How to Write a Fully Developed Character
There are many aspects of character development, and your character could be nearly as deep and complete as anyone you might know in real life. However, there are basic keys to fleshing out a character that can help break through blocks and get you and your creation on their way to a great story.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being realistic, even/especially in fiction. A writer can never be too informed. Remember, Knowledge is Power.
You’ve probably also heard the saying “write what you know”. Now, to the science fiction or fantasy writer this phrase may seem worthless. Write what I know? How can I possibly learn all about or experience things that don’t exist? Even fantasy can be built upon a realistic foundation, and there are endless resources to build that foundation with.
Reading what other people have written to get a feel for a genre is always helpful, and discussing things with friends never hurts either. Is your character a master of disguise? Pick up a book, learn how it works. Are they a thief? What are some tricks thieves use? How does one pick a lock? What’s involved? Are they a knight in shining armor? Just how easy is it to move around in a suit of armor? How about lifting those huge swords? Can they get on a horse without help? PBS has some great programs just full of information, as does the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. Your local library is invaluable, and of course endless information is just a Google away.
Pay close attention to animal anatomy for more fantastic creatures. Naturally you have to fudge things to some extent sometimes for creatures that really don’t exist, but it’s educated fudging. This makes it more realistic, even though it isn’t real. For example, one of my RP characters was a winged centaur (or rather a relative being half elk instead of horse). While he turned out to be an absolutely beautiful and amusing fellow, he was also over 8’ tall at his head and weighed over 500 lb. Pretty as those feathered wings were, there was no way he was lifting himself off the ground, they weren’t big enough. He could leap and glide a short distance, but if the party had to climb a rope or cliff he was utterly useless - which was great fun to play out. Limiting characters makes them more of a challenge, the more they struggle the more they grow and the more fun they are, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Physiology, psychology, weaponry, philosophy… The world is at your fingertips. All you have to do is look and/or ask. Having easily accessible reference is important for any writer and/or artist, and having books on hand is the most convenient method for any creative person. It’s much easier to have information on hand than to remember it. I personally hate having to return Library books, because as soon as I do I need it again. I have shelves of reference that I am eternally thankful for and keep returning to again and again. Especially since, while the internet is a valueable tool when it works, a useful website may be there one day and gone the next.
Ask questions and look into all the available sources to find the answers. Sometimes, you’ll find answers to things you hadn’t even thought of, and often your research will end up inspiring you! There’s many writer’s guides available, based on research other authors have done to help folks out. The more you know, the more realistic your story and more involved your audience will feel.
Sometimes you won’t be able to find the answer you’re looking for. Make a decision based off of what you do know. Go with your gut and what feels right to you. It is *your* character, and in the end only you and they will know what’s best.
Point of View and Background
One of the key elements of character development is the ability to see through your character’s eyes. Get a good look at how they see the world, what they perceive as good or bad and WHYthey perceive it as good or bad.
You need to think about where that person came from. What their childhood was like, their parents, peers, interests… if your character is an evil wizard, why did he choose to become an evil wizard? Did he choose it? What was he like as a child? What was life like growing up? What kind of environment is he used to? Asking yourself questions like these is imperative to the development of your character, even if the readers never see that part of it. The important thing is that you know.
The “why” of things is very important. Motive is for more than just detective stories. It is a vital part of ALL storytelling. There must be a motive, and it needs to makes sense. A good character is one that feels as real as a personal friend or enemy. Realism, no matter what genre you’re writing, helps bring that person to life.
We want to make our creations leap off the page and into the third dimension. To do that, we need to make clear WHY they do what they do and feel how they feel. To just say, “Well, he’s just nuts, that’s why,” is a cop out. He might be insane, sure, but how so? How long has he been insane? Was he born that way? If your character has a mental illness do research and define it. Be specific. Even if you don’t reveal to the readers just what exactly is wrong with them, the fact that you know will make it that much more believable. Readers/fellow roleplayers can sense when there’s something going on they aren’t privy to and it keeps them coming back for more.
