There is a lot of advice out there on how to create and develop a good character. There are no doubt entire chapters in writing books and I know I’ve run across blog posts on every type of social media account imaginable. And of course, a lot of it is no doubt contradictory. The best thing about advice is you don’t have to use it all or any of it. It’s simply advice, not a set guideline of how things have to be done. Find what methods of writing and development work for you.
As long as you have a character or set of characters that can carry through the story as you want to tell it. Then that’s all you need. (The same can be said of world building, plots, whatever, as long as you have enough to get through the story you want to tell and it’s not self-contradictory, then really, you’re golden.)
I am a character driven writer. Not to say that some of my plots aren’t action focused, but I love writing interactions between varying personalities and putting those personalities in ridiculous situations just to see what they’d do. Thus, for me, one of the first things I do after I come up with a concept for a story is to try to come up with some characters that I can really sink my teeth into. Some characters are going to end up being more developed than others. And that’s okay! There are main characters. There are secondary characters. There are those characters that reveal themselves over time. And there are characters who blind side you by coming out of nowhere.
I’ll use Heaven’s Heathens as an example. My idea, that squeaky of DOOM, was to take the Expendables, expand on the motorcycle club concept by adding Sons of Anarchy and add the supernatural (Twilight). But remember, vampires are/were passé. And I’d had that love of werewolf bikers kicking around my brain for a while. Here was a chance to use it!
The great thing about this concept was I could make a list of character positions that I’d need to fill up both the motorcycle club and a mercenary unit. As an eagle:beaver:koala/dolphin:otter personality, I love lists (and I love having fun, go figure.) I needed the four officers of the Club. I needed the old lady character in charge of social events, the Gemma character. Did these officers have wives? I needed a mechanic, a demolitions specialist, a sniper, a hand to hand person, a small arms marksman, a supply/procurement person, a medic or doctor. Then I asked the question. Did some of these roles double with the officers?
At this point, no one had names. No one even had gender. The first two people to get gender were Savannah and Gideon. They were also two of the first characters to get names. This happened because of the first story I wanted to tell and the way I wanted to portray the relationship of the main couple in my series. (Because I like writing couple stories. I like a bit of romance.) I wanted to write an adult couple in an adult relationship with adult problems that are slightly amplified by the physics of the world building. (I still want to use that story line, so pardon me if I stay mum.) Coming up with this story allowed me to assign both of them some roles in the story. What were their occupations and place in the Club hierarchy?
So, in the context of building my world and story, I’d created a list of roles in the story. I decided on two characters I wanted to focus on (at that moment.) I’d given them gender, names and then assigned them a role or a part.
Sometimes, this is where I get distracted and start trying to decide what they look like. Maybe I’ll hunt down an actor or actress that I like who I think could play the part. Or I look up hair styles and think about the clothes they’ll wear. This can give me more ideas on the type of character I’m making. Or just be a major distraction that I’ll need to come back to later in the process.
The next questions I wanted to answer were, what were their relationships to the other roles in the story, why were they in those roles and thus, where did they come from, what was their history?
Creating the Heathens was a very organic process. A lot of the characters development depended on other characters development. Some of the characters on my list were little more than “Hand to hand specialist,” or “bodyguard to other character, likes steampunk,” or the cryptic “Sniper.” Sometimes it came down to “what types of characters do I want to see in stories?”
Frankie is a good example of this. I had Savannah, whose role was pretty defined. She was the Vice President and heir apparent to the Club. She had a man, Gideon, who was originally an outsider, not born to the Club and its ways. Savannah, of all people in this universe, needed a best friend. And I really, really wanted to see a non-crazy River type character who ended somehow being slammed into Pinkie Pie. (I honestly cannot remember for the life of me how that exactly happened.) So, Frankie became Savannah’s best friend, the hand to hand combat specialist. Who, for some reason, guarded the sniper on Savannah’s mercenary team. Why was she guarding this sniper? Oh, the sniper was her older sister and has a lot of kids. Frankie is protecting her family.
At the same time, I was thinking about the Secretary of the Club. I wanted someone who looked relatively stupid but used big words at unexpected times. And as Secretary he had the responsibility to not only keep the Club’s books but also collect on debts. I thought it’d be interesting to be the type of guy who can’t really control himself in a fight or when violence gets involved and ends up shooting the hostages or putting the delinquent in the back of a car and doing donuts until the delinquent or informant or whatever was ready to talk. And wouldn’t be funny if this person was the father of Frankie and the sniper?
Yes, a lot of the time, my character list and development of relationships ended up being “That’s hysterical, yes, must include.”
For a while, the President of the Club was labelled Matriarch/Patriarch in my documents. I was developing a lot of the world building and researching wolves at the same time I was building my characters. I knew that it didn’t really matter wolf wise what gender ran the Club. I knew it was more important Motorcycle Club wise, especially Outlaw Club types that they are a ‘men only’ club. But I was throwing this into the hypothetical post World War 3 future, so why stick with typical gender roles. Especially, when I was trying use more real wolf science of wolves in the wild versus how humans think and act.
