Consider Your Character
I used to be the kind of writer who'd make stuff up as I go, including my characters. Apparently this is called being a Pantser - writing off the seat of your pants, heh (someone was creative...). I've always considered this method fun and exciting, constantly surprising yourself with the same twists and turns that your readers might, one day, be surprised with, and it's certainly a very freeing way to write.
However, after starting one too many stories (is that even a thing?), and changing from writing as a fun way to spend my time, to taking it a little more seriously, I've come to realise that there is also a good amount of merit in planning them, too.
Of course, planning a story has a whole lot more stages to it, and there's got to be hundreds of effective ways to do it (if not many, many, more). Add to that, every single person will use each and every one of those methods differently.
Just to reassure you, I'm not going to go into all of those infinite methods in this Post. If you're interested, you can check out one such method that I've discovered in my other post: Do You Want To Build A Snowflake? Here, however, I'm just going to focus on planning a single part of a story. Undeniably the most important part.
That's right. The Characters.
After experimenting with a variety of planning methods, I've managed to mix and match something that works for me, and I'd like to share it in hopes that it helps anyone else trying to figure out how to develop their characters.
Keep in mind, this is typically for more detailed levels of your planning, typically to be reserved for after you've already got a general premise for your story, and a list of intended characters, both good, bad, and side. Of course, you're welcome to just dive straight in, if that's what works for you. There is, after all, no must-follow formula for the writing of a story ;)
I usually break down the development into five separate categories to help define the separate aspects of my character, and I'll do this with both my protagonists, antagonists, as well as side and supporting characters (to varying degrees of detail).
These categories include:
I'll break those down into further detailed subcategories, below.
This focuses on the very basics of your character, such as their name, their role in the story, their species, etc. The things that define what they are, and their overall purpose as a character (not including what they look like, that comes later)
Now, I will adjust the subcategories for this, based on what story I'm writing, but these are the basic ones I use, in no particular order:
Name: First, Middle, Last (or whatever's appropriate for your character in question)
Age: Both in years, and in appearance, if there's a difference (e.g. Immortal Vampire)
Gender: This kind of speaks for itself, but it may not be directly applicable to your character.
Ethnicity: What country are they from/ what is their heritage? Maybe they're a mix of multiple. Again, this may not always be applicable, depending on the nature of your character, and generally is specific to humans.
Species/Form: Your character might be something other than human, they might be a ghost, they might be a frog, or a chair, or a magical talking pudding (raise your hands if you've seen that movie)
Role: Are they the protagonist? Antagonist? A supporting character? Family Member?
Aliases: Do they go by any other names within your story? This can include alternative identities, nicknames, and petnames. Might be useful to mention who calls them by these various names, too, if that has some significance.
I'd also add things like Gangs or Packs or other similar social groups, in this stage, if your story/world requires it.
This will help define the outer, physical appearance of your character, and can be easily modified to suit whatever species or form your character will take on. I think it's important that you know what your character looks like, even if you only ever mention under half of the details you jot down.
In no particular order, these are the subcategories I tend to favour:
Eyes: colour, shape, you can also include lashes and brows here, too, if you'd like.
Hair: length, colour, thickness, style, how is it typically worn? Does your character even have hair?
Complexion: Skin colour, skin texture, do they have scales, or spines or feathers?
Height: In feet and inches, or in centimeters, or in meters, or whatever suits the general size of your character.
Weight: How heavy do they weigh? Are they underweight for their size, overweight? Average?
Build: Are they muscular, skinny? Well defined? Plump? Stocky? You can possibly include similies in here, too, that help you define or remember their build, such as thick as a tree trunk, twig-like, or round like a bowling ball, etc.
Face: What is their face shape, the angle of their cheekbones, the thickness of their lips. You can talk about nose size/shape, and ear size/shape here too.
Hands: How long or slender or short or stumpy are their fingers? How wide is their palm? Maybe they have webbing between their fingers? What do their nails/claws/talons look like, if they have any at all?
Feet: I know this seems like it's a bit specific (as was hands, to be fair) but maybe your character has unusual feet? Maybe they're like a chimpanzee, and have hand-feet, or maybe they've recently had children, and now their arches have been flattened from the weight, or maybe they have eight little tentacles, instead.
Teeth: Another specific one, but maybe your character has no teeth? Maybe they're a child, and their front teeth are missing, or they've been in a fight and now they have a chipped tooth. They could be a vampire with pointy fangs, or a crocodile with pointy everything. Their teeth could be perfectly ordinary, or set into an even line after years of wearing bracers. If it's somehow significant to your character and their appearance, then there's no harm in jotting it down.
Physical disabilities can be mentioned, here, too, such as missing limbs, cataracts, or certain skin conditions. Anything that relates to the external appearance of the character.
You could also talk about their typical fashion sense, if they have one. Maybe they just wear whatever they pull out of the closet, or maybe they only wear black. They could be an athlete, and usually found in their training gear, or they might have a phobia of shirts, and thus can often be seen without one?
Here, we'll get into the nitty gritty of who your characters are as a person. What they like, what they're afraid of, whether they're introverted, or overly excited. This is, of course, a very important part of defining a character, as it'll help you get into the feel of how to write them, how to make them react to events or other people within the story. If you don't do any other planning of your character, at least make notes of their personality, because that's all your readers are really going to see.