Here are some ideas of basic questions to ask your character to get a feel for his/her/its history.
What was your childhood like? Who were your parents? Did you know them? How do you feel about them? How do your parents feel about you? If your parents didn’t raise you who did and why? Did you have a lot of friends growing up? What memories stand out? What impact did your childhood have on who you are now? Do you have siblings? How big is your family? How close are they? Do they keep in touch?
Where are you from? What culture did you grow up with? What culture do you feel closest to? What traditions do you believe in? What weather are you used to? How are you used to interacting with people? Are you used to people who are different from yourself? What kinds of foods are you used to? What are you willing to try? Do you believe in gender roles or certain types of moral behavior? How do you feel about Politics? Religion? What do you base this on? How many places have you lived? How has this impacted you? Is there somewhere that stands out as home?
How do you earn a living? Is this the career you always wanted? Did you dream of something else when you were young? Did you do something else before? How long have you had this job/career/trade? What do you like about it? What do you hate about it? What exactly does it involve? Ideally, what do you want? Is money or the job more important? Have you had to sacrifice money for job satisfaction or vice versa? Did you have to work hard to get to your skill level, or did you go with her natural strengths or both?
Who was your first love? Did you even have a first love? What is your perception of romance? Is that what you want? Why did or didn’t it work out? What happened? Have you fallen in love since? Have you tried to avoid it? Are you searching for a soul mate? Do you care? Why? Do you have children? That you know of?
If you have a culture in mind already that has a basis in reality or an established fantasy world, look into those cultures, read as much as you can about them and see what strikes you as true to that character or different about that character from the norm. The same goes for worlds and cultures of your own creation. Figure out as much as you can about the world, then how your character fits (or doesn’t fit) in.
Challenge yourself. Work with creations that are very different from yourself. They need to be their own person. A story full of characters that are just like you loses it’s credibility. Each character should be their own unique person with personalities all their own.
Especially with characters you strongly disagree with or have a very different perception of reality than, you need to be able to argue their side of it to be able to write for them in a believable way. When you can understand how they feel and what they think, they will become more realistic when they interact with other characters. This doesn’t mean you have to change your mind and agree with them. All it means is that you are able to see where they are coming from and how this influences their behavior.
Learning these skills can even be useful in your real everyday life. The practice of using a combination of imagination and knowledge to better understand the “why” of what people do is a huge step towards compassion. When you understand things from the point of view of someone you don’t even like, never mind agree with, it makes it harder to foster hate. Putting oneself in the shoes of someone they’ve long thought to hate, and seeing them as another rounded human being, can do wonders for the spirit and for a person’s happiness.
Notice I put flaws first here. Both in writing and roleplaying, a common mistake is having the merits outweigh the flaws. Everyone has good things about them, talents and skills, and this is an important part of any character, but what makes readers relate to them are the flaws and weaknesses.
People can’t relate to perfection. In fact, “perfect” characters tend to irritate most people. So unless that’s what you’re going for, it’s best to take balance into consideration. For example, which X-Man is more popular? Cyclops “Mr. Perfect” or Wolverine with the attitude problem? Most people are more fond of Wolverine because his temperment make him more interesting and easier to relate to.
Skills, abilities, high statistics, can all be overdone. You can overdo it with flaws as well, but instead of being more distant the character usually becomes comic relief instead. Exaggerated flaws also move the character away from realism. Balance is the key and though your story/character may be on the more fantastical side of things, *knowing* the balance will help keep you on track for the direction you want to take your character in.
Take, for example, a vampire. Vampires come with a list of typical merits (strength, immortality, shapeshifting, ect.) and flaws (fear of crosses, inability to stand sunlight, no reflection, ect.) depending on what traditions you’re going by. Personality flaws can spice things up. Say the vampire is also scared of the dark, or gets ill at the sight of blood. Maybe they’re picky about the type of blood they consume, or they’re not very good at covering up the undead identity around mortals. Maybe they need glasses, or have a pet peeve about vampire stereotypes. The more difficult things are for your character one way or another, the more interested people will be.