So, Brand didn’t really become Brand until I answered the questions of WHY was Savannah, someone who was very young by werewolf terms Vice President of the Club and what happened to make her Vice President. In order to answer these questions, I had to ask myself who the President was, was this President a parent or a grandparent? If a grandparent, where were Savannah’s parents? Why was Savannah willingly taking this responsibility? Answering these questions revealed a lot about Savannah’s past and her motivations and her moral character. (Read the books/short stories to find out why, I’m not going to tell you! YEESH.)
Making Brand male was a tough decision for me. I really hemmed and hawed over it. I wanted to show that females could lead Club charters, but at the same time, it might have taken away from Savannah’s story and her character plot line. She might be less important if Brand was say, Brandy. The story despite being set in the future still needs to have roots in the issues of our times. Females as elected national leaders, especially given the last couple of election cycles, is a huge issue of our day. The judgement based on appearance rather than record. The sexist attitudes that still pervade the media about what type of national leaders women would be despite people like Queen Elizabeth II or Margaret Thatcher.
Thus, Brand became male and the Gemma type character became female. Savannah’s past and Brand’s past were intertwined being that they were related. So, that revealed more of Brand’s character.
Usually, around this point is when I start giving the characters or noticing the characters have one or two personality traits. For instance with Brand, I’d been calling him the Patriarch for quite some time. This really helped define his role and his personality. Brand is the congenial nepotistic dictator that you don’t want to disappoint. He may be your dad like figure. He may want what’s best for you. He’s also the one ultimately in charge of the house and don’t forget it. He will protect the House from all threats and do his best to support it. In return, he demands your loyalty, respect and that you follow the rules of his house.
One of the best questions I think that a writer can answer when developing a character is, “When push comes to shove, how does the character react?” A character’s response to a stressful situation, reveals a lot about that character and where they are at in their personal lives. This is about the time I ask this question. Because, it helps a lot with the next bit.
It’s only after I assign a role, a name, a gender and a few personality types that I personally start digging into personality archetypes. Personality archetypes cover a broad range of different systems from different cultures. The most well-known personality types are the Western and Eastern Zodiac, and the Myers Briggs test. Depending on how important the character is, the more of these systems I’ll use to try and nail down a person rather than a stereotype.
Whether we like it or not as writers, readers like archetypes. Readers enjoy the comfort of the familiar in their characters. There is a reason why Star Wars is such a huge franchise. The archetypes of Star Wars are painted in huge brush strokes on the big screen and the plot is based upon the Heroes Journey, something that is older than dirt as it can be found in Ancient Greek plots!
Just because readers like archetypes, doesn’t mean our characters have to be stereotypes of these archetypes. A lot of the time I’ve noticed, especially when zodiac signs are turned into stereotypes, that the negative of the stereotype is emphasized rather than the positive. A Libra doesn’t have to be an indecisive shallow twit obsessed with the latest fashion trends. Libras are also excellent diplomats and mediators who make good companions and use their heads when taking action. (My little Encyclopedia of the zodiac has 16 good Libra traits listed versus 7 bad traits and I swear, every petty villain or unsympathetic main character becomes all 7 bad Libra traits.)
Feel free to use several different archetypes at once. Browse TvTropes and cherry pick traits you’d like to see together in one character. Mix DnD or World of Darkness character building with character blood type personalities. Pick a birthday and use Bad Birthdays or the Zodiac Guide to Birthdays. (I’m a Darkside Zodiac fan, so I like bad birthdays better.) Use playing cards, the tarot, or find spirit animals. Use the Elements of Harmony personality types! (Savannah is Twilight Sparkle/Applejack, Frankie is Pinkie Pie/Rarity.)
The most important thing I think I learned while developing these characters is that once I’ve developed them enough to get the story up and off the ground, the characters will develop more as I write. They’ll change. They’ll grow. As I write the story, I’ll learn more about them and their abilities and facets that can take the story places that I couldn’t even imagine back when I made a list of roles.
So, let me sum up. When I have an idea for a story, a concept, I sit down and I create a list of parts. (Sometimes this is easier than others.) Parts could be anything from occupation to ‘next door neighbor.’ Usually, the story idea will give me an indication of which casted roles are the most important. I’ll give the character gender and usually a name. I may try to figure out what they look like and how they dress to give me more ideas about where I’m taking the character. Then I try to build relationships with other characters on the list. These relationships can help me develop a character’s past, their motivations and emotional behaviors. I can start giving them or noting down specific traits that characters have, like they’re easy going or very organized or upbeat and bubbly.
From there, I can start researching different archetype systems, fleshing them out with the zodiac, Myers-Briggs types and others. From there I can start assigning them hobbies or quirks or personal preferences and fears. But those may not come out until I’m writing, delving into the story and trying to get inside the character’s head and making them more than a list of traits in a word file.
My method is just my way of doing things. Sometimes it works out and I get a fully developed idea out of it. Other times, it doesn’t and that’s just what happens. Use what works best for you.