My favorite books are those that are part of a series. I adore the opportunity to get to know a character, following along as s/he grows and changes over the course of their adventures. In any story, the main character (or each core character) needs to be a fully formed, multi-faceted being in order to fully engage the reader. Readers are much more likely to invest in those characters that become almost real to them.
As they engage with the characters in the story, readers come to expect certain reactions, and may even become so bold (we hope) as to predict what the character might say or do or feel in response to a plot twist or challenge. The reader becomes a kind of participant as the story unfolds. But how do those wonderful characters come to exist? How does an author create a multi-dimensional, realistic, believable character?
It’s tempting to begin writing a story with the confidence (arrogance?!) that we know our characters because we created them, and therefore we don’t need to put any effort into getting to know them. But, this isn’t the case. In fact, without a thorough knowledge and understanding of the character, the detailed history and circumstances that surround him/her, it’s pretty difficult to write a character with believable reactions. A consistent voice, attitude, approach – all stay out of the author’s reach. Writing believable characters requires so much more than knowing the character’s physical description, occupation, or hobby.
How do we do that? By developing a character sketch! The character sketch captures in words as many of the facets of the character’s personality as possible, and allows the writer to maintain consistency of thought, behavior, and decision throughout the story. The level of detail may depend on the story (short, novel, series) and the author’s preference, and there are many kinds of character sketches, too. Here are a few different approaches:
Interview: The approach is simple – first, draft a list of questions that will elicit interesting information about the character(s). Next, visualize a morning show host (TV or radio, depending on my mood), sitting down with the character and performing the interview. With a critique partner, one person can ask the questions while the other focuses on developing the responses. Sometimes, unexpected things happen!
Eye Witness: This approach can’t stand alone, but it can be great for focusing on the visual/aural aspects of a character. For this one, imagine a law enforcement officer interviewing an eye-witness at the scene of an accident/incident/crime. Ask the witness the basic questions, such as eye/hair color, height/weight, clothing, voice, visual characteristics (such as tattoos, piercings, etc.), walking style, and so on. Taking this further, perform a “background check” on the character, accessing information that would be available to LEOs. Perhaps you’ll learn about the make/model of the character’s car, criminal and financial history, and so on. The good news is that you can bend the rules a lot in this imaginary setting! (No search warrant required.)
Biography: The approach here is a simple writing exercise; capture everything about your character, as though you’re writing a biography. Where did this character grow up? What’s the family make-up? Educational or work history? Influences on the character as a child, young person, adult? These can be as basic or as in-depth as you like.
When I’m working on a short story, my character sketches tend to be succinct, perhaps a page or less for the main character; I might not do one at all for the secondary characters. For a novel – especially if I’m considering a series – it’s helpful to invest more substantial effort in getting to know these characters. Some writers will write the equivalent of a short story for each of the core characters.
Regardless of length or approach, the goals are the same. Did you ever read a book, and you struggled to connect with the character or find him/her believable? It’s quite possible the writer simply didn’t know the character well enough to write the most complete, tightly woven, and engaging story that readers deserve. Writers want to know not only what their characters look and sound like, where they came from, and what they do, but how they think and feel. We want to know how this character is likely to react when we throw challenges their way.
By developing these details about our characters, we can write consistent, believable stories that draw the reader in and keep them engaged to the very last word.