I developed the following information sheet to give writers some pointers on developing characters. I hope if you’ve stumbled over it, that it helps you. This and the following article on plugging into characters should offer a lot of help.
Character Development Sheet
Created by Diana Pharaoh Francis
People engage with stories because of the characters. Those characters need to be engaging, interesting, compelling, and worth sticking with to the end of the story. Readers don’t have to like them, though certainly it can be easier for you if readers do like them. There are anti-heroes that people adore—Thomas Covenant, Elric of Melnibone, FitzChivalry, Harry Dresden, House, and Dexter. They are compelling because readers want to know more about them, to understand them, to know what they will do next, to find out how they handle a situation, to see if they can change, or to see if they will change if given the opportunity. Readers often want to see such characters get a comeuppance that will teach them to be better human beings, but aren’t too heartbroken when that doesn’t happen. These characters have things to offer beyond likeability. They are smart, courageous, witty, or funny. They do good, daring things sometimes. They have pets. They treat kids well. Most importantly, they are not flat, one-dimensional beings. They have facets and flaws that make them intriguing.
Keep in mind that likeable characters can have just as many positive and negative qualities. What makes them likeable is that they tend to be someone the reader can identify with, or who is an underdog, or fighting a moral/good battle, or who is fighting evil, and so on. Basically likeable frequent means admirable for the reader.
I’ve seen a lot of flat characters lately. Characters that simply aren’t interesting because they are thin and clear as glass. I’m a bit of a rock fanatic, so follow me on this example. You can have a perfectly clear quartz crystal. It’s pretty and perfect. *yawn* Or you can have one that has a phantom crystal inside. Maybe bubbles with water. Maybe it has fracture and refractive prisms inside. Made it’s muddy. Maybe it’s smoky or gray. The point it, it’s much more fun to look at and think about how it came to be. What forces created it?
The same applies to a character. You need your characters to have fears and wants and needs. Those things need to be in opposition to each other. So for instance, Riley, one of my characters, needs to say under the radar of the local magical mob and the police. Otherwise she will be in a whole lot of mostly fatal trouble. She also desperately needs to do good. She can find kids and families who’ve been kidnapped when no one else can or will. But in doing so, she puts herself in the path of both the bad guys and the good guys, and that smashes up against her need to be under the radar. The friction between her needs creates interesting moments.
In developing a character, writers will often start with a list of traits, likes, dislikes, fears, wants, dreams, and so forth. These are all very useful for getting acquainted with your character and if you do a web search of character development sheets, you’ll find a ton of them to choose from. However you gather info about your character, do it.
The next thing to do is learn your character’s voice. Write a scene from his/her perspective in his voice. Do it in first person, even if you plan to write from third. You can interview your characters about things (I’ve got an example of that on my website). Whatever you do, find that character’s voice. In doing so, it will help you understand how s/he sees the world and other people.
Now you are going to put that character into a situation in your book. You need to SHOW that character to your reader through action and dialog and description. When something happens, think about how your character will react based upon his/her history and experiences. Don’t explain it. Show it and then explain as only necessary.