You have a great premise for a story and even crafted a general plot. Now you need to develop some characters to inhabit the world you’re intending to create.
So where do ideas for characters come from?
How do successful authors invent characters for their stories, those imaginary men, women, children, and even animals that are a perfect fit for the story?
Ideas for characters can come from anywhere – on the train, street, plane, TV, movies, pictures and photographs, historical figures. They can be a composite of different people such as friends, family, neighbours, or work colleagues. But a character is more than just their height, weight, general body type, hair and eye colour, age and clothing. Characters have to come alive so that the reader will identify with them.
Ground your character in reality
Ground your character in reality with friends and family, pets, homework, annoying siblings, parents and grandparents, likes and dislikes, and so on. Your characters might embark on extraordinary adventures, but if they have an ordinary life it makes them more plausible to the reader.
Harry Potter’s school at Hogwarts may not be like the kind of educational institution that most kids attend, but the author made Harry a less than perfect student that struggles in certain classes. Most children don’t attend boarding schools where they only go home in the winter or summer holidays and they certainly aren’t educated in the ways of magic. Yet Harry’s struggles make him more authentic as a character.
The best writers create characters that you instantly feel that you’d recognize on the street if they came to life.
What makes us different?
Not everyone likes the same foods. We can be described as dog people or cat people; we all have different likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, that define our personality.
A character’s voice can be distinctive; stereotypical male villains might stroke a beard thoughtfully; some people hug when they meet; others shy away from such close personal contact, and some people have firm handshakes and some very weak. These things, and countless others, make up our personalities, differentiate us from others, and make us who we are.
Don’t be tempted to make a character too different
Assuming that you’re not creating a wacky cartoon character, don’t invent someone with bright orange spiky hair, an eye patch, two facial scars in unusual shapes, a hooked hand, a wooden leg, and an unintelligible dialect, since this will not only seem ridiculous to the reader but also risk detracting from the telling of the story.
And yet, you also can’t go too far in the opposite direction and make people too perfect, no matter how tempting that may be. After all, how many of us know any perfect people?
Characters need problems, flaws, phobias, whether it’s about spiders, heights, crowds, closed spaces, or indeed anything that makes them more believable.
Exercise: Invent your character
- Create a facial description: this is relatively simple.
- Determine if the person is tall or short, their body type, approximate age.
- Add as much information as possible about this person – personality, mannerisms, jobs, career path, friends and family, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, hobbies, pets, favourite foods and drinks, what part of the world they live in, the type of house they have or the car they drive, even where they went on holiday last year – in short, anything that makes them come to life.
- Name your character. Names usually conjure up certain images for the reader.