I always need to know more about my characters than what ends up in the story. It’s how I know how they’ll react to different situations and how they respond to other people.
There are a number of different ways you can make sure you have all the information you need about a character so that when you’re writing him/her, they feel real. These are the three I use most often:
- Complete a character profile.
There are a lot of character profile templates floating around out there. Different ones emphasise different aspects of the character. There are some that are only one page long and give a brief overview; there are others that are eight to ten pages long and give everything from birthmarks, to what their major was at university, to what they dream about when they’re asleep, to their first kiss. Pick one or two that suit your needs. Sometimes the template you choose will be perfect for a number of different stories. Sometimes, you’ll find you need a different type of template because you need different types of information about your character.
- Write a summary/news article/eulogy of the character’s life.
This one gives an overview of the character’s whole life. Like a eulogy, it hits on the main points and doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae. Some advice: Don’t stop where the story begins. Write the eulogy right to the end of their life. This will give you an idea of where there needs to be a big change (ie the catalyst for your story) in their lives for something to happen to make it better. It will also give you some ideas on how they responded to all the challenges they faced and whether or not they were happy.
- Write a series of journal entries in the character’s own words.
I do this one a lot because it kills two birds with one stone. You need to know your character’s voice. You need to know what inflections they have in their speech, whether they swear or not, what things they think about that influence their decisions. These journal entries help you do all that as well as giving you an opportunity to explore what has happened in their past to make them the person they are now.
The images here are examples of templates I use regularly. They’re a good starting point. It's pretty obvious I'm a word person. There's very little in the way of visual interest, just dot points and sub-headings to keep the information organised.
Even though there are loads of templates online, that doesn’t mean you have to use one of them. You can create your own. Decide what you need to know and write down the headings. You don’t even have to put them into a list. Create a mind-map or a pyramid, or some other visual device. If you’re particularly artistic, you could create a collage of your character’s face from nouns and adjectives that describe them.
Some websites and software you might find useful when creating character profiles:
Word, Excel, Visio, Access (If you have a particularly analytical mind and love linked tables and SQL queries as much as I do, a database is a great way of keeping track of character interactions and links between characters and plot points. It takes a while to set up but you can copy the setup over to different stories once it’s done. I’d share a completed one with you but I lost them in my last computer crash ☹).
Also, have a look at these: