Characters are the heart and soul of any story. I’ve said it before that greater effort should be put into characters than the consideration given to plot, setting and theme. What makes a story memorable and turns a writer from a daydreaming amateur into a skilled author is the ability to create people that readers relate to and care about. When a writer sits down to begin the process, the character(s) should come first.
I usually start with a character biography. I give the basics such as name, age, physical description and a list of skills. I keep a list of them for every character, even the minor ones so I can refer back to it whenever I need to. It helps for consistency and also it helps to ensure that each character is unique in some way.
Looks are not nearly as important as personality traits. There are only so many times you can mention that your character has blond hair and blue eyes and a distinguishing scar through her left nostril before the reader loses interest. I put effort into figuring out what my characters are good at and conversely, what they suck at. Also I like to think up quirks for each of them – the guy who talks to himself – the girl who blushes at everything – the one who can’t keep a secret, etc.
A character’s voice is important too, especially if you have lots of different characters. You need to be able to distinguish each of them during dialog. I suppose it takes a degree of imagination to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the people inside your head, so I’m either lucky or completely crazy to have that level of connection to people in my story.
I often read other books and try to analyse what captures my interest or not and take that knowledge into my own writing. We all hope to create characters who are as memorable and loved (or loathed) as the great writers among us have managed to do. By studying and analysing those stories, I’ve learned just how much thought and effort goes into the best characters and I try to match that level of determination in my own work.
I find that the story and character development are a shared process. The character’s choices lead the story, and the story direction forces the character to make choices. Much like in real life, the two are mutually inclusive. Remember the old ‘chose your adventure’ books where you decide which path the character takes? That’s the approach I tend to take when I write, the outcome may or may not be set in my mind, but the characters chose the path that leads them there.