I’ll also use a couple of my own roleplaying characters as examples as well. I played a young Zephyr (which is rather like a petite elf with wings) druidess in one of the first online RPGs I got involved with. She was very cute and frail, also very shy and with a massive distaste for violence, due to an abusive upbringing, with a stutter to her speech. The distaste for violence was a huge flaw as just about every adventure involved battles you need to level up. However, because she was a healer and used various non-violent spells to defend herself, she functioned just fine as well as standing out as someone unusual in the party. While she didn’t level very fast, she was well-liked and looked after as a little sister by many adventurers in the Inn.
Flaws give us challenges that force us to be creative and get around them in order to progress.
Another character of mine is a Gorgon (aka Medusa, D&D style) that was a bit controversial at first because a character who can turn people into stone by looking at them is a little too powerful for a player character in a roleplaying game. To make her playable, I gave Nyssa a past in which she accidentally turned her love to stone, and the guilt drove her to wear a mask with no eyes and hide her identity whenever she goes about people. She deliberately lives as if she’s blind and searches for a way to rid herself of the stone “curse”. Another flaw is being cold-blooded, so when it gets very cold out or if she’s out of the sun too long she gets very lethargic.
I have a blast with this character. Extremely powerful, but refuses to live up to that potential as well as giving other players an opportunity to pay more attention to sound descriptions. Challenging, unusual, and oddly likeable. I got to play the monster race I wanted, but made her someone the others could associate with. In her eyes, her very nature is a flaw.
Flaws provide much needed conflict, and along with merits are a natural part of what makes your character special and unique. Don’t be afraid to look for trouble. Trouble is what keeps things interesting.
Knowing your character is key, and I don’t just mean the facts that directly effect the story line. The role-players especially should think about the little details. These give your creation life and make it easier to react to any given situation without missing a beat.
We’re not talking about flaws this time, but rather your character’s quirks. Everyone has odd little habits, pet peeves, favorite foods, colors, music, perhaps phobias, things that embarrass them, things they are proud of, style as far as clothing…. there is so many little things to consider. I can’t cover everything, but we can go over some basics to get you started.
The idea is to develop a complete, rounded, complex and believable person. Think of it as acting as their historian, observing them and recording what you see as no other historian can. Unless you’re deliberately writing a Mary Sue (self insertion) character, your creation should be a distinctly separate unique personality.
Here are some questions to give you an idea of things which are helpful to consider:
- What kinds of foods does she like?
- What does he do to unwind?
- Does she have any hobbies?
- How does he decorate his home?
- Any religious or spiritual beliefs?If so, what?
- Optimist, pessimist or realist?
- Does she dress for style or comfort?
- What just irritates the hell out of him?
- What kind of art catches her attention?Is he allergic to anything?
- Easy or hard to embarrass?
- Any habits for idle hands? Nail biting, fidgeting, etc?
- Like to dance, or wild horses couldn’t drag em on the dance floor?
- Any addictions?
- What kinds of things would they take offense to?
- Any phobias?
- Are they sensitive to changes in weather?
- Who do they trust? Why?
- What are they like when they get sick? Tough? Whiny?
- What kind of music do they love? hate?
- What makes them laugh?
- What kinds of movies/shows/books/entertainment do they like?
- Do they like kids/animals?
- What do they take pride in?
- What do they notice about the opposite sex/same sex?
- What’s their astrological sign?
- What’s their sleep schedule/habits like?
- Do they have a favorite color/item?
Anything you can think of will be helpful. Let the character speak to you. Let them comment on anything that they may find interesting or distasteful that you come across in research and everyday life. Anything that they can relate to. Every little bit helps, even if it never actually comes up in the storyline. Even though it’s important and helpful for you to know all this, remember that the audience doesn’t need to know all these details. Trying to include everything could ruin the flow of the story, but the fact that you know will make a difference.