Here are the subcategories I use to define a developing character's personality:
Disposition: I use this to jot down a list of points about them. These points can include whether they're energetic, or stoic, or optimistic, or realistic. Maybe they're friendly, maybe they don't play well with others. They could be snarky or sweet, careless or meticulous. Maybe they have some contradicting characteristics, such as distant but caring, or reckless but protective. Any little word or sentence or description you can think of (or spontaneously generate) about who your character is as a person, can be noted under this subcategory.
Likes: Here you can write what they like; this can involve activities, books, people, colour types (bright or dull, light or dark). Maybe they like dresses. Maybe they like shopping. Maybe they like a variety of sports. Whatever makes your character happy or enthusiastic, put it here.
Dislikes: As above, think of anything, whether it be an activity, colour, person, ideal, object, whatever, that rubs your character the wrong way, and note it down.
Fears: This is what your character is afraid of. It might be something as simple and common as spiders, or as philosophical as the fall of man. Maybe they're afraid of disappointing their parents, or losing their friends. You can be as shallow or deep as you want with this subcategory, but make sure to include anything that you think might be relevant to your character's role and behaviour in the story. I also find it helpful to mention what kind of fears they're willing to push past, which ones cause them to push themselves further, which ones render them completely useless, etc. It's not just the fear, after all, it's how that fear impacts or drives the character.
Favourites: With this one, I usually break it down into further sub-subcategories, primarily focusing on basics: Colour, Food, Drink, Season, Time of Day, Friend and Relative, but you're welcome to switch it around or add any that you'd like/think might be significant to your character and overall story.
Reaction to Good News: How does your character react when they hear something good, or positive, or something that benefits their overall goals/plans (for example, your antagonist's version of 'good news' might not be all that 'good' but it is to them :D) Maybe they cheer or smile, or gather people into a group hug. Maybe they're quite emotionless and merely give a nod of approval. It depends on their disposition, but knowing this is always helpful when you end up writing the first draft.
Reaction to Bad News: Similar to above, only now we're looking at how your character reacts to hearing/learning/discovering something that disadvantages them, or makes them sad, etc. Maybe they cry, maybe they're too proud to cry. Maybe they brush it off as if it is of no matter, but then lock themselves in their room, later on, and scream into a pillow. Maybe they growl, maybe they go violent, and punch whatever/whoever is closest to them. This, of course, will depend on both the person, and on the severity of the news they've just received.
Habits: Any ticks or tendencies that your character does often? They might tug on their ponytail, or fiddle with a ring, or maybe kick at the ground idly. When do they do it? When they're scared, angry, nervous, tired? How long have they been doing it for? Not every character needs an obvious habit that they do all throughout the book, but sometimes it just helps to define them, and separate them from others.
Here, we'll go into the history of your character, which will help you define why they're like how they are. This will also include how they grew up, their relationship with their family, friends and enemies of both the past and present. I personally believe it's important for you, as the author, to know the why behind your character's personality and actions, even if you never reveal it to your readers in the actual story.
Family: Who are their parents? Do they have siblings? Aunts, uncles, cousins? Are they married, have they got children? Do they even know their family? If it's got something to do with the people they're related to (by blood or by adoption), just mention it here. I even tend to include people that aren't biologically related to my character, but are so close that they may as well be.
Friends: Do they have any friends? Who do they like? Who likes them? Anyone that used to be a friend? Anyone that will become a friend throughout the process of your story? Allies? Teammates? Beneficial acquaintances? You can be as detailed and nonspecific with this list as you'd like/ as you think you'll need. Any love interests and crushes can be specified here, too, or you might want to make that its own category.
Enemies: Who does your character not like? Who doesn't like them? Do they have bad blood with someone? Friend turned enemy? Arch nemesis? Annoying neighbour? Spiteful cat? In this spot, mention anyone you think might have some conflict with your character, even if they only exist in the past of your overall story.
Childhood: What was their childhood like? How did they grow up, who raised them? Did they have a happy childhood, or were they forced to grow up quickly? For this, I mostly consider their lifestyle/living standards from below the age of 12 (but can be modified if your character has a different aging standard)
Favourite Memory: What is the memory they cherish the most?
Least Favourite Memory: What memory has the most negative impact on them?
Employment: Do they have a job? Are they looking for a job? Do they even need a job? With certain characters/stories, this subcategory is unnecessary.
Education: Is your character in school (or whatever your created world's equivalent for school is)? Do they go to university? If they're older, then did they go through all of the schooling years? What was the quality of their education?
This is where you can define your characters' physical and mental aptitude, as well as any abilities (supernatural or merely self-taught) that they might have, or will develop throughout the story.
Strengths: What are they good at? This can include physical things (such as swimming or jumping or fighting), mental things (such as handling tragedy, overcoming fear, or controlling their emotions), or even social things (dealing with people, social tact, etc.)
Weaknesses: What are they bad at? As implied, you can basically just do the complete opposite of the strengths, above. Try to make it reasonably balanced with their strengths, to avoid making an over-powered character or an utter incompetent (Both of which can be fun to write, but I've never had much fun reading about them).
Powers: Do they have any magical or supernatural powers? Were they born with these, or did they develop them over time?
Fighting ability: This one's kind of optional, and can be covered in 'strengths' but in certain genres, fighting is a big deal, so having a separate place to jot down all the fighting styles and weaponry they're good and bad at, as well as whether they're better at offence or defense, or how long they've been learning to fight, is always handy.
Well, that's it for my character building checklist. I hope it helps anyone looking to thoroughly flesh out their characters before starting a story and, keep in mind, it's not set in stone. Mix and match and alter it however you'd like; whatever works for your style of planning and your story/characters :)
Happy writing everyone!