The USA Network’s current marketing campaign centers on the phrase “Characters Welcome.” If you watch any of the original programming on USA, you will find that characters really do matter, e.g., Adrian Monk on “Monk,” Shawn Spencer on “Psych,” Michael Weston on “Burn Notice.” Each of these characters is very different, but each one is a rich, unique character. They have well-defined personalities, interests and histories that guide their actions. The stories on these shows usually are well written, but for me at least, these characters are the biggest draw. And that can be true no matter the medium.
When creating characters for your book, it’s important that you know them. You should know everything about them, every detail of their lives. Not every detail will make it into your book, but they will shape who they are and how they react. But you as a writer need to know the characters so you can write them. If you don’t know what makes them tick and why they are the way they are, you won’t be able to easily and realistically tell how they will react when thrown into a situation.
A good place to start is by writing out a history for each character. Make it as detailed or simplistic as you need. It will vary for each writer. But you should start with their name, their likes and dislikes, their family, their job, their lovelife, their appearance, their emotional makeup.
Even more important than these basic biographical items is a little thing called motivation. Every character has a motivation which will shape their actions. The three things that makeup your character’s motivation are values (what a character believes is true and important), ambition (an abstract goal) and goals (a concrete thing your character will do to achieve their ambition). Understanding these concepts for each of your characters will enable you to create strong, compelling characters who will act in a believable way and who your readers will relate to.
You must be careful, however, to not include too much backstory in your novel. Your readers are interested in the present, what is happening to this character right now. Your challenge as a writer is to weave in bits of your chacters’ history as you tell their story. Certain elements will be more relevant to developing your story than others. It is your job to carefully pick and choose which items to include and when to include them. A good way to build mystery and keep the reader wanting more is to mention a bit of a character’s backstory without giving away the whole story of what happened. Then later on in your book, you can reveal the rest of the story, when it works in the overall structure of your novel.
For example, in my novel, I have dropped a few references to Anne having had a lot happen in her life in the last few years, and not wanting to worry her parents because of some tragedy they have had to deal with. What is that tragedy that Anne and her parents have been dealing with? Well I will reveal that later in my book. I just mentioned in passing that Shaun has two ex-wives and he’s only 32. That’s meant to show that he is impulsive and passionate, prone to leap before he looks, which has served him well in his journalistic career but not so much in his personal life.
That’s the kind of backstory you need to include – the kind that adds to the character or sets up a later plot point. You can’t include a character’s whole background. No one wants to read about how your character had eggs for breakfast on March 21, 2009, unless that event is somehow relevant to the story you are telling.
Creating rich, three-dimensional characters is a great place to go after you have your story idea. Once you figure out who the characters are and what motivates them, they will help drive the plot from Point A to Point B. Look around at pop culture for character ideas. But also look at your own life. There likely are some characters in your life who can inspire ideas for characters in your book. As always, don’t create your work in a vacuum. Some of the best sources of inspiration can be found in the world around you.