Where do you come up with those great characters? That may not be the question most asked of successful writers but, in my mind, it should be. In most cases, it's the character that drives the story, not the idea. There may be exceptions, but not many.
Most of us have seen many methods to help generate story ideas, but how much have we seen about how to generate characters? Perhaps this is a relic from my role playing days, but it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to come up with a method for producing the people that populate my prose.
What follows, then, is a kind of character profile that includes some of the things that you'll want to make sure you know about your characters. I've also included a few questions to help hint at the possibilities. In a few cases I give brief examples. If you can think of something critical that I've left out, please let me know.
As an exercise, you might try completing such a character profile on some of your favorite fictional characters. Try filling out one for friends and coworkers (Be careful with that. If they happen to see it, they may be offended.) Try filling out one on yourself. Most important of all, try filling one out on the main characters in that story your writing. You may be surprised at how much you don't know about your protagonist, antagonist, or main supporting cast members.
Don't get discouraged if this seems difficult at first. Practice will make it easier. After you've built up a file of a few score, pick a couple at random and see what happens when you put them on stage together. That's when things really start to sizzle. Now try putting them in different types of environments and see how they react. Play the mad scientist and experiment with these folks. It's fun.
Eventually, you'll find that it doesn't take that long to create a character. You can create them during those short little snatches of time that you have, or as a refreshing break from your other writing. While you're in the shower, or driving to the grocery store, you may think of something that you want to add to a particular character. Having a profile on the character will give you a place to capture such ideas.
Some of your creations will resonate more deeply than others. Some will seem flat and useless. Keep them all.
Now go to your file of story ideas. (You DO have a file of story ideas don't you?) As you read through them, which of your characters comes to mind? If none do, use the random approach again. Pick a couple of story ideas at random, and then pick a few characters at random. How could all of these ideas and people be brought together in a way that makes sense? Once you've answered that, your well on your way to creating a story.
Creating a meaningful name, one that "feels" right, can be difficult. Some things that might help are, using the telephone directory, using alternate spellings of common names, and using alternate spellings of common words. Using foreign names can be risky unless you're familiar with that language. Studying word origins and the meanings of names can also be helpful. Sometimes I use descriptive placeholder names so that I don't get bogged down with this. My file includes such comic-book-sounding names as, The Giggler, Practical Man, and Horseface.
Do you find it difficult to write from the viewpoint of the opposite sex? How do you insure that it's authentic? How is this character perceived by the opposite sex? How do the gender roles of this character's contemporaries influence his behavior?
Everyone makes a first impression. What kind of first impression does this character make? What kind of first impressions do your other characters make on this one? What kind of first impression do you want this character to make on the reader?
How will the other characteristics change with this person's age?
Black? White? Hispanic? Human? Wookie? How will this affect the attitudes and behavior of this character? How will it change the way others behave toward her?
Rich? Poor? Slave? Slave owner? Pet? How does this character relate to those with a different social background?
Your character's religion will impact his actions and his thinking in subtle ways as well as drastic. How can you reflect this without preaching a sermon?
How does the fact that this character is the only daughter in a house of eight sons change her perspective? How would it be different if she were an only child, or had sisters instead of brothers? What's her attitude toward her parents? How is this reflected in her attitude toward other figures of authority?
What experiences in this character's childhood shape them later in life? What experiences later in life shape the way they view their childhood?
If your story where made into a movie, which actor or actress would you most like to cast in this role?
What about this character's face is unique? What's the most outstanding feature?
Eyes are very expressive. Do they give a clue to the character's most prevalent mood?
Not just color and length, but style also. How does the character's choice of hairstyle reflect their personality?
Stocky? Chunky? Slim? Lithesome? Athletic? In the office where I work, there's a fellow who's a body builder. His upper torso his bulging, but his legs are like toothpicks. Does he never work out his legs? If not, why? What does it say about his personality?
Start noticing how people walk. You'll find that everyone has a unique way walking. What does it say about their personality?
Links to personality and/or social status/wealth can be fairly obvious, but not always.
A facial tick? A nervous way of bouncing the knees when seated? Fingernail biting? Twirling hair in a finger? In college I had a professor who constantly looked at me over the rims of his glasses, even when he wasn't wearing his glasses.
Does she like her job? Is it fulfilling? Is she there by choice or is she stuck in something she hates? Is she good at it?
What is this person really good at? Is it an acquired skill, or something they come by naturally?
What is this person most afraid of? Exposure? Loss of social standing? Loss of a loved one? Dogs? Green ties?
Greatest unmet desire:
What, in the mind of the character, is the one thing that would make their life complete? What's the one thing they've always wanted, but never gotten? What would be the consequences if they got it?
Made angry by:
What really ticks this character off? As the writer, you get to push their buttons and yank their chains. What are they? As readers we like to observe it from the safety of our easy chair.
Made sad by:
What breaks this character's heart? Why?
Even the antagonist has virtues... usually. What are they? How did he come by them?
Even the protagonist has flaws... usually. What keeps them from being unforgivable? Once you've found your protagonists biggest flaw, hit it hard. Go for the jugular.
[This message has been edited by Perry (edited November 08, 2000).]
[This message has been edited by Perry (edited November 08, 2000).]