The Blog of John Hewitt

Building Characters by Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a proven technique for exploring just about any idea. The process consists of quickly recording (without editing yourself) all of the options/descriptions/ideas /thoughts you have about a topic. You then sort through your items and pick the ones that work. This process can easily be applied to creating characters.

I have purposely tried to leave the sort of details you should review as vague as possible. If you really need more guidance, however, you might want to start with appearance, friends, goals, quirks, flaws, problems, values, morals, history, possessions, skills, fears, favorites, enemies, education, finances, pets, and family. Don’t feel as if you need to include all of these categories or limit yourself to these categories. Just write what comes to mind.

Step One: Find a way to organize your thoughts

Get a large sheet of paper, notebook, a set of index cards or a computer application that you can use to write ideas on.

Step Two: Write what you know already

Write down the information that you already know about the character. This could be as basic as the name and gender. The point is, get the things that you are sure about out of the way first.

Step Three: Explore the possibilities

Begin writing down every possible potential detail that you can think of for the character. The details can be random and even contradictory. Your record every possible thing you can think of that seems to fit the character. Spend as much time as you need, but no less than fifteen minutes.

Step Four: Figure out what matters

Review the potential details and discard details that you are sure won’t apply to your character. Separate the rest into details you are absolutely sure that you want, details that might work, and details that are still interesting but contradict each other.

Step Five: Build your profile

Create your profile of the character, grouping details into categories of similar items. Concentrate on the details you are sure about but give the other details a final review to decide which ones should be added.

Using a normal day to define your character

The day in the life approach to developing a character is focused on describing a normal day in the character’s life before something important happens to change it. Most central characters begin a story in their normal world. At some point, an event happens that takes them out of their normal world and sends them on whatever journey the story has in store for them. Until that journey begins, your characters probably have a normal routine to their day that says a great deal about who they are and how they conduct their life.

  • The beauty of analyzing a character’s day is that there are always opportunities to delve as deeply into their actions as you want. You can take an event as simple as a person’s drive to work and learn a great deal about them.
  • What kind of car do they drive?
  • Do they keep it clean or is it messy?
  • What, if anything, do they listen to on the radio?
  • Are they the sort of person that fiddles with the radio as they drive, never satisfied with what they are listening to?
  • Are they the sort of person who puts on makeup or shaves while they drive?
  • Do they talk on the phone as they drive?
  • Do they get upset with other drivers?
  • Do they tailgate?
  • Are they careful or nervous drivers?
  • Do they plan their day as they drive?
  • Do they speed or run red lights?

As you assemble a person’s day you get a good idea of their traits and flaws. You can also determine who they interact with and care about, what their economic status is, what their general level of happiness or unhappiness is and plenty of other details. The key is to go deeply enough to get comfortable with the character and feel like you know them and know how they react in general to the events in their lives.

When approaching the daily routine, you can go a number of ways. You can move chronologically, go by major events, or just ask random questions about their day and see what the answers are. You can write it as if it were a short story, a daily planner or surveillance. Find an approach that you are comfortable with and explore the character.

Building a character from multiple perspectives

This character building idea turns the concept of the interview around. Instead of interviewing a character about themselves, you interview the other characters in your story about one particular character. This gives you a profile of the character as seen by other people. It can also help you set up potential conflicts and plot points by revealing hidden bonds and tensions between characters.

Characters Change According to your Point of View

A character might consider herself to be insightful, brave and authoritative, while that character’s sister might view her as bossy, opinionated and unreliable. A husband may think his wife is supportive and loyal, while the other man she is secretly seeing believes she wants her husband dead. A man’s boss may think of him as the hard-working backbone of the company while that man’s children may think of him as the jerk who was never there when they needed him.

The most basic method of using other characters to create a profile is to have each give a general description from their perspective. A character might, for example, be profiled by her husband, sister, son, boss, co-worker, best friend, former friend, old boyfriend and neighbor. Each would discuss their opinion of her and experiences with her. Don’t feel as if all the characters who give there opinion have to be major characters or fully developed themselves. By using one character to profile another, you will find out more about both characters.

Use the Interview Process

If you want to be more creative, look for ways to make the interview process fit the nature of the story. For example, you can create the profile as if it were a class discussion, news article, police interview or a reality show. You can also set up general questions for every character to answer or tailor questions to fit each character’s position and perspective.