likes shooting pool, going to the movies, or sightseeing. But don’t feel tied to stereotypes, either. Just because someone has limited choices doesn’t mean their choices are so limited as to only encompass the stereotypical interests of someone in your setting.
Maybe this is just me, but I find character relationships to be one of the most interesting things about a character. Sure, I like characters on their own, but I also love seeing how characters interact with each other and how their relationships manifest. Is your MC teasing with one older brother but totally serious with another? Or maybe he’s teasing with his older brothers but extremely protective and wise with his younger brothers? Is he totally comfortable with that one girl he’s been friends with forever but totally awkward with any other female? Realistic characters not only have relationships, but they have varied relationships and don’t interact with everyone the same way. Develop the relationship, develop the why behind it, then determine how the characters’ feelings for each other (good or bad) are displayed. (Or you can do those “out of order.” Whatever works with your writing process.) Relationships are a huge part of who your character is and how they behave, so don’t neglect them.
Values are another thing that are strongly developed based on your character’s past. Values are instilled in us from the time we’re children by our parents, and as we get older we learn and grow and form our own opinions and values, but we build on a foundation of what our parents taught us. Even if we reject what they’ve taught us, we’re still going to see things in light of those values whether negatively or positively. Those values direct our actions. It should be no different for your characters. To use an example from a D&D campaign my family is playing, one of my characters has developed a great soft spot for young people. When you combine that with her recklessness and hatred of any sort of imprisonment of the innocent, she rushes headlong into a fight with someone who’s holding a teenage girl hostage without thinking about the consequences. Your character’s values are going to mix with their inherent character traits and strongly influence their actions. A character who’s usually quiet on political issues but has a strong distaste for rude debates and is a strong advocate for civil disagreement might speak up and write a blog post about the problems with social media debates. (In case you were wondering why that’s so oddly specific, and want to hear my thoughts on the matter, here’s the post I wrote.) If your character is all about protecting the lives of those in her country, she might rush off and get her military into shape to defend said country and then do her best to prioritize her men watching each other’s backs so she loses as few lives as possible.
What are some things you’ve found help with creating realistic characters? Are you a plot- or character-driven author? What tools (online roleplaying, tabletop RPGs, character sheets) have you found most helpful when developing your characters? